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Sisters Jemma and Elly Buckley came all the way from Perth, Australia, to not live near each other in the United States.
OK, that actually wasn't their intention. It just worked out that way. The siblings learned the sport of field hockey from their father, Alan, who excelled at it. And now Jemma, 21, and Elly, 18, are both competing in their first NCAA tournament in field hockey -- on rival teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
|Elly and Jemma Buckley are both vying for a national championship.|
Action begins for the 16-team field Saturday, with Jemma's Maryland Terrapins the No. 1 seed and Elly's Virginia Cavaliers No. 3. Both schools host their first-round matches; Maryland opens against Massachusetts, while U.Va. faces Michigan State.
"Luckily, we're on opposite sides of the bracket. So if we play it won't be until the final," Elly said. "We're really competitive. I know exactly how she plays, and she knows exactly how I play."
The sisters acknowledge it was odd to come to the United States and not be on the same team, as that's what they were used to growing up.
"It's weird being here and not seeing her all the time," Jemma said. "But at the same time, I usually talk to her every day. We have two brothers, and they play field hockey, too. My dad coached us. It was a good way to keep all of us busy, I guess."
Both sisters had strong seasons, being named to the all-ACC team. Jemma had 21 goals and nine assists, while Elly had 15 and 10. Jemma says her sister is "unbelievable" and considers Elly to be the more naturally gifted player. But Elly says Jemma has an edge because of her experience.
Jemma had first made contact with Maryland coach Missy Meharg several years ago through mutual acquaintances in the field hockey world. The two kept in touch, and Jemma decided this fall was the right time to come to the United States to play and finish her studies. Because of her previous experience playing at the University of Western Australia, she is a junior in eligibility.
Meanwhile, Elly and one of her friends from Perth, Chloe Pendlebury, also wanted to play collegiately in the United States. Elly decided she would go to Maryland, too, but there wasn't an opportunity anywhere for all three to go to the same place on scholarship. Thus, Jemma opted for College Park, Md., and Elly and Pendlebury, both freshmen in eligibility, went to Charlottesville, Va.
Being from western Australia, the other side of the country apart from Sydney and Melbourne, Jemma said she grew up in an area that she would consider "very laid-back." Living on the East Coast of her own nation would be different enough. But the East Coast of the United States?
"I had absolutely no idea, really, what it would be like here," Jemma said. "Especially how full-on intense all the sporting programs were in college. It's amazing. Getting used to it was a little hard at first, but I love it."
It actually didn't take her very long to get up to speed on Maryland's biggest rivalry in field hockey: North Carolina, which is the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Terps and Tar Heels have combined to win the last five NCAA titles. The programs overall both have six national championships each, which ties for second to Old Dominion's nine.
Last season, the UNC beat Maryland in the NCAA final, scoring the winning goal on a penalty corner with 11.7 seconds left for a 3-2 victory.
Both squads lost key players to graduation and injuries, but they were still the top two programs this season. UNC was ranked No. 1 and Maryland No. 2 coming into their meeting Oct. 23 in College, Park, Md.
The Terps won that one 3-2, and they switched rankings. Then in the ACC tournament last weekend, also in College Park, the Terps solidified their ranking and nailed down the NCAA's No. 1 seed with a 5-2 victory over UNC in the final. Jemma Buckley had three goals in that game.
Maryland's Katie O'Donnell, the Honda Award winner last season as the sport's top player, was the ACC tournament MVP with three assists and one goal. Behind the talents of O'Donnell and Jemma Buckley, plus with the home-field advantage, Maryland, 19-1, will be a very tough force to stop in the NCAA tournament.
"When I first got here, everyone told me about North Carolina," Jemma said. "There's a lot of history there. In the ACC tournament, we really wanted to come out and play well against them, and we felt like we got the job done."
But the mission isn't complete. The Terps might have to beat North Carolina one more time again to win the national championship. Or maybe it will be Elly's Cavaliers.
They fell to Maryland in the regular-season meeting, 2-1 in overtime, with Jemma scoring one of the Terps' goals. The Cavaliers are 16-3, with their only losses coming the Maryland and then twice to North Carolina, in the regular season and the ACC semifinals. The Final Four is Nov. 19-21 in College Park.
"It's exceeded my expectations," Elly said of the level of competition in the college game. "Some people back home thought that American hockey wasn't as good, but it really is. You know that when you get here."
Soccer's best: While the NCAA women's soccer tournament kicked off Thursday, the bracket for the NCAA men's soccer tournament will be announced Monday (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET). The College Cup is Dec. 10 and 12 in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.