Over the last four days, the process for qualification for the NCAA Division I field hockey tournament took place with nine tournaments and 38 thrilling games, nine of which went into overtime.
There were a couple of unexpected outcomes in this carnival of games. Of course, one is that the Ivy League wound up with one of the At-Large slots rather than one of the fancied conferences.
But the other unexpected result yesterday was turned in by the University of Virginia, which won its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it on the TV broadcast, but had to look it up.
Virginia has always been a good field hockey team, always in the conversation about the elite teams in the country. But it has been 35 years since the team won a major trophy. Back in 1981, the team swept the Virginia Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (VAIAW) state tournament and the AIAW Region II tournament, the latter serving as a qualifier for the AIAW nationals.
Even in the years when they were around the .500 mark, you had to include the Cavaliers because of the tough ACC schedules they played. But despite all that, it’s amazing that Virginia had not won a major trophy since the sanctioning takeover by the NCAA.
Yep, even while Virginia was making Final Fours or winning the ACC regular-season four times with players such as Olympians such as Michelle Vizzuso, Michelle Vittese and Paige Selenski, or with two-sport stars such as Bonnie Rosen or Peggy Boutilier, or with well-trained players in the U.S. system such as Jessica Coleman, Lori Mastropietro, or Meredith Thorpe, the Hoos had not won a tournament trophy until yesterday.
How has Virginia managed to overcome its past history? One could look at a the team’s sizable foreign influence, including six players and an assistant coach.
I find it interesting, however, that four out of the five top point-scorers on this year’s Virginia field hockey team are American. Start with Tara Vittese, the eighth-leading goal-scorer in the history of scholastic field hockey (166), an absolute magician with a field hockey stick, and the talisman for the U.S. U-21 national team that will start play in Chile later this month at the Junior World Cup. Riley Tata is a player who scored 119 goals at Norfolk (Va.) Academy. Caleigh Foust (102 goals) and Erin Shanahan (94) have also had tremendous prep careers stateside.
But I think the No. 1 reason why Virginia won the ACC Tournament was their nine seniors, as well as a sense of belief within the team that they could win the title. And those kinds of intangibles are incredibly powerful, even in a tough conference such as the Atlantic Coast Conference.