Virginia field hockey: Tara Vittese is making her last go-round one to remember
If, in the course of your life, you are ever recognized by peers as being the best at your craft in consecutive years, Virginia field hockey player Tara Vittese has a word of warning: people will want to talk to you a lot. They will ask to take pictures next to you, and they will tell you that you’re very good.
For some, this might be gratifying. Vittese, far and away the best collegiate field hockey player in the country at the moment, doesn’t like to talk about herself. It’s one of the few things she doesn’t excel at.
“I feel like other people want to talk about [Vittese’s skills] a lot, take pictures of her talking about how she’s so good,” her teammate Nadine de Koning said before Virginia’s 7-2 win over William & Mary in late September. “And she just stands there awkwardly without saying anything.”
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Then de Koning began to laugh. Vittese happened to be sitting next to her in a Virginia Athletics office.
“What? He asked if you’re really confident in yourself, and you’re not!” de Koning explained to Vittese.
“She’s going to be mad at me after this,” de Koning said, still chuckling.
Vittese would rather talk about how Virginia, off to an 9-1 start including a decisive win over then-No. 1 Duke, is playing the best hockey of her time with the team.
Tara's five goals was the most in a single game by a Virginia player since Su Cox scored five in a game against Sweet Briar in 1975. https://t.co/xUVENYwRqm— Virginia Hockey (@uvafieldhockey) September 3, 2017
The Cavaliers are lighting opponents up, averaging six goals per game, an entire goal per game more than any other team in the country. Their 3-0 win over No. 8 Boston College on Sept. 22 was just the third time this season they failed to score at least five goals.
She's on a run reminiscent of Katie O'Donnell's senior year at Maryland in 2010, when O'Donnell averaged over four points per game and finished her career with 99 goals in four years. Vittese isn't quite there (she has 67), but the goals are certainly coming in bunches.
“I think our system improved a lot this year,” de Koning said. “We added a new striker, Pien [Dicke], and I think she are Tara are just able to connect in the midfield, which allows us to score a lot.”
Vittese said the uptick in Virginia’s aggression was an edict from head coach Michele Madison.
“She's mainly focused on our attacking,” Vittese said. “She always wants us to go forward. If there’s a pass that’s forward, she wants us to go. The quickest way to the goal is through the center of the field, so when we have that opportunity, she wants us to go.”
But it’s hard to talk about Virginia’s success and avoid discussing Vittese’s output. The reigning NFHCA National Player of the Year since 2015, Vittese has already set a career-high for goals in a season with 20, and is just one point away from setting a career-high in points. She’s averaging two goals per game, the only player in the country at that mark, but she also ranks fifth in the country in assists per game.
Vittese likes to try and downplay her success.
“My teammates know that if I’m scoring five goals, it’s just because I want the team to win,” she said. “Sometimes I’m just in the right place at the right time.”
Her teammates, of course, know that’s only partly true. It also helps to be legendarily talented.
De Koning said that Vittese’s abilities make her the ultimate peace of mind on the field.
“I’m a defender, and I think it helps me to know someone in front of you is always able to possess the ball,” de Koning said. “Even if she’s under a lot of pressure I’m able to pass it to her, which gives me confidence in the back. And I know that’s a general thing for the whole team, it helps a lot if you know someone can possess the ball.”
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Vittese has dominated the college field hockey landscape since she arrived in Charlottesville. This season, without severe changes, she’s on another level.
“I think I’m still playing the same,” Vittese said. “I think there’s little things we’ve tweaked and worked on, and our coaches have helped us, but I think I’ve tried to not think about scoring as much. That’s the best way to go about it.”
And as the goals continue to roll in, and a promising season pushes toward the second half, she’s trying to keep her head down. Vittese knows this is her last season as a Cavalier.
Check out the highlights from today's 7-0 victory over Richmond. pic.twitter.com/dLkIf1cCo7— Virginia Hockey (@uvafieldhockey) September 17, 2017
She admitted she’s allowed herself a few moments of reflection on possibly the best career in Virginia field hockey history. She’s just made sure she hasn’t lingered on those thoughts, because there’s more to be done.
“So many people bring the awards up to me, and of course I’m honored and feel great to have accomplished so much,” Vittese said, “and it’s an amazing feeling to win something like [Player of the Year] twice.
“But for me, it just makes me want to work harder because now it’s on me to win it again. I’ve won it in back to back years. So now I think there’s no stopping.”
Of course, if Vittese wins the NFHCA National Player of the Year award for a third straight year, more people might come looking for a picture or a chat.