By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CARY, N.C. — Once the championship T-shirts had been donned and the team photos snapped, a couple of Steve Swanson’s players sneaked up from behind and doused him with Gatorade — the orange variety, naturally — on the sideline at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Before he got his bath, however, UVa’s longtime women’s soccer coach was able to stand back for a few precious moments Sunday afternoon, a smile spread across his face, and soak in his team’s postgame celebration.
“It makes it all worthwhile,” Swanson said after Virginia routed Maryland 4-0 to win its second ACC championship in this sport — and first since 2004. The ACC title is the first by a Virginia team this school year.
“It doesn’t always go that way,” said Swanson, who’s in his 13th season at UVa. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you want it, but you have to keep digging, you have to keep working, and to look back to where we were in January when we started this ride, and all the turns and twists and how well this team has come together, especially at the end of the season, there’s a lot of emotion inside, that’s for sure.
“I love these players. And I tell you what I really love about this team: They play some great soccer. They play together. And I think that’s the epitome of what team sports is all about. And I think hopefully when you watch our team, people see that. We’re a team.”
UVa is now one of only two schools to have won more than one ACC championship in women’s soccer. The other, of course, is North Carolina, which has been crowned 20 times.
The Wahoos spoiled the fourth-seeded Tar Heels’ bid for title No. 21 in last weekend’s quarterfinals, beating them 1-0. UVa, the No. 5 seed, then upset No. 1 seed Florida State 4-2 in the semifinals before pummeling No. 2 seed Maryland two days later.
The `Hoos outshot the Terrapins 26-9 and had a 4-0 advantage in corner kicks.
“Truly the best team in our league,” Maryland coach Jonathan Morgan said of UVa (16-4-1), which has won five straight games, all against ranked opponents, by a combined score of 19-3.
As ACC champion, Virginia earns the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, whose 64-team field will be announced at 4:30 p.m. Monday on NCAA.com.
“I’m very happy for our team,” Swanson said, “and it gives us good momentum, obviously, going into this next part of the postseason.”
The `Hoos took that 1-0 lead into halftime, but they were understandably wary. They remembered what had happened Sept. 27 in College Park, Md. The Cavaliers scored first in that game, too, only to see the Terps rally for three goals in the final 17 minutes and win 3-1.
“I think we’re in a little different place than we were back then, our team,” Swanson said. “From a confidence perspective, there’s no doubt about that. And just from how well we’ve been moving the ball, I think has helped us in terms of creating chances.”
At the postgame press conference Sunday, Miller was asked if the regular-season game with Maryland was mentioned at halftime.
“Yeah,” said Miller, so pumped about the championship that she could barely sit still. “We just kind of said, `This is the same situation where were in at College Park. We gotta bring it this half. We can’t back off at all. We gotta come out and score a few more and put `em away.’
“And … we … did.”
That drew laughter from Brian, who was seated next to Miller and Swanson at the front of the room. Brian is as even-keeled as Miller is excitable, but they complement each other perfectly on the field, and they made sure Maryland (13-6-2) did not mount another dramatic comeback.
In the 53rd minute, Brian had a shot saved off the line by a Maryland defender. The ball bounced back to Brian, however, and she slammed in the rebound to make it 2-0.
Brian, an All-American in 2011, struggled to regain her form after returning in September from Japan, where she had helped the United States win the under-20 World Cup while UVa was working through the first part of its schedule. But she’s been dominant recently.
“I just had to get used to the team and the way we play, and I think it’s all coming together now,” Brian said.
In the ACC tournament, Brian finished with three goals and three assists and was named its MVP.
“If she’s not the best player in the country, then I really don’t see who the best player in the country is,” Morgan said.
Miller, the ACC’s offensive player of the year, causes major problems for opponents too. She barely missed on three scoring opportunities in the first half Sunday, including one shot that hit the crossbar. “Going out in the second half, I just said, Forget about the first. Keep shooting and taking your looks, and it’ll pay off.’ ”
The payoff came in the 65th minute, when Miller scored off a pass from sophomore midfielder Danielle Colaprico. The goal was Miller’s team-leading 16th of the season.
“Caroline Miller, inside the penalty area, might be the best forward in the country,” Morgan said.
Maryland offered little defensive resistance late in the game, and in the 86th minute sophomore forward Kaili Torres passed ahead to freshman forward Makenzy Doniak, who converted a breakaway to close out the scoring.
The shutout was the Cavaliers’ fourth in their past seven games.
Virginia’s defense is “one of the things that’s gotten steadily better through the season,” Swanson said. “I think we’ve put kind of an emphasis on that. You don’t want to be stretched all over the field, and at times during the season we have been stretched. But I think as the year’s progressed, especially in the ACC, we’ve gotten more compact and tighter, and it’s allowed us to get more pressure on the ball.”
With the outcome effectively sealed by Miller’s goal, Swanson was able to substitute liberally over the final 20 minutes, and every healthy Cavalier got on the field. Senior Carrie Wisman, one of the team’s inspirational leaders, played the last two minutes in goal.
“Every one of our players has contributed to our team this season,” Swanson said. “We’ve got a great group, and to get them this time, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m happy for them.”
At the postgame press conference, Miller said that, in her opinion, nothing could top winning an ACC championship as a senior. Then she caught herself and laughed.
“Actually, that’s a lie. National champs is better,” Miller said. “Whatever. This is good too.”
Brian smiled. “One step at a time,” she said.