April 11, 2012

Long Road to Respect For Virginia Tech

by Laurel Pfahler | LaxMagazine.com

In less than two full seasons under head coach Megan Burker, Virginia Tech has beaten two ranked ACC opponents; Boston College last season and in-state rival Virginia on Saturday. The win over the Cavaliers was Virginia Tech's first top 10 victory since the program's inception in 1995.
© Peyton Williams

Jessica Nonn wants the lacrosse world to know Virginia Tech is not a pushover.

That's all that was running through the senior midfielder's mind when she scored three late goals, including the game-winner in overtime, to lift the Hokies to their first victory over rival Virginia since the program's inception in 1995.

The win also was the program's first over a top 10 opponent, as the Cavaliers entered the game at ranked seventh, and it pushed Virginia Tech's record to 8-5 (1-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) going into Wednesday's game against Longwood.

"We wanted to prove Virginia Tech lacrosse is not a team to overlook," said Nonn, who has started every game during her four-year career. "It really puts us on the board and lets us show people we have a great team. Hopefully it can help us with recruiting for the future so we can keep building up.

"Sometimes I feel we are the underdog of the ACC and people portray us as the doormat, but we have some ACC wins. We beat Boston College last year and now Virginia. I just hope we keep getting better, and I think it's only going to go forward from here."

As the only unranked team in the ACC, Virginia Tech has lined the basement of the conference for too long. The Hokies are 3-30 all-time against conference opponents, while going 117-164 overall after Saturday's game, and they have never won a tournament game.

But the team has taken small steps under second-year coach Megan Burker's staff.

Burker, a four-year Hokies assistant before taking over as head coach, guided Virginia Tech to its first winning season since 2004 last year with a 10-8 finish that included a 12-11 win over Boston College during the regular season and a two-goal loss to Virginia.

"Year Two is always a challenge for any coach," Burker said. "We had a great first year as a staff, but for me, I just kind of dialed back and focused a lot on setting some team values and leadership development.

"We challenged the team this year that it was time for the next step. It was great to have a winning season last year and see some change happening within the program, but we wanted to show we are building continuity and continuing to grow in the right direction, and I think the girls have just really bought into that whole idea. Our leaders have worked hard to set the right tone and work on their weaknesses and to motivate the rest of the team, and that really came together Saturday."

Burker said she came to Virginia Tech to help try to turn around the program, something she was a part of doing at Stanford as a player before she graduated in 2006.

When she replaced Katrina Silva as head coach after four straight losing seasons, Burker took a step back to try to figure out why the team wasn't gaining any momentum and what she could do differently.

She decided to break things down into day-to-day goals, rather than taking a big-picture focus.

"Dialing down and going piece by piece and figuring out the day-to-day has been a big key to us being able to commit to that success over time, but it's also been the girls, their energy and they've really come together under our staff," Burker said. "I think when you have a common belief in the group, that's something that can be pretty powerful on gameday."

Saturday's win was validation she is doing something right.

Virginia Tech had a letdown just before halftime when Virginia took a 6-4 lead on Josie Owen's goal with three seconds left in the first period, but Burker focused her halftime speech on encouraging her players to "pick each other up on the field," rather than looking at Xs and Os.

Nonn took over in the last six minutes of regulation, scoring two goals to take a lead with 1:16 left. Virginia's Owen answered to send the game to overtime, but Nonn scored the lone goal in overtime for the 10-9 victory.

"One of the key points we left them with at the end of the half was,'You have to be able to look your teammates in the eye and keep your head up. It's not about making mistakes, it's about how we respond and come together from them in the end,'" Burker said. "I think that's what really carried us through the second half. They came out and kept fighting."

For Nonn and five other seniors, the benchmark win over Virginia has been a long-time coming.

Many of them have been starting since they were freshmen, including midfielders Morgan Widlake and Nonn and top defenders Julie Wolfinger and Christina Patten, who missed all of last year with an injury.

Attacker Ryan Rotanz and defender Shannon Bone earned their starting spots as sophomores.

The senior class has been a part of all three of the program's conference wins but Nonn said beating Virginia was "the most fun I've had playing lacrosse."

"We've been through so much with this team – new coaches, new players," said Nonn, who leads the team with 10 goals and six assists. "We've experienced so much. We were forced to step up as freshmen and sophomores because we didn't have many upperclassmen, and now we are upperclassmen, and we have to take charge. We've had some highs and lows, but the Virginia game brought what we wanted all season."

Now, the Hokies are hoping to use the victory as a springboard for the conference tournament, which begins next week, with the reminder that success in the ACC equates to national respect. They play their final regular-season game at Maryland on Saturday.

"We just continue to remind them they are in control of their energy," Burker said. "They made that win happen by coming with the right attitude and committing to what we wanted to do. They have to do that against any opponent, and it has to be consistent every game."

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