By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Three times as women’s soccer coach at the University of Virginia, Steve Swanson has experienced the pain of losing in the NCAA quarterfinals. He’s had other teams at UVa that were ousted in the Sweet Sixteen.
“That’s hard,” Swanson said Monday, “and so you get to the College Cup and you’re thinking, `This is good.’ But it actually hurts worse.”
With six minutes left in the second half Friday night in Cary, N.C., Virginia led UCLA 1-0 in an NCAA semifinal at WakeMed Soccer Park. But UCLA pulled even in the 85th minute and then, after two scoreless overtime periods, prevailed 4-2 in penalty kicks to advance to the championship game. The Bruins edged Florida State 1-0 in overtime Sunday for the NCAA title.
“They have athletes up top, they have good athletes in the midfield, they have good athletes in the back, and they have an athletic goalkeeper,” Swanson said. “They were as complete a team as we’ve played all year, physically, technically, tactically.
“But having said that, I felt where we were with six minutes to go, up 1-0, you couldn’t ask for anything more. I would take that situation time and time again. I felt we were right where we wanted to be. And that’s probably what’s most disheartening, that we didn’t close it out, didn’t finish it out.
“We were in the driver’s seat. We changed some things up. We switched our system a little bit, so that we were defensively organized and we had numbers where we wanted them. So we were going to give something to get something. We gave up one forward to kind of bolster our defense, and we just couldn’t close the deal.”
The game was officially considered a draw, but UCLA moved on. UVa headed home. The Cavaliers, who finished 24-1-1, were left to ponder what might have been after their first College Cup appearance since 1991.
“One thing I really admire about this team is they were very set on their goals, and the top goal was to win the national championship,” Swanson said. “And I think many teams [after reaching the semifinals], especially not having been there for 22 years, would have been like, `Hey, that’s fine, that’s great.’ ”
Not these Wahoos, who entered the NCAA tourney seeded No. 1 overall.
“This is going to sting for a long time,” Swanson said. “But like I told the team, I think that’s what makes them such a special group. I think their expectations are high. They were always looking to improve as a team, and I think part of the reason we were as successful as were is because they never were satisfied, and there was something always on the horizon for them.
“When you don’t meet that with the caliber of players we have, it’s tough. But I think when the dust settles a little bit, they should come to appreciate all that they’ve accomplished. More so than that, I think they energized the town about women’s soccer. To have the community embrace this team as it did, I think is a testament to the players, their personalities and their abilities, and even more so the way they played together.”
In building an 18-0 record at home this season, the `Hoos shattered attendance records for women’s soccer at Klöckner Stadium. UVa also became the first team since Stanford in 2009 to finish the regular season unbeaten and untied.
The `Hoos bounced back from their only defeat — to Virginia Tech in the ACC semifinals — to win their first four games in the NCAA tournament by a combined score of 10-1. All this season, they played an attractive, fluid brand of soccer that emphasized precise passing.
“It’s great to see that quality of soccer in the women’s college game,” Michigan coach Greg Ryan said after his team’s 2-1 loss to UVa in an NCAA quarterfinal at Klöckner.
Swanson said: “There’s been a lot of discussion about our style of play, and to be honest that was kind of our vision, trying to revolutionize, trying to bring a team-oriented passing style to the women’s game. And I think my hope is that by us getting to the College Cup people saw that and people will appreciate that. It wasn’t like we just passed the ball around. We scored.”
Virginia averaged three goals per game this season, the most of any team in Division I. The other three teams that reached the College Cup — Florida State, Virginia Tech and UCLA — averaged 2.2, 2.1 and 2.0 goals, respectively.
“We scored more goals  than we gave up shots on goal ,” Swanson said. “That’s a pretty impressive statistic.”
UVa has long been “a possession-oriented team,” Swanson said, “but we didn’t attack the way we did this year, and I think we made some great strides there. This team had a great attacking mentality, but they also had a really good defensive mentality, so we won a lot more balls further up the field, which led to goals.”
The Cavaliers’ roster included eight seniors, as well as redshirt junior Churchill O’Connell. Of those players, six were starters: defenders Molly Menchel, Shasta Fisher and Morgan Stith, midfielders Kate Norbo and Annie Steinlage, and forward Gloria Douglas.
The departing seniors will be difficult to replace “not only as players,” said Swanson, who this week was named head coach of the U.S. Under-23 national team, “but as leaders and keepers of the culture, so to speak. Our culture is as good as it can be, and I don’t think anyone wants to see that change, and that’s a good thing.”
Among the players with eligibility remaining at UVa are five of the team’s top six scorers this fall: forwards Makenzy Doniak (46 points) and Brittany Ratcliffe (27) and midfielders Morgan Brian (46), Danielle Colaprico (23) and Alexis Shaffer (15).
Doniak, who scored the goal that put UVa up 1-0 against UCLA, and Brian are among the 15 semifinalists for the most prestigious award in college soccer, the Hermann Trophy. Brian, a junior, has earned three caps with the U.S. national team.
Colaprico and Sonnett are among the 24 players who’ll participate in the U23 national team’s training camp this month. Doniak and Stearns have been called into training camp for the U20 national team.
“We have some really good pieces,” Swanson said, “and we have a good group coming in. I think we can still be quite good, but we’ll have some challenges. We won’t have the depth that we had this year.”
Moreover, Doniak and Stearns could miss most of August if they’re chosen to represent the United States at the U20 World Cup in Canada. Still, Swanson likes the potential of such players as Ratcliffe, Shaffer, Campbell Millar, Julia Sroba, Mary Morgan, Morgan Reuther, Kaili Torres and Kristen McNabb.
Torres, who had five goals and five assists in 2012, played in only two games this year before suffering a season-ending injury. McNabb, a valuable defender, tore her anterior cruciate ligament Oct. 31 against Virginia Tech and missed the postseason.
“We’ve got a good core coming back, and it’s an experienced core,” Swanson said, “so that’s good.”
It’s still too soon, though, for him to focus on 2014. Swanson’s thoughts remain with the greatest team in program history.
“I feel for the players, because you want your players to get everything they feel they deserve,” Swanson said. “This team from the very beginning has just worked so hard, they’ve done all the things we asked. But that’s the way life is sometimes. And that’s what’s so great about sports. It mirrors life. In life you don’t get all the things you want all the time, even though you deserve them.”