February 16, 2016
Virginia won in a back-and-forth battle against previously unbeaten Penn State. (Cecil Copeland)
Virginia won in a back-and-forth battle against previously unbeaten Penn State. (Cecil Copeland)

Inside the Virginia Upset: Vander Kolk, Defense Limited Lasota

by Justin Feil | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Rachel Vander Kolk couldn't afford to have a bad day in goal for the Virginia women last year. The Cavaliers didn't have anyone else to go to.

"That helped me grow a lot," Vander Kolk said. "I couldn't let myself get in a hole like that. ... The goalie position is so mental. If that does happen, you have to find your way out and get back at it."

Being the only full-time goalie on their roster meant a lot of one-on-one time with Virginia coach Julie Myers.

"It was a lot of individual," Myers said. "Thank God, Rachel was a great one goalie to have left standing."

The ACC Freshman of the Year played all but four minutes last season. She learned that there are some shots she's just not going to stop and how to push past those moments. She is back for her sophomore season this year with competition in practice, a greater comfort level and more confidence after going through last year.

"She did such a great job right from day one," Myers said. "Last year, we only had one goalkeeper and she was there every day. We had a back-up for game days. She was in a really weird spot last year. [Now, we] have a back-up who's athletic and a really hard working kid, Ashley [Morris]. It's nice to know there's someone else to compete. It helps with Ashley there."

Vander Kolk picked up where she left off when she stopped 12 shots to help then-No. 11 Virginia hold off then-No. 4 Northwestern, 10-8, at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga., in the Cobb County Classic on Saturday. With the upset victory, the Cavaliers jumped to No. 5 in the Nike/Lacrosse Magazine Division I Women's Top 20.

"It was a great win to see all our preseason work pay off early," Vander Kolk said. "We know we're on the way to starting strong.

"I felt a lot more calm, a lot more collected coming into the first game," she added. "I knew what to expect. Northwestern is a tough opponent. We knew we'd have to work for everything we got."

The Cavaliers impressed with some new names in bigger roles, but Virginia made its biggest mark on defense by holding Selena Lasota, who returned from a Northwestern freshman record 69 goals and leading Canada to the FIL U19 Women's World Championship, to just two goals. She had five in Northwestern's season-opening win over Duke.

"With a player as good as Selena Lasota, you know she's going to score," Vander Kolk said. "We did what we tried to do. Wyatt Whitley did a phenomenal job. From what we practiced, we were ready for the communication and early slides. The defense did an amazing job of getting her in position to make shots I could save."

It started with Whitley, a junior defender, faceguarding Lasota effectively.

"We knew she was going to touch the ball and get looks," Myers said. "We did learn from watching that Duke game and felt we had the right person to shut her down. The team collapsed on her really well and Rachel did great job finding her shots more than not."

Virginia junior defender Wyatt Whitley, tasked with faceguarding Northwestern sophomore attacker Selena Lasota, helped stop more than 75 percent of her shots in Saturday's upset win. (Cecil Copeland) 

In practice, Cavaliers freshman Angie Loynaz played the role of Lasota as they tried to simulate what they had seen in the Northwestern opener.

"She did a great job throughout the week," Vander Kolk said. "All credit to scout team."

Myers feels strongly that the Virginia defense will have a big say in this year's success. The ability to limit teams' attack has been there since the fall.

"I knew that we had the potential to do it," Myers said. "I felt really good about how the played in the preseason. The fall was one season though, and it's hard to lock in who's playing with whom. In the preseason, we got more specific."

The defense is tightening up as it figures out its roles. The season opener – against a Northwestern team that had won the last nine meetings in the series – was a perfect test.

"It was nice to see we had that in us over the duration," Myers said. "We hung tough. I knew we had it in us, but it was nice to see it shine through."

The Cavaliers helped themselves with their play in the midfield, possessing the ball well on attack, and finding enough scoring. Virginia lost some big-name players when four All-Americans graduated last spring. Some of their biggest concerns – like replacing 63 percent of their point production and nearly 78 percent of their draw control – were erased in their first game. They won the draw battle, 12-8, and found enough scoring from a variety of sources.

"That's huge to win draws and win ground balls," Myers said. "There's so many great teams. We may win them one day and not another."

She is hopeful that the offense will remain diverse. Four different players scored two goals apiece for the Cavaliers.

"I don't think it'll be the same kid every game," Myers said. "I think it's really balanced and shared responsibilities. I think it's what makes us dangerous as well. We could focus on Lasota. It wasn't like you could take one of us out."

Virginia is looking for its balanced attack, athletic midfield and emerging defense to be an oft-repeated formula for success this season. Vander Kolk says it all works together, and she needs the offense and midfield to do their part to help her play well, while she is a solid strength backing up everything.

"She's been playing with great leadership and poise since we had her," Myers said. "She's a year more experienced and more comfortable and confident and talking to her defense and getting their attention.

"She's a critical part of our success," she added. "She's the key to it that keeps it all together. She has so much talent and potential."

Last year's experience augmented her development. It may have been a tough spot initially, but she thrives now because of dealing with the pressures of last year.

"I feel better in all senses," Vander Kolk said. "Having that year under your belt, you know what more to expect."

Vander Kolk and the Cavaliers expect to go farther than last year's second round of the NCAA tournament, even after some significant graduation losses. They opened some eyes with their win over Northwestern, and they want to keep progressing at Princeton on Saturday.

"It gives us that positive momentum to roll in," Vander Kolk said. "The next one being away is kind of rough, but we know we get to come back to Klockner the next week. We have that positive momentum. Everything we worked on, we can see it going in the right direction. We can start building from there and go on to the rest of the season."

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