By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When the University of Virginia field hockey team took the field on Sept. 19, 1973, little did its members know what the future would hold for their fledgling program. They were focused on the present.

In the Wahoos’ first game as a varsity team, they lost 2-0 to Roanoke College at Nameless Field that day. UVA played at Hollins College four days and came away with a 1-1 tie.

“When that first team played, I’m sure they weren’t thinking that there was going to be a 50thanniversary and they would come back to school and celebrate it,” Virginia’s current head coach, Michele Madison, said this week.

The inaugural UVA team, coached by Chesley Garrett, finished the season with a 0-4-7 record, but the tough times didn’t last. A half-century later, Madison oversees a perennially strong program whose history will be celebrated this weekend, starting Friday at 4 p.m., when No. 7 Virginia hosts No. 2 North Carolina at Turf Field.

Every former UVA player has been invited back to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that first game during a weekend whose other festivities will include a Saturday night banquet. More than 80 alumni are expected to attend the celebration, including about a half-dozen players from the ’73 team.

“I just can’t wait to see everybody, and I know the room will come alive with memories and friendships and love,” said Madison, who’s in her 18th season at Virginia. “No one’s going to talk about scores, because that’s not what’s important.

“The sports are the fun part—scoring goals, winning trophies—but the real gift is the memories and the friends you make. A third of everyone who ever played field hockey at UVA are coming back because of the memories and how they feel about their participation, no matter what year it was, and it just makes me get a tear in my eye.”

Michele Madison

When UVA hired her in January 2006, Madison became the eighth head coach in program history. She and six of her predecessors—Dr. Diane Wakat (1974) Linda Southworth (1975-82), Jane Miller (1983-91), Julie Dayton (1992), Missi Sanders (1993-98) and Jessica Wilk (1999-2005)—will be recognized during an on-field ceremony before the game Friday.

The program collected its first win on Oct. 3, 1974, when Virginia edged Hollins 2-1 at Nameless Field.

Much has changed in women’s athletics since Southworth left Huguenot High School in Richmond, where she was teaching and coaching, to succeed Wakat at UVA, including the amount of scholarship support.

“It’s just remarkable,” Southworth said, “and I think it’s absolutely amazing that these young women can come in and take advantage of opportunities that they’ve given across the board these days.”

In addition to leading the field hockey program, Southworth was the first head women’s lacrosse coach at UVA, and she oversaw both teams throughout her tenure in Charlottesville. Back then, most of the student-athletes in those programs played both sports, and that was the case when Miller coached at Virginia, too. Like Southworth, she was in charge of both field hockey and women’s lacrosse.

That dynamic could be challenging, Miller said, “because of the fact that from a recruiting standpoint you were looking at prospects who played both sports. And that really discounted a lot of the really good field hockey players in the state, because we didn’t have full funding, and so we were splitting all of our scholarships between field hockey and lacrosse. So that was a big challenge.

“The good part of it was, you had a lot of the same athletes, so you had one team in essence for two seasons, even though it was two different sports. So your team culture could be the same.”

Jane Miller (center)

Miller stepped away from field hockey after the 1991 season but continued coaching lacrosse until 1995, when she moved into athletics administration full time at UVA. (She retired in 2019).

“It was really hard to be at the top in both sports at the same time,” Miller said. “My mind really thought lacrosse. It didn’t think as much field hockey, and I don’t mean as far as effort or anything like that; I mean as far as knowledge goes and seeing the game.”

She had a strong background in basketball, and that translated more to lacrosse than to field hockey, Miller said. “From a strategical standpoint, my mind thought that way, more than looking at field hockey and strategically being able to be as good as, say, the top coaches, like [Old Dominion’s] Beth Anders, who was just phenomenal during that time.”

When Sanders took over after the 1992 season, she recalled, more than half of her team also played lacrosse. As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, which made four trips to the NCAA tournament’s final four and won a national championship during her career there, Sanders had played only field hockey, and she’d seen the benefits of specialization.

“So when I came to Virginia, I would coach people half a year and then I wouldn’t have them for an entire spring, and that did not make me happy,” said Sanders, who’s married to George Gelnovatch, UVA’s head men’s soccer coach.

“So that was one of the things that I changed when I came in. With women’s athletics in general, it was harder and harder and harder to do two sports at that time, because we did a lot in the spring. We played spring games, we trained every day. So it was really hard to keep up in any sport if you were doing another sport half the year.”

