March 11, 2011

BC, Virginia Tech Close Gap in ACC

by Justin Feil |

Senior midfielder Kristin Igoe, a U.S. women's national team player, is a big reason Boston College is ranked No. 16 nationally on the heels of a 6-0 start.

© Bryce Vickmark

Boston College and Virginia Tech's best chance for an ACC win comes Saturday.

They play each other at noon in Blacksburg, Va.

Beating the conference's Big Four -- Duke, Maryland, North Carolina or Virginia -- has been elusive for the two youngest members of the ACC.

"With every passing year, our goal is to get better and better," said Boston College head coach Bowen Holden. "That's our hope with each year, that the gap gets closer and closer, and soon we'll be named among those schools in the same breath."

Holden knew the challenge when she left the associate head coach job at Georgetown to take over the Eagles six years ago.

"There are many reasons I took the job," she said, "but certainly the fact that BC was going to be in the ACC was an absolute positive."

The No. 16 Eagles closed the gap significantly last year. They lost, 7-6, to eventual national champion Maryland and, 12-11, to Duke in the ACC regular season.

"You see programs popping up all over the place and making their way up," Holden said. "No one is doing what BC and Virginia Tech are doing by trying to do it while playing in the toughest conference in the country."

Since joining the ACC in 2006, Boston College has won five conference games total, four of them against Virginia Tech. BC's lone upset in the conference came in 2008 when the Eagles defeated North Carolina, 5-4, in overtime.

Since it joined the ACC in 2005, Virginia Tech has won one conference game, in 2009 in overtime against Boston College.

"We've talked a lot about changing our program for the future," said Virginia Tech head coach Megan Burker. "We talked about starting fresh and moving forward. I think the opportunities are endless."

Burker has first-hand knowledge in building a program. The 2006 Stanford graduate lived it as the Cardinal surged in her playing days.

"There's nothing like playing and being in a program that's working hard to change and build toward the future," Burker said. "The reality is every team is always building. Experiencing that piece of success, and at Stanford being a part of the first team to get to the NCAA tournament, that motivates you."

Burker was an assistant at Virginia Tech for four years following graduation, and had her interim tag lifted for this year. She has a new staff and bright outlook for Virginia Tech.

"Taking over, I knew a big thing would be leadership and team values and creating a foundation for the future," Burker said. "Our leadership and our commitment to our overall team values is big. When you're committed to one thing, that can make a big difference in your play."

She's also trying to foster confidence, and a fast start has helped. Virginia Tech started the season well before a dud Wednesday, an 18-7 loss to American. The Hokies were 5-1 and ranked 20th, their only other loss being to No. 10 James Madison. Last year, they lost to JMU, 16-3. This year, it was 11-9.

"I think in our sport in general, the gap in general is getting closer," Burker said. "There's much more competition in the top 20 and beyond the top 20. We're committed to get in the mix."

Junior midfielder Morgan Widlake and Virginia Tech were on the cusp of the top 20 before a mid-week setback to American. The Hokies will attempt to get back on track Saturday against BC -- the only ACC team they have ever defeated.


The No. 16 Eagles will be favored in Saturday's ACC opener for both. After an 11-8 win over a then-unbeaten UConn team, they are off to a 6-0 start.

"This is definitely the best team that I've coached here at BC, from one end of the field to the other," Holden said. "There's no question that we're definitely excited about the season. We feel good about where we are. We had a really tough game with UConn and were able to pull out a win with them. We know that Saturday will be our biggest challenge yet."

Both teams have plenty of experience. Virginia Tech only lost one starter to graduation. The Eagles have 10 starters back from last year's team that won a program-record 12 games.

"I just think we're more balanced this year," Holden said. "We don't rely on one person at any position. We're very balanced offensively, defensively, we have two midfields. It's just, overall, a year more experienced and better."

The Eagles did graduate Lauren Costello, who last year became just the second player in program history to earn All-American honors. Such honors are a big difference between BC, Virginia Tech and the Big Four. Closing the talent gap is a big first step in trying to top them.

"We didn't have the players we have today," Holden said of when she took over six years ago. "We have better overall athletes and lacrosse players than we had back then. Those guys back then set the stage for where we are today. Every player that has come through the program has helped set the standard to get us where we are."

Holden has a U.S. women's national team player in Kristin Igoe, a senior midfielder. The Eagles have been able to retain some of the top New England talent, and next year, they will add a pair of freshmen who are on the U.S. U-19 national team. This year's team has the first full class of players that Holden recruited.

"They were top 10 in the country and they've slowly but surely been bringing BC up a notch every year," she said. "No question that recruiting is a big part, but it's what you do with them when they get here.

"It's one of those things that I knew coming in, it wasn't going to be an overnight project," she added. "[Men's coach] David Urick, when I left Georgetown, he said, 'It's a marathon and not a sprint.' It's been with me the next six years. I'm reminded constantly of it."

Virginia Tech has had just one All-American player in its program history, but the Hokies are trying to increase their talent level as well. They are expanding their pool, looking for greater diversity and trying to bring in more speed.

Said Burker: "I definitely think this year we've generated a lot of interest. We have a young staff that's full of energy and enthusiasm. We've been all over the map, and kids gravitate to those personalities. We're excited for what that will bring in the years to come."

Burker doesn't want her team to be shy about a big future, but she doesn't want it looking too far ahead, either. That's something that has gotten the Hokies into problems in the past. Virginia Tech needs to build its confidence heading into ACC play by improving in its non-conference schedule.

"The hardest thing to overcome in our conference is the focus on Maryland, Duke, UVA and Carolina," Burker said. "It's easy to lose sight of the other games."

The Hokies won't overlook Boston College, and the Eagles know they can't look past Virginia Tech.

"There's no question that Virginia Tech is much better than were a year ago," Holden said. "But we're also better than a year ago."

Is either good enough to be an ACC contender this year? The first step is a win in the ACC opener, then it will be time to worry about challenging the Big Four.

"I was hired to build this program into a national title and ACC title contender," Holden said. "That's the goal, but in terms of a time frame, I haven't put one on it, our administration hasn't put one on it.

"I feel like it's gone exactly as I would have wanted it to. I feel like we're in a perfect position right now to be where we need to be. We're right where we need to be, and we're capable of moving in an upward direction."

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