By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Chantel Jones, Senior Night has been a long time coming. A very long time.
Several of her current teammates were still in middle school when Jones arrived at UVa in 2006. She was 18 years old then, a recent graduate of Clover Hill High School High and a well-regarded recruit who figured to eventually become the starting goalkeeper on the Virginia women’s soccer team.
Now 23, Jones is competing this season as that rarest of college athletes: a sixth-year senior. She sat out two seasons at UVa: 2006, when she redshirted, and 2008, when she played for the United States in the under-20 World Cup in Chile.
“I kind of feel like it’s one of those things like, ‘My little girl’s all grown up now,’ ” Virginia coach Steve Swanson said this week, laughing.
“I always think four years is way too short. Once you get ’em where you want ’em, you end up losing them. In Chantel’s case, it’s been a great six years.”
Fifth-ranked UVa (6-2-1, 12-3-2) closes the regular season tonight at 7 o’clock against ACC foe Miami (3-5-1, 9-6-1) at Klöckner Stadium. Before the game, a ceremony will honor the Cavaliers’ six seniors: Jones, Lauren Alwine, Amanda Fancher, Maggie Kistner, Emily Perrin and Kate Starsia.
Jones, who in May earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology, is taking graduate classes in UVa’s Curry School of Education this semester. Her teammates like call her “Mom” and “Grandma,” and Jones doesn’t mind the generation-gap jokes.
“I’m kind of a big kid myself,” she said, “so I don’t notice that much of a difference when I’m joking around with them. I’m not really serious all the time, so I can relate to them on that.”
Swanson said: “She’s got a youthful enthusiasm to her which I think will always be with her, which I think just makes her special. She’s got a twinkle in her eye all the time.”
The 5-11 Jones, a four-year starter, is coming off a game in which she helped UVa blank Virginia Tech 4-0. That was her 42nd career shutout, an ACC record. The NCAA record is 44.
“You think about the history of the game,” Swanson said, “and to be as close as she is now to breaking the record is pretty special. Whether it happens or not, I don’t think it’s going to do anything to her legacy. She’s definitely one of the best goalies — if not the best — in the history of the program.
“But I think what we’re all proud of most is how much she’s developed in her time here and how much she’s developed off the field as well. Those are things that college hopefully does for you — not just college athletics, but college in general — and I think we’ve seen that with her.”
Early in her career, Jones acknowledges, she was “a hothead, in goal and on the field and with the team. I’d be kind of angry, like, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? You should be doing this.’ ”
Jones, who was born on Long Island, N.Y., credits Swanson and Kerry Dziczkaniec for helping her mature. Dziczkaniec, a former goalie at George Washington, rejoined Swanson’s staff at UVa in July 2008 after four seasons as Vermont’s head coach.
“They know that I want to coach eventually,” Jones said, “so every time something goes wrong or I have a setback or they see an opportunity where they can help me out, they always pull me aside and say, ‘Look, when you’re a coach, this is how you need to handle this,’ or, ‘Being a senior, this is how you should have handled this situation. So I’ve blossomed into a more well-rounded, understanding, mature individual.”
Swanson said: “She sometimes was ruled by her emotions, instead of having control over her emotions. To me, that’s probably the biggest change that I’ve seen. I don’t think playing with emotion is a negative thing, unless it rules you. If a player can channel her emotions and use that to attain a higher level of play and a better intensity and a better focus, I’m all for that.”
Dziczkaniec said Jones “has evolved. She has this composure about her that allows her to make big saves. Her range is incredible, and in the last year she’s become so much stronger and fitter.”
Jones is one of four goalies on UVa’s roster, and she’s “been able to develop, I believe, because of what the others bring to training,” Dziczkaniec said.
Her understudies are junior Carrie Wisman, sophomore Danielle DeLisle and redshirt freshman Churchill O’Connell. Wisman “brings everything she has to the table every day,” Dziczkaniec said, “and I think Chantel has has been inspired by Carrie.”
In 2006, the Cavaliers had an experienced goalie in Christina de Vries, and Swanson suggested that Jones redshirt that season. She readily agreed.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really think about it,” Jones recalled. “I just said, I might as well stay. One year’s not a big deal.”
In 2008, when the opportunity arose for Jones to play in the under-20 World Cup, UVa’s compliance office checked with the NCAA to see how that might affect her eligibility, given that she already had redshirted. Virginia was told that Jones could expect to be granted a sixth year, so off she went to represent her country.
She was back at UVa for the second semester in 2008-09. She returned from Chile a better goalie, Jones believes.
“The experience of playing against such high-caliber people for a month straight, and all of the pressure that’s involved in it, it just helps,” Jones said. “Our final [at the World Cup] was in front of, I think, 60,000 people, and then you come here, and no game can intimidate me anymore.
“When I went to the Pan American Games in 2007, our final was in front of 90,000 in a huge stadium in Brazil. It helps calm my nerves when I get back here, because I’ve played on such a higher level with so much more pressure, I can handle anything here, and it helps me help my teammates.”
Jones has played for the U.S. national team at the under-16, under-17, under-20 and under-23 levels. Soccer has taken her to California, Oregon, Mexico, England, Brazil and Chile, among other places.
“I’m so blessed and lucky that my life has taken me this way,” she said. “If I got hurt tomorrow, I’d be upset, but I’ve had a good run, so I’m really pleased with how my life has turned out so far.”
Jones’ goal is to one day make the U.S. women’s team, which at this year’s World Cup included former UVa stars Lori Lindsey and Becky Sauerbrunn.
“I would say she’s right there,” Dziczkaniec said. “It’s a matter of being patient. Kind of like Lori and Becky were.”
For now, Jones is focused on her final season at Virginia. She’s never been past the NCAA tournament’s round of 16, but Jones is confident this UVa team can break through.
“It’s a great situation, because I feel like it’s up to us,” Jones said. “It’s rare when you’re on a team where you can think, ‘If we want it, we can have it.’ There’s some teams where you’re like, ‘Oh, if we play this team, I don’t know if it could happen, or if we get this kind of draw.’ But I think no matter who we play in the country, we can beat anyone. So it’s really up to us.”
UVa will host an ACC tournament quarterfinal Sunday at 1 p.m. The tourney bracket will be announced after regular-season play concludes tonight.