Play begins Saturday at the Vitality Hockey Women’s Field Hockey World Cup in London, England. The championship, which is being referred to as the “biggest women’s sports event in U.K. history,” features the top 16 teams in the world, with a pair of University of Virginia field hockey alumnae suiting up for the American squad.
Michelle Vittese, a three-time All-American who graduated in 2013, and her youngest sister, Tara Vittese, a three-time national player of the year and 2018 UVA grad, were both named to the 18-player World Cup roster.
Michelle is one of the most seasoned veterans of the American squad. The midfielder comes into the tournament with 208 appearances for the U.S. in international matches, trailing only team captain Melissa Gonzalez, who has 238. She played for Team USA at both the 2012 London Olympics and in the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as helping to lead the squad to a fourth-place finish at the 2014 World Cup in The Hague, Netherlands.
“Being a veteran, I have some responsibility and some accountability for the group, but I do think it is very exciting,” Michelle said. “This group is a lot different than our previous team. We had a lot of retirements. We really put a lot of work in building this group and doing our due diligence in preparing and getting everyone as ready as they can be. I feel good about it.”
One of the new faces on the team is her youngest sister. Tara was named to the roster in March and joined the team after graduating in May with a degree in anthropology.
Tara, who has seven international appearances with the U.S. Women’s National Team after previously serving as the captain of the under-21 team, left Charlottesville as the most decorated player in program history. She is the only player in the history of the sport to be named National Player of the Year three times by the National Field Hockey Coaches’ Association and is only the second Cavalier athlete to be a three-time national player of the year, joining former men’s basketball star Ralph Sampson in that achievement.
“This is definitely exciting, but a little overwhelming as this is my first big tournament, but I’m excited and happy to be playing with my oldest sister,” Tara said. “It is going to be exciting to play in front of huge crowds. I’m sure I’ll be jittery and nervous, but I feel that once I get the first game out of the way, I’ll be fine.”
Though both sisters played field hockey at UVA, they did not play together for the Cavaliers. Michelle’s final season was 2012, while Tara’s rookie campaign was 2014. Their middle sister Carissa was also a ’Hoo, playing with Michelle for two years, but finished her final UVA campaign in 2013, the year before Tara’s debut. Carissa was also a defender for Team USA, earning her first international cap in 2017, but is not on the 2018 World Cup roster.
Both Tara and Michelle are relishing finally playing together, and doing so on the biggest of stages.
“It is definitely nice having a family member with you on the field,” Tara said. “Michelle uses tough love on me. I think she is going to be hard on me just because she has done this for so long and I am so new to the program. But I think it will be great because she knows how to push me and where I’m strongest, so she will definitely be my rock for me.”
Michelle is equally excited to have Tara join the squad.
“I have always wanted her to do this,” Michelle said. “I have seen her evolve from a little kid with the skinniest little arms, from such a small little person to this grown adult. It is fun to see that evolution. I’m excited to have her here with me. It is like a piece of home with you everywhere you go.”
The American team comes into the tournament ranked No. 7 in the world and will compete in Pool B, opening the tournament Saturday against No. 16 Ireland. Team USA will also play host team and 2016 Olympic gold medalist England on Wednesday and No. 10 India (July 29) during pool play.
The top team in each of the four pools receives straight-passage through to the quarterfinals. The teams placing second or third in their pools face a crossover match to earn a place in the quarterfinals, while the fourth-place team in each pool is eliminated. The championship runs through Aug. 5.
The games will be played on the blue pitches of the 10,000-seat stadium in Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre, in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a legacy venue from the London 2012 Olympic Games.