By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The University of Virginia women’s lacrosse team came into the week knowing it would face two top-10 opponents in a four-day span. Asked how the Cavaliers were tackling that challenge, Sonia LaMonica smiled.

“One day at a time,” said LaMonica, who’s in her first season as Virginia’s head coach.

The Wahoos focused first on sixth-ranked James Madison, which visited Klöckner Stadium on Wednesday evening. The Dukes headed home to Harrisonburg that night with plenty to ponder. No. 9 UVA never trailed in its 12-8 victory over JMU, which had won two straight in the series.

“This is a big one for us,” Virginia senior attacker Morgan Schwab said afterward. “It’s an in-state rivalry. We have a lot of history with this team, going back and forth, so it’s a huge one.”

The Cavaliers are back at Klöckner for another marquee game Saturday. At noon, UVA (9-1 overall, 3-1 ACC) hosts No. 7 Syracuse (6-3, 4-0). (The fourth-ranked Virginia men host Drexel at Klöckner at approximately 3 p.m. Saturday.)

“We’ve been fully focused on JMU,” said Schwab, who finished with one goal and three assists. “Now we’re gonna have a quick turnaround to Syracuse, but I think we’re ready to go.”

LaMonica, a native of Australia, came to UVA from Towson University, where she compiled a record of 139-91, with seven trips to the NCAA Tournament, in 14 seasons as head coach. She succeeded Julie Myers, whose teams went 349-181 and never missed the NCAAs in her 28 seasons leading the Cavaliers.

From a team that finished 11-7 last year after falling in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, Virginia lost its top two goal-scorers but returned such veterans as Schwab, attacker Kate Miller, midfielders Kiki Shaw and Mackenzie Hoeg, and defenders Maggie Bostain and Devin Whitaker.

To that solid nucleus, the Hoos added attacker Katia Carnevale, a graduate transfer from Lehigh, and a talented first-year class led by middies Kate Galica and attackers Jenna Dinardo and Madison Alaimo.

Under the tutelage of a staff that includes LaMonica’s husband, Mike, this mix of old and new is thriving. At 9-1, the Cavaliers are off to their best start since 2007, and they’ve already defeated two top-10 foes: then-No. 4 Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., and JMU, which won the NCAA title in 2018.

The Hoos are filled with “trust and belief,” Bostain said.

“I think this is what stands out to me about this team is just how gritty we are,” said Schwab, the program’s all-time leader in career assists. “We’re so hard-working. This team comes out every day competitive. We love each other. We have great camaraderie. At the end of the day, everyone is so bought in from top down and that’s huge, and not every team has that. So I think we’re doing a really good job of just staying hungry.”

Morgan Schwab (14)

The Hoos didn’t score in the second quarter Wednesday night but still led 7-5 at halftime. After the Dukes cut their deficit to 7-5 early in the third quarter, Virginia ran off three straight goals to regain control of the proceedings.

“Our goal was to come out in the third and kind of reignite the offense,” Schwab said.

Offense was not an issue for the Cavaliers in 2023, but their defense declined late in the season. Virginia gave up 21 goals to Syracuse and 25 to Boston College. In all, the Hoos allowed at least 15 goals in six of their final 12 games.

Through 10 games this season, UVA has allowed 93 goals. Led by first-team All-American Isabella Peterson, James Madison came in averaging 17.5 goals per game, but Virginia never let that potent offense break out.

“Our defense is playing completely unhinged,” Schwab said. “They’re so fun to watch. I have so much confidence in them. They’re playing as such a unit, so it’s awesome. They’re the backbone of our team right now.”

The Cavaliers employ a zone defense that Bostain, smiling, likened to an amoeba.

“We all move as a unit,” she said. ‘I know that if I’m going this way, I’ve got my teammate coming right behind me. So it’s really down to trust and our quickness. We have a lot of quickness on D, which is awesome.”

The goal of the zone defense, LaMonica said, is to “smother the ball and make it really difficult everywhere.”

That’s what happened Wednesday night. The Dukes (7-2) came to Charlottesville with four players who had 28 or more points this season. Only one JMU player totaled more than two points against UVA: Peterson (three goals, one assist).

“They’re a very balanced offense,” LaMonica said, “and we knew that coming in, and they share the ball well, so we wanted to disrupt that ball movement. So that made it challenging for them to be able to find a rhythm and move the ball quickly and find open looks. So they definitely got a few nice goals on us, but overall, I thought we made it pretty difficult … We really made JMU have to earn every look.”

Maggie Bostain (28)

Sophomore goalkeeper Mel Josephson deserves much of the credit for the Cavaliers’ improvement on defense.

“Mel has been phenomenal this year,” said Bostain, who caused three turnovers against JMU. “I can’t say greater things about her. She’s just really stepped up and shown us how well she can play, and I can’t wait to see what else she does. “

Josephson was on the team last season but didn’t appear in any games. She impressed the new coaching staff in the fall, however, and LaMonica named her the starter ahead of UVA’s opener this year.

LaMonica hasn’t regretted that decision. Josephson made 11 saves against JMU and has 87 for the season.

Working with assistant coach Caylee Waters, a goalie on the U.S. national team, Josephson has “stepped up,” LaMonica said, “and with her demeanor, her approach, has really been just superb in that role. It’s a heavy mental game in there. She just stays even-keeled and she’s got a great defensive unit in front of her. So the goalie and the scheme in front of the goalie, it’s all a combination. They believe in each other.”

Josephson, who’s from Sea Bright, N.J., doesn’t hide her emotions when she makes a big save, and she’s a joy to play with, Bostain said. “She brings some light out there on the field because a lot of the times it can get frustrating. You’re in your head, and she just brings it back to the moment and lets you laugh a little bit and then move on to the next play.”

LaMonica, whom UVA hired last summer, said she and her assistants—Mike LaMonica, Waters and Kerrigan Miller—used the fall to familiarize themselves with the players on their new team. They saw immediately that they “had a lot of amazing pieces to work with, and it’s just a question of working to put it together and continue to evolve LaMonica said Wednesday night.

“We’re going to keep evolving. Something that we focus on is just continuing to get better every day. That continues to challenge us and we’re not going to just relax now because we got a great win [over JMU]. We’re going to continue to find things to keep building on so we can get to our next opponent and be successful.”

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

Sonia LaMonica (center)