By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Sweet 16 is a nice place to visit, but Sinead Farrelly doesn’t want to end her college soccer career there.
She’s eager to experience what’s on the other side, where the NCAA quarterfinals, and maybe the final four, await successful teams.
In each of Farrelly’s first three seasons, UVa was ousted in the NCAA tournament’s third round.
“Our major goal is to just get past that point, since we’ve been stuck on that point,” Farrelly said.
Postseason play is still about two months away, and a lot could happen between now and then. So far, though, the Wahoos have been impressive. Heading into this weekend’s Virginia Nike Soccer Classic at Klöckner Stadium, Steve Swanson’s team is 4-0-1 and ranked No. 6 nationally by Soccer America.
That’s not shocking. Virtually all of the key players, including Farrelly, a preseason All-American, are back from a team that went 10-6-6 in 2009.
A year ago, Swanson said, the coaching staff “knew, or at least we anticipated, that there would be some growing pains in certain areas, particularly in the back, where we had lost all our players. But I think this year coming in the difference was obvious: the experience that we gained last year, and just the time and the minutes we were able to give a lot of young players, was crucial.”
In preseason practice, Swanson said, it “was like night and day what we were going over this year, as opposed to last year, especially defensively.”
Nine players returned who started at least 17 games apiece in 2009: Farrelly, Lauren Alwine, Meghan Lenczyk, Kika Toulouse, Julia Roberts, Maggie Kistner, Colleen Flanagan, Morgan Stith and goalkeeper Chantel Jones. Two others — Amanda Fancher and Emily Carrollo — started 13 and 11 games last year, respectively.
“We have a lot of players who have been in a lot of big games and who are able to translate that on the pitch this year, and that’s very important,” said Swanson, whose record in 10-plus seasons at UVa is 142-56-40.
“Between all of our fourth-year players, I think they’ve done a great job of leading. I think they’ve done a great job of making sure training is at a very high level, in terms of the effort and the focus. So I think that’s where it all starts. And we’ve got some players [for whom] there hasn’t been a situation, really, they haven’t been in. They’ve been in tournament games, they’ve been in games where they’ve been down, they’ve been in games where they’ve been up, they’ve been in games where teams are making it hard for us in terms of not letting us get a lot of space behind them. They’ve been in games where teams have really come at us.
“To me, that’s the biggest thing. I feel like we’ve got some mature players that are understanding where they’re at, their roles and know how to play in different situations.”
Through five games, Virginia has outscored its opponents 20-1. Lenczyk, a senior forward, leads the Cavaliers with 7 goals. Farrelly, a senior midfielder, has 3 goals. Alwine, a junior forward, has a team-high 4 assists.
“Even from preseason, I could tell we had a good chemistry,” Farrelly said. “We didn’t lose that many players, and our first-years came in and mixed in with the team. I feel everyone has that chemistry, on and off the field, which every team needs to be successful. And we’ve shown that so far.”
For Lenczyk, a preseason victory over Notre Dame — a high-caliber opponent that Virginia thrashed 4-1 — gave her a sense of the team’s potential. The regular season has included a 4-0 win over Liberty, a 6-0 romp over Colgate and an 8-0 rout of Richmond.
“We kind of got on a roll, and hopefully that will continue,” Lenczyk said.
The game against the Spiders didn’t unfold as expected, Swanson said. “We played them in the spring, and they were awfully good. But credit our team. I thought we did the right things, and we scored some very nice goals. I think those goals would have gone in against anybody.”
If anything has surprised him so far, Swanson said, it has been play of his freshmen, a group that includes Gloria Douglas, Molly Menchel and Amber Fry.
“I would consider us a very deep team,” Swanson said. “Our first-years, although I think they have a lot to learn and get better at, like all first-years, they’ve contributed an awful lot already.
“I would say our first-year class is better than advertised and, I think, has really done a good job integrating themselves in. And I think our second-year class, the confidence level they’re at now, compared to last year, is night and day as well.”
Those sophomores include forward Caroline Miller, the team’s third-leading scorer last year with 18 points.
“She’s a real creative player, and she can break defenses down all by herself,” Swanson said. “What I’ve been happy to see is, I think she’s working hard on both sides of the ball. She’s making better decisions. I think she’s combining better. We need her to create, but at the same time she’s got to be smart about when she does it. And I think she’s still learning that a little bit, but I think she’s playing at a much higher level already this year than she did last year.”
Asked if he believes his team is talented enough to advance deep into the NCAA tournament, Swanson nodded.
That said, “I felt that last year, too,” Swanson added. “The biggest problem for us last year was, we just weren’t able to finish our chances consistently. We couldn’t score, and it wasn’t for lack of chances. Usually when you can’t score it’s traced back to lack of chances, but for us, we had times where I felt we should have had better results than we did, and that was a disappointing and a frustrating thing for our whole team.”
More than 40 percent of UVa’s 42 goals last year came in three games — early-season routs of Liberty (5-0) and Hofstra (7-0) and a 6-2 win over Penn State in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
That sent the ‘Hoos back to the Sweet 16, where they lost 3-0 to UCLA. That’s a hurdle Farrelly and her teammates hope to clear this year.
“I think we have a good shot of winning the ACC and doing awesome in the NCAAs,” Farrelly said. “Clearly, it’s unpredictable, and you never know what’s going to happen. But with our team and how we started and everyone back, I feel we have a great chance.”