By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE -– University of Virginia women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson is thousands of miles away, at FIFA’s Under-20 World Cup in Japan. So is UVa’s best player, All-America midfielder Morgan Brian.
Swanson, the U.S. team’s head coach, and Brian will return from Japan early next month, at which time they’ll rejoin the Cavaliers. For now, though, seventh-ranked Virginia’s challenge is to play at a high level without a full roster.
“The biggest thing that we as a fourth-year class are trying to do is just keep up the effort and the intensity while Steve’s not here, and same with Morgan,” midfielder Kate Norbo said Sunday afternoon at Klöckner Stadium. “We always talk about being a seamless team. I think we’ve had players stepping up into roles and doing a nice job.”
UVa opened the season Friday night at Klöckner with a 3-1 loss to No. 8 Penn State. After pulling even in the 76th minute, the Wahoos gave up two goals to the Nittany Lions.
The Cavaliers’ defense was better Sunday in a 5-0 rout of Radford. Then again, their opponent wasn’t nearly as formidable as Penn State.
“It’s good to get confidence and a win under our belt,” sophomore defender Olivia Brannon said, “but there’s still always room for improvement.”
In Swanson’s absence, assistant Ron Raab is serving as interim head coach, with support from the other full-time assistant, Kerry Dziczkaniec. Swanson watched the season-opener on-line in Japan, Raab said, and then they spoke after the game.
“Like I said Friday night, we were disappointed with the result, obviously, but some good things came out of that game,” Raab said Sunday. “It was a good measure of where we’re at. We got to see some players step up in Division I against a top-10 opponent.
“I felt like in the first half [Friday night] we had a couple good looks, and if we score and go up a goal, it changes the complexion of the game. But I think we’re not quite firing on all cylinders as a team yet, which isn’t overly surprising.”
Against the Highlanders (1-1), the Cavaliers made better decisions, Raab said, “which I think contributed to our ability to actually find the back of the net. Having said that, I felt like Friday night we did create some chances; we just didn’t finish them.”
The ‘Hoos could be more short-handed than they are. Brannon and freshman forward Makenzy Doniak were chosen as alternates for the Under-20 national team. Had Brannon not struggled to recover from surgery to repair torn meniscus in her right knee, she probably would be in Japan with her classmate Brian.
“What-ifs, you can throw those around,” Brannon said Sunday. “I would have loved to have been over there, but I also have a great opportunity with my second year at Virginia, so you just try to make the best of the opportunity you have in front of you.”
Has she been in touch with Brian in Japan? Brannon nodded.
“One of the wonderful things about Facebook is the world gets smaller,” she said. “We message frequently back and forth.”
Brannon is used to playing with Brian. She’s also accustomed to seeing Swanson on the UVa sideline, “but I know he’s doing good things over in Japan with the U-20s,” Brannon said, “and Ron is definitely stepping up to the plate as head coach and pulling us along. We definitely have the personnel to step up, and just because we’re down a coach doesn’t mean we’re down a team.”
Brannon went the full 90 minutes against Penn State. Her knee is steadily getting stronger, Brannon said, but she sat out the first half against Radford.
“I just needed a little bit of a break today,” Brannon said.
Norbo can empathize. She missed most of last season after tearing the ACL in her left knee. On a damp afternoon, Norbo opened the scoring in the 17th minute Sunday with a goal set up by senior Erica Hollenberg and sophomore Kaili Torres.
By halftime, the ‘Hoos led 3-0, and the rout was on.
“I think we played a quality game here, but our speed of play could still be faster,” said Norbo, a redshirt junior from Roanoke. “Friday was probably a little better in terms of that. But I think a big thing for us today was we got five goals on the board. That gives us some confidence going into our next games, just to get a win.”
Virginia, halfway through a four-game homestand, hosts Liberty (1-1) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Whether the ‘Hoos will have defender Morgan Stith back for that game is unclear.
Stith, who missed last season with a stress fracture in her tibia, played 89 minutes against Penn State. She was a late scratch Sunday because of an undisclosed injury.
“We were hoping to get just a few minutes out of her today,” Raab said, “but obviously she wasn’t able to go. We’ll get her into a little rehab here this week, and hopefully she’ll be back and ready to go.”
Doniak, who’s from Chino Hills, Calif., scored UVa’s lone goal against Penn State.
“She’s doing really well coming in as a first-year, stepping up big for us,” Norbo said. “I don’t think you could really ask for more.”
Raab said: “She’s a very strong player, and she’s one of the players that has what I would consider a real nose for the goal. In and around the 18, she’s very difficult to stop, and it makes her a very dangerous player.”
Against Radford, Doniak showed not only the ability to score, “but also to create opportunities for her teammates,” Raab noted, “and that’s a quality we really like about her and has been very exciting to see so early in the season so far.”
Swanson and Brian are due back before UVa’s ACC opener, Sept. 13 against NC State in Charlottesville. Brian, however, may need some time off before making her 2012 debut for the Cavaliers.
“Morgan’s a little bit of a freak of nature,” Swanson said this summer. “She has this amazing ability to recharge and regenerate and get back out there and play. If ever there was a kid born to play, it was Morgan Brian. But I think, yes, we have to be smart, particularly because we’re traveling and this tournament is so far away. We’re going to have to take a lot of things into consideration in making sure that we’re doing right by her for the whole year.
“It can’t be what’s best for Virginia soccer or U.S. soccer. It’s got to be what’s best for Morgan Brian. And I think ultimately it will be what’s best for Virginia soccer.”