March 4, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- At her first college practice last summer, Rachel Vander Kolk learned that, because of unexpected attrition, she would be the only scholarship goalkeeper on the University of Virginia women's lacrosse team in 2014-15.
So much for easing into Division I competition.
"It kind of hit me," Vander Kolk recalled Tuesday, "and I was like, `Well, this is it.' "
In 20 seasons as head coach at her alma mater, Julie Myers has rarely started a freshman in the cage. But the departure of Britt Brown, who backed up senior Liz Colgan last season, left Myers with no other choice.
Vander Kolk, who also starred in basketball and soccer at Severna Park High School in Maryland, has embraced the opportunity at Virginia.
"It's great to be able to compete at such a high level with such a great team," she said.
Myers said: "I think she's doing a great job. Her composure has come a long way. She's starting to make more and more of those big saves, not just the easy ones. She's doing a better job coming out on groundballs, and she has always been a great clearer. So I feel like she's getting a little bit more comfortable, and the girls are getting comfortable with her behind them."
Vander Kolk's fifth college game was Tuesday afternoon at the University Hall Turf Field, where piles of snow surrounded the playing surface. She finished with eight saves as No. 8 UVa rallied for a 13-9 victory over Harvard in frigid conditions.
"It was a cold one today," Vander Kolk said, "but we all prepared for it pretty well."
Junior attacker Kelly Boyd led the Cavaliers (3-2) with a career-high four goals. Vander Kolk's classmate Kasey Behr, a midfielder, scored a career-best three goals, and fifth-year senior attacker Liza Blue added two.
The Wahoos trailed for much of the game and did not take the lead for good until junior midfielder Mary Alati scored with 7:55 remaining to make it 10-9. Virginia scored eight of the final nine goals Tuesday in its first home game of the season.
"I think we let them get their momentum a little too easily [early]," Myers said of the Crimson (1-1).
At Severna Park, Vander Kolk helped lead the lacrosse team to three state championships and was named the school's female athlete of the year in 2014. When, exactly, Vander Kolk would break into the starting lineup at UVa was unclear, but Myers expected her to move into a prominent role early in her college career.
"We don't recruit goalies every year, for the fact that we're hoping that we hit a home run when we bring them in," Myers said. "We really like to stagger our goalkeepers in terms of our graduation years."
Another freshman goalkeeper, Carrera Lucas, whose primary sport at UVa is field hockey, is available for emergency duty with the lacrosse team. Moreover, Myers has enlisted the help of a male goalie who further reduces Vander Kolk's workload at practice.
"That's taken some of the pressure off of Rachel having to see every shot in practice," Myers said. "She sees enough to keep her in the groove, but not doing so much that she's overwhelmed by any of it.
"We're trying not to overload her. I do think that she's a really smart kid, so she can handle a lot. But we're trying to not to take advantage of that, in all honesty. We're just keeping it simple. We're doing what we can do. We're shooting on her when we can. Giving her the feedback that she needs, but we're not crushing her with information. We're not crushing her with shots."
Vander Kolk said the biggest difference between high school and college lacrosse is "probably just the skill of the shooters. You have a lot more you have to be able to prepare for, and they can shoot a lot better, a lot faster and in a lot more places. You have such a good defense in front of you that by the time the shots are getting to me, it's a lot more manageable, but it's definitely been a big growing experience in a lot shorter of a time period than I think a lot of people would [have expected]."
That Virginia annually plays a grueling schedule hasn't made Vander Kolk's transition any easier. The Cavaliers already have faced three top-10 teams -- Northwestern, Syracuse and Penn State -- and their next three games are against No. 2 North Carolina, No. 17 Loyola and No. 10 Princeton.
"Now that we start with Northwestern, every now and then I wish we had an easier opening game," Blue said with a smile, "just to get some confidence, but we know what we've come into with this program. I think we embrace it. There's nothing else we can do."
Virginia was 1-2 heading into its game at Penn State, with each of the losses by a single goal to a ranked opponent: 6-5 to Northwestern and 14-13 to Syracuse. The `Hoos needed to prove they could win such a game, Myers said, which is why their 16-15 victory over the Nittany Lions was so significant.
With about 20 seconds left in a tie game, Vander Kolk made her 13th and final save Saturday. All-America defender Morgan Stephens cleared the ball and then passed ahead to Blue, "who did a beautiful job of driving wide and then driving to the middle, which opened Casey up," Myers said.
Blue passed to senior attacker Casey Bocklet, who scored the game-winner with four seconds remaining.
"To have those players [step up] and to go from one end to the other was exactly what we needed," Myers said.
Five days earlier, with UVa trailing 14-13 at Syracuse, Vander Kolk had made a similar save late in the game. "She had it cleared, and it was inches away from being perfectly thrown to Morgan, but there was a crazy tall kid that got in the way and kind of nipped it," Myers said, and the Orange held on to win.
"So for Rachel to have another chance to make a save, make a clear and have it go our way gives her huge momentum," Myers said.
Blue said: "This was a tall task for her coming into the season, but she has completely handled it, and she's getting better each game. Rachel has stepped up to the plate completely."
On a veteran team with championship aspirations, Vander Kolk knows her performance will be pivotal.
"They didn't lose much from their Final Four team from last year," she said,"so there are definitely big shoes to fill coming in after Liz Colgan and their Final Four run last year. It's definitely a little bit of pressure, but good pressure that I like to play with."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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