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May 1, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In Division I women’s soccer, the games that count are played in the fall, so UVa coach Steve Swanson cautions against reading too much into his team’s spring results. Still, he doesn’t dismiss them, either.

“It’s been a good spring,” Swanson said.

Virginia won all five of its exhibitions: 2-0 over Florida in Cary, N.C., 2-1 over Duke in Richmond, 6-3 over the Washington Spirit in Germantown, Md., 5-1 over Penn State in Ellicott City, Md., and, finally, 2-0 over Georgetown at Klöckner Stadium on April 21.

The Spirit, a pro team that competes in the National Women’s Soccer League, has five former UVa stars on its roster: Chantel Jones, Lori Lindsey, Caroline Miller, Kika Toulouse and Julia Roberts.

The Cavaliers’ college opponents were formidable, too. In the final NSCAA coaches’ poll for 2012, NCAA runner-up Penn State was ranked No. 2, Florida and Duke were co-Nos. 8, and Georgetown was No. 17.

“It was a very difficult schedule, and I think we managed it well,” Swanson said. “But I think the thing we take the most out of this is that this is a hard-working group and they’re together and we’re progressing. We’re getting better.”

From the team that won the ACC title and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament last fall, a strong nucleus returned. (The Wahoos finished 18-5-1 after losing to ACC rival Duke in the NCAA tourney’s third round).

Miller, the ACC offensive player of the year in 2012, is gone, but nine Cavaliers who started at least 13 games apiece are back: Morgan Brian, Makenzy Doniak, Danielle Colaprico, Kate Norbo, Molly Menchel, Morgan Stith, Emily Sonnett, Shasta Fisher and Danielle DeLisle.

“They’re a real veteran group, and it gives us the freedom to ease the transition for our first-years, which I think should happen,” Swanson said. “Sometimes you put them in too quickly.”

Had she been healthy last fall, freshman Kristen McNabb might well be listed among the returning starters this spring. McNabb, a defender from Montville, N.J., tore her ACL in the spring of 2012 and redshirted last season.

McNabb was cleared to start practicing with the team in October, Swanson said, “but I think with an injury like that, with your knee, it takes a little time to get your strength back, your speed back. She’s there now. I think she feels like these games have been really good for her in the spring. As we kind of anticipated, she’s gotten better and better as the spring has progressed. She’s just tough to beat, and she’s what you want in a defender. She’s a shut-down kind of defender.”

Three players who were on UVa’s roster when the 2012 season opened — Olivia Brannon, Emily Carrollo and Lia Bellizzi — have since decided to continue their careers at other schools. But five freshmen will join the program this summer, a group led by Morgan Stearns, a goalie from San Antonio, Texas, who’s on the U.S. under-20 national team.

“We feel it’s a really strong class,” Swanson said. “I think there’s players in there that have the potential to impact the team right way. We also have some players in there that we feel can develop over the long haul.”

Virginia also will have a talented transfer on its 2013 roster: defender Annie Steinlage, who started 59 games in her three seasons at Michigan State. Steinlage, who made the All-Big Ten first team in 2011 and ’12, enrolled at the University in January and went through spring practice with the `Hoos.

Miller, a first-team All-American, led the Cavaliers with 20 goals last season. Swanson said UVa has several players who collectively could replace Miller’s scoring, including Doniak, who was second on the team with 10 goals in 2012.

“I think Mak has that ability to step up,” Swanson said. “I think Gloria Douglas has that ability to step up. Amber Fry’s been scoring some goals for us this spring. She’s actually been very consistent in terms of her goal-scoring this spring.”

And then, of course, there’s Brian, who had 11 goals as a freshman in 2011. She scored only four in 2012, but there were extenuating circumstances. Brian started for the U.S. team coached by Swanson that won the under-20 World Cup in Japan last September.

Brian, a first-team All-American as a freshman, did not make her 2012 debut for the `Hoos until their 10th game. She made the all-conference first team for the second straight year but didn’t score her first goal until the ACC tournament.

“Morgan had an amazing year,” Swanson said, “but I don’t think people realize how difficult that is, to play in a World Cup, travel as much as she did, and then come back and get right into the college season and get going. I think she was exhausted when she came back, and I think the combination of the World Cup and getting back into school took a toll.

Morgan Brian is a special player, but it would have affected anybody to play six games [in Japan] — she started and played in every game in the World Cup — and then to come back here and play.”

Brian occasionally leaves Charlottesville to train with the U-23 national team, but that hasn’t been a problem for her or the Cavaliers.

“I think this has been a really good spring for her,” Swanson said, “because she hasn’t traveled as much as she has in the last, maybe, five years. She’s really honed in on some of the areas she can improve on, and I think it’s been good for her. Even though she’s gone with the 23s in some camps, she’s playing some of her best soccer. She’s playing at an exceptional level right now, and she’s been a factor in almost every game [this spring].”

Brian has represented the United States in such countries as Trinidad and Tobago, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Spain and Puerto Rico, and soccer will take her abroad again this month.

Her UVa teammates are going with her. From May 20 to 31, the Cavaliers will be in England, where they’ll split time between London and Manchester, training and playing games.

“This is going to be an amazing trip,” Swanson said, “because we’re going in the best week of soccer in the world.”

The Women’s Champions League final is May 23 at Chelsea. Two days later, the Men’s Champions League final will be played at Wembley Stadium.

The Cavaliers will be able to attend the first of those games, Swanson said. Then on May 24 they’ll take on Chelsea, one of the teams in the professional Women’s Super League. The `Hoos will play two more games in England, including one against another WSL team, Doncaster.

They’ll also attend the FA Women’s Cup final; tour Old Trafford, home of Manchester United; and take in the England-Ireland men’s friendly May 29 at Wembley. Also on the itinerary: a private tour of the Tower of London.

“It’ll be a soccer experience,” Swanson said, “but it’ll be great, because our team will be together.”

Virginia’s incoming freshmen aren’t allowed to go on the trip, but the “bulk of this team will be returners and veterans, so it’s a good time for us to go to Europe, because we have 20 players,” Swanson said.

“It gives us a chance to play some really good competition, and I think it can give us a head start on the preseason. It’s this little extra credit, this little extra period we get where we can be together as a team and continue to implement some more concepts ahead of the preseason [in August].”

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