The field hockey community is a tight one. Madison was an assistant at Iowa during Sanders’ freshman season at the Big Ten school and had visited the Sanders family’s home in Pennsylvania during the recruiting process. Sanders’ teammates at Iowa included Aileen Trendler, whose daughter, Daniela Mendez-Trendler, is one of the Cavaliers’ current standouts.

Virginia advanced to the NCAA semifinals in 1997 and again in ’98, but family came first for Sanders, who stepped down from her post in June 1999 to focus on raising her and Gelnovatch’s two young children.

Wilk, who’d been an assistant throughout Sanders’ tenure, was promoted to head coach. Wilk is now an associate athletics director at UVA, and she’s seen dramatic changes in the sport since joining Sanders’ staff 30 years ago.

“It’s played at such a faster pace, and the rules have evolved to really allow these athletes to showcase their athleticism, their speed and their skill,” Wilk said. “Certainly I think the athletes that we had in ’93 were athletic and fast and skilled, but the game didn’t perhaps always allow for them to showcase it in a way they’re able to do now, with the rule changes.”

Linda Southworth (right)

The Cavaliers played their home games at Nameless Field, next to Memorial Gymnasium, in 1973 and ’74 before moving to a location where Klöckner Stadium stands today.

The field “was red clay, with these big old clumps of grass, and a ball would hit them and pop way up in the air,” Southworth said. “At that point, the game really was evolving even from when I played at Longwood and earlier in the ‘60s. There were systems of play starting to develop, much like in soccer. It had been five on the forward line, three backs and two fullbacks and a goalie, and that was the lineup that was traditionally used. You kind of stayed in your lane. The early ‘70s is when the formations began to change and there were lots of different systems.”

Southworth’s assistant for two years was Debbie Ryan, who of course went on to have a Hall of Fame career as Virginia’s head women’s basketball team.

Ryan was a graduate of Ursinus College, “which was one of the top two field hockey schools in the country at the time, along with West Chester, up in Pennsylvania, so she had started playing in these new systems,” Southworth said. “She actually knew more about that than I did, just coming from my high school coaching at Huguenot. So that was a real transitional time, at least for me, and for the sport, I think.”

Jessica Wilk

For the first seven years of Southworth’s tenure at UVA, the governing body for field hockey was the Association for Intercollegiate Athletes for Women (AIAW). The first NCAA tournament was held in 1982, Southworth’s final season at Virginia.

Overall, Miller said, college hockey looks “amazingly different” today from when she played the sport.

“First of all, you have the athletes training year-round, so you assume the skill level is going to go up,” Miller said, “and you have a coaching staff that’s focused just on one sport, coaching one group of athletes. The rules have changed significantly, and just sport in general for women’s athletics has just improved over time from the standpoint of strength training, nutrition, sports psychology. All of that has come into the game and added benefits.

“I would say that coaching back then was a lot simpler than coaching now, whether you’re coaching one or two sports. You didn’t have all the things pulling at you that the coaches have now. There’s so much more that they have to be accountable for, from the standpoint of paperwork, and the recruiting has just gone off the charts as far as the amount of attention and detail you have to give to each and every prospect. The competition level, especially in the ACC, and with the number of schools, has just gone up exponentially. So there are a number of areas where you’ve got to be really be on your game, you’ve got to be willing to put in lots more time than I had to put in, just to advance all aspects of your program, and then satisfy all the other things that administratively you’re asked to do.”

That so many generations of UVA field hockey will be together this weekend delights the former coaches. Southworth will be reunited with some former players whom she hasn’t seen in 40-some years.

Sanders is in a text group with many of her former players, she said, “and everybody’s really excited.”

For coaches, Wilk said, the goal is always “help young people develop as people, as students, as athletes. It’s a really unique time in their lives, and hopefully you can be just a small part of that development. To get to see them when they come back, it’s just a really neat thing. It sounds kind of cliché, but it really is true. We have such a great opportunity to celebrate 50 years of field hockey at UVA, and I think this current team sort of bridges the past, present and future of field hockey here, and they’re sort of the caretakers of the program right now. But for them to get to see all of the women that came before them and laid a foundation for them to have the opportunities that they have right now, I also think is a really unique thing.”

Miller said: “It will be wonderful.”

To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.