Colleen Norair’s emotions were decidedly mixed as the University of Virginia’s 2018 field hockey season began.
She was genuinely excited to be a starter for the first time as a junior. But that chance came on defense after she had starred as the most prolific goal-scorer in Fredericksburg Academy history.
Many of the players who helped the Cavaliers win the 2017 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title had graduated, and coach Michelle Madison needed returnees like Norair to contribute, even in unfamiliar positions.
“It was terrifying,” Norair admits now, “because I never really considered myself a really solid defender. I have really good tackle back skills; if someone beats me, I’m fast enough to get the ball back in that way.
“But I’d never been in position that, ‘I’m going to be the last effort here. If someone’s coming down and we’re numbers down, it’s just me.’ ”
The move wasn’t a total success; the rebuilding Cavaliers finished 9–10 for their first losing season since 2011. But Norair did and learned enough to make her more confident in herself and her team when her senior season begins next month.
“This summer was really important to me to work on my conditioning, my lifting and my fitness for my senior year,” Norair said last week during a break from FA’s summer camp, where she served as a counselor. “I was talking to my coaches at the end of the school year and they were like, ‘This is it; no regrets. You’ve got to go out with a bang.’ ”
There were some highlights amid the growing pains for Norair in 2018. She helped the Cavaliers post three shutouts and made a key defensive save to prevent a goal in a 2–1 victory over Wake Forest.
She also scored the game’s only goal in a 1–0 ACC tournament victory over Boston College. That earned her a spot on the all-tournament team, and she also was chosen second-team all-South Region.
“Colleen can play anywhere on the field,” Madison said. “She knows the game, and she has the ability to read the play and step in.”
Norair is expected to return to the right back position as a senior. Fortunately for her, her responsibilities aren’t all defensive. “There’s a lot of freedom at that position,” she said.
Added Madison: “We want our right back to really be an attacking player. Her first objective is not to think of herself exclusively as a defensive player, but someone who can take on a strong attacking role.”
That’s something Norair can handle. The Free Lance–Star’s 2016 female athlete of the year set school records with 117 goals and 47 assists at Fredericksburg Academy, helping the Falcons win four straight Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state championships.
Field hockey is a family tradition for the Norairs. Older sister Meghan played at Duke, and younger sister Grace is a current standout at FA.
Colleen Norair spent most of her first two seasons at Virginia as a backup, scoring once as a freshman (also against BC) and three times as a sophomore.
Playing defense requires more anticipation and reactive skills than does goal-scoring. Already an intuitive player, Norair expects that a year’s experience will allow her to play even more instinctively as a senior than she did while learning the position in 2018.
“I’ve played every position: striker attack mid, D-mid,” she said. “That ability to understand how our press works and understand how our outlook works, so as a back, I know where am I going to pass it already. I know even before I get the ball where I’m trying to go.”
Norair is one of eight returning players who started at least eight games for the Cavaliers last season. (Their leading scorer, rising sophomore Grace Wallis, transferred to Penn State.)
Norair had a busy summer, attending the Young Women’s National Championship tournament in Lancaster, Pa. for a second straight year and working as a counselor at several camps, including the one at FA.
She’s also serving an internship with the Charlottesville TomSox baseball team of the Valley League, working with social media, promotions and even dressing up as the team mascot.
She’ll gladly trade that outfit for a field hockey uniform next month. After watching Virginia win NCAA titles in men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse this spring, the Cavaliers are inspired to join that list of champions.
“I think we can win it all,” she said “My first year we won ACCs, and a lot of that was the mindset that we were ready to outwork everybody. This year, that mindset is back.”