Nov. 18, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Since the calendar flipped to 2011, Morgan Brian has played for her high school team in Georgia, for her Florida-based club team, for the U.S. under-20 national team and, now, for the UVa women’s soccer team. She’s only 18 but has also trained with the under-23 national team.

“It’s been a tough, challenging year for Morgan,” Virginia coach Steve Swanson said. “If you go back to the beginning of the year and you look at how much she’s traveled, how much she’s played, how much she’s played up against players much older than her, before she even got her, I think that makes it even more impressive what she’s done at the college level.”

Brian, a 5-7 midfielder from St. Simons Island, Ga., may be tired, but she’s not ready for a break just yet. The Gatorade national high school player of the year for 2010-11, Brian chose Virginia in part because she wanted to try to help the Cavaliers win their first NCAA championship, and they can take another step toward that goal Friday night.

At 7 p.m., UVa (15-4-2), a No. 2 seed, faces Washington State (12-6-4) at Klöckner Stadium in the NCAA tournament’s second round. The winner advances to face Texas A&M or Virginia Tech on Sunday afternoon at Klöckner. (The Aggies and the Hokies meet there at 4 p.m. Friday.)

For the Wahoos, this will be their second clash with Wazzu in three months. The teams played to a scoreless draw Sept. 9 at Klöckner in the Virginia Nike Soccer Classic. Virginia outshot the Cougars 19-4 in that game.

“I remember they’re a really good defensive team,” Brian said. “They limited our opportunities, and they basically weren’t as much of an offensive threat. They just tried to stop us from scoring.”

Swanson said: “They’re a real hard-working, blue-collar team. They’ve very organized defensively, so they’re hard to break down. We know it’s going to be a very, very competitive game and will probably be a very close game.”

Seeing Brian in a Virginia uniform gives Swanson confidence in such situations. She came to UVa with sterling credentials and has not disappointed. The ACC freshman of the year, she’s second on the team in scoring, with nine goals and six assists. If Brian has felt pressure to live up to her billing as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, it does not appear to have affected her game.

“I just play soccer,” she said. “I don’t think about anything else. Or I try not to, at least. Once you start thinking about all that kind of stuff, it doesn’t become fun anymore.”

Swanson said: “One thing about Morgan that I think is a real tribute to her is, she just wants to help her team win. I think she understands her role and she has an idea of the publicity out there, but it never crosses her mind when she’s playing or outside of playing. She’s got the skills and the smarts to make an impact on the game, and because she’s focused on the right things, she makes that impact day in and day out, game in and game out.

“She loves the team aspect of the sport. If somebody else scores, you would see Morgan Brian raising her arms and trying to be the first one to run over there and congratulate her, because it makes an impact on winning.”

One such moment came Sept. 25 in Chapel Hill, after Brian assisted Caroline Miller on the goal that gave UVa a 1-0 double-overtime win over North Carolina. The victory was the Cavaliers’ first over the Tar Heels in the teams’ 38 meetings.

“That was pretty cool,” Brian said. “I always wanted to beat UNC. When we came here, that was a goal. That was fun. We’ve won a lot of games in overtime and close ones, so they’ve all been good. But we still want to win a national championship.”

Brian has been a fixture on national age-group teams for years. Soccer has taken her to Trinidad and Tobago, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Spain and Puerto Rico, among other places, and her international experience helped her adjust easily to Division I competition.

“I think the thing that was tough for her was balancing the academics at Virginia with [soccer],” Swanson said.

Brian, who rooms with teammate Olivia Brannon, agreed. It’s been challenging, Brian said, trying “to find time between the soccer and the tutoring and all the other things, trying to find time, especially after being tired, to study.”

To say her schedule is full would be an understatement. Brian also spent several days this fall in California, training with the under-23 national team alongside such players as Sydney Leroux, Keelin Winters and Meghan Klingenberg.

“It was a good experience,” Brian said. “It was a lot faster. They have a lot more experience than I do.”

She laughed. “A lot more experience, actually. A lot of them are professionals and talking about getting married and that type of stuff.”

Brian has other concerns. A victory over Washington State would send the ‘Hoos to the NCAA tournament’s third round for the seventh consecutive year and keep alive their championship dreams. If Virginia advances, Brian figures to play a leading role, as she has all season.

“She’s fun to watch, but I think she’s really fun to play with,” Swanson said. “She makes others around her look good, and that’s a good thing. Coaches like that, players like that. And the other thing that I think is great about Morgan is she’s a humble person. She likes to have fun.”

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