By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After 31 consecutive regular-season victories, a streak that started in October 2012, the UVa women’s soccer team finally experienced defeat Sept. 28.
In Tallahassee, Fla., then-No. 2 Virginia lost 1-0 to then-No. 5 Florida State.
“We were disappointed with not only the result, but I think there were a lot of things in our performance that we can do better,” UVa head coach Steve Swanson said a few days later.
FSU was the first ranked opponent the Cavaliers had faced this season, and “it just kind of opened our eyes a little to the higher competition we’re going to face in the ACC,” junior forward Makenzy Doniak said Monday. “It definitely woke us up a little bit.”
The Wahoos played well for stretches at Florida State, and sophomore goalkeeper Morgan Stearns “probably got more action in that game than she did in all the other games combined,” Swanson said.
“So there were some really good aspects of the game, some good teaching moments for us. I just didn’t think we handled their pressure very well, and I think that’s something we’ve got to do better.
“We had enough chances. I think that was probably most disappointing thing from our perspective. I felt we created enough chances to win the game, and we didn’t do that.”
Unhappy when they left Tallahassee, the `Hoos were in better spirits Sunday when they departed South Bend, Ind. In their first game since the loss at FSU, the fourth-ranked Cavaliers defeated No. 10 Notre Dame 2-1.
After the Fighting Irish pulled even with a goal in the 84th minute, overtime seemed imminent. But with 20 seconds left in the second half, junior forward Brittany Ratcliffe scored to secure a dramatic victory.
“Obviously a win is a win, so I think we would have felt great no matter what,” said Doniak, who had an assist on Ratcliffe’s goal. “But the way it came made it a little sweeter.”
Virginia (11-1, 3-1) is back at Klöckner Stadium on Thursday for a 7 p.m. match with ACC rival Boston College (8-5, 1-3). UVa hosts NC State (2-8-2, 0-4) there Sunday at 2 p.m.
“I definitely appreciate being at Klöckner after these past two games,” said Doniak, who with 18 points (six goals, six assists) leads the `Hoos in scoring.
Virginia has outscored oppponents 38-6 this season. Still, the Cavaliers haven’t always been satisfied with their play. That’s partly because they performed at such a remarkable level in 2013, when they finished 24-1-1 after falling in penalty kicks to eventual NCAA champion UCLA in a College Cup semifinal in Cary, N.C.
“It’s hard not to compare us to last year, because it was such a great team and such a special season,” Doniak said.
Doniak and senior midfielder Morgan Brian, first-team All-Americans, and senior midfielder Danielle Colaprico, a third-team selection, are among the standouts back from 2013. But Swanson had to replace six starters — Gloria Douglas, Shasta Fisher, Molly Menchel, Kate Norbo, Annie Steinlage and Morgan Stith — and work in a freshman class and two transfers, Meghan Cox from JMU and Tina Iordanou from Vanderbilt.
Cox has started seven games and Iordanou five for the Cavaliers.
“Are we getting the players’ best effort? Are they working hard? Do they have a great attitude? Yes,” Swanson said. “They’re doing fantastic. I think we’re just dealing with what is really natural for any team that’s lost half the team and brought in a lot of new players.
“It took a lot of work to get that  team. The reason why it was so special is because there was a lot of hard work put into that, and a lot of investment in that. And I think these guys are putting in the same investment. They’re the same kind of players, we have the same culture on the team, we’re just not as together yet, which is natural. It takes time. I think we’re improving. I think we understand one another better. I think the new players have really come a long way in a short time. But I think, especially against the better competition, we’ve got to get better.”
Doniak said: “I think we’re realizing it took a while to build that  team, and we know it’s not going to come in the blink of an eye. We have to work toward that.”
The Cavaliers took a significant step against Notre Dame. Now, though, they’re entering a stretch in which they’ll be without their best player for an extended period.
Brian, who won the MAC Herman Trophy as the nation’s top college player in 2013, was named this week to the U.S. national team that will compete at the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, Oct. 15 to 26. That tournament will serve as qualifying for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The national team, on which Brian is the only college player, has been training in Kansas City this week.
Throughout her UVa career, Brian has periodically been called into national teams. She missed Virginia’s match with North Carolina last year because of her USWNT obligations.
“For anybody else, I think it would be difficult. I think for Morgan, she’s done it enough [to handle it],” said Swanson, who’s an assistant coach on the women’s national team but won’t miss any more Virginia games this fall.
“She doesn’t have as full an academic load, which I think is helpful for her with all the traveling she’s doing. But to be fair, I think it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for her, and it’s a challenge for our team. It’s just another thing we have to overcome, but I think we can do it, and [the other players have] been doing a great job with it so far.”
In Brian’s absence, Colaprico will take over for No. 6 in the central midfield. Brian already has missed three games this season while on USWNT duty.
“We knew this season that she was going to be gone a lot,” Doniak said. “We’ve handled it well so far, and I think we’ll do the same these next couple of games.”
She smiled. “We’d like to have her for every game, but we’ll take her when we can get her,” Doniak said.
In 2013, UVa often overwhelmed opponents with its talent and cohesiveness. The `Hoos are more of a work in progress this fall, but their ceiling remains high.
“I think we’ve got the potential to get 50-percent better,” Swanson said. “In the next month or so, we’ve got the potential to become a lot better.”
As the team continues to improve tactically, the coaching staff is learning “the strengths and weaknesses of players and playing to those strengths,” Swanson said. “Those things just take a little time, and I’m confident that we’ll be a better team.
“We can do it. We can make a run, and we’ve got the potential to be as good as we want to be. And I believe that we have the potential to be as good as last year when we have everybody together and everybody healthy.
“Now, whether or not we win all our games from here on out, I don’t know that. But I know our team’s going to get better, and our team is good. And I think if we can continue to get better, we’re going to be there at the end, and that’s the thing we’re looking for.”