Nov. 27, 2014

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The women’s soccer teams from Virginia and UCLA are about to collide in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. This time, though, Kristen McNabb will not be a spectator, and that’s welcome news for the Cavaliers.

A redshirt sophomore from Montville, N.J., McNabb will start at left central back when Virginia (21-2) takes on defending NCAA champion UCLA (20-0-2) at 8 p.m. Friday in Los Angeles.

“On paper it’s probably the most intriguing quarterfinal in the last decade, I would say,” UVa coach Steve Swanson said.

The winner advances to the College Cup in Boca Raton, Fla. Last year’s College Cup was held in Cary, N.C., and Virginia met UCLA there in the semifinals. The teams played to a 1-1 draw, but the Bruins advanced on penalty kicks.

McNabb watched helplessly from the UVa sideline in Cary. She had torn her right anterior cruciate ligament on Halloween night, in Virginia’s regular-season finale against Virginia Tech, and the injury knocked her out of the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

“It was really hard, especially the UCLA game,” McNabb said. “There was nothing I could do but cheer and be a supporter.”

Swanson said: “That was a tough blow for us. It would have been great to have her against UCLA. We ended up using [Danielle Colaprico] a little bit in the back in that game, so we took her out of the midfield. Danny obviously can do that, and she’s done that before, but I think that kind of depth would have helped us for sure, and that kind of depth would have helped us in the ACC semifinal as well.”

The loss of McNabb, Colaprico said, “definitely affected us. She’s a great player, and she’s someone that you might not recognize on the field, because she’s kind of quiet and laid-back. I think once you watch her a lot, you see she’s a great player and she really helps hold down the defense.”

The injury was not McNabb’s first. In February of her senior year at Montville Township High, she tore her left ACL at a tournament in Texas. That forced her to redshirt as a freshman at UVa in the fall of 2012.

In 2013, on a Virginia team that finished the regular season unbeaten and entered the NCAA tourney as the overall No. 1 seed, McNabb started only twice, but she averaged around 55 minutes per game.

“There were times where I put her in after 20 minutes or so, and then she’d play the rest of the game,” Swanson said. “She was that valuable to us. She was our fifth back. She was very much in the rotation, although she didn’t start, and I think she was playing some really good soccer at the time we lost her. It minimized our depth at a pretty crucial time.”

The 5-foot-5 McNabb has started all 23 games this season. She has four goals and one assist.

Asked how she would assess her play, McNabb paused. “I’ve been fairly happy. Not ecstatic,” she added, smiling. “I think I’ve gotten a lot better, and I’ve learned and gotten more confident with myself as the games have gone on. But I think having Emily [Sonnett] next to me really helps me a lot.”

Swanson’s evaluation?

“I think Kristen’s had a fantastic season so far,” he said. “She’s gotten better and better.

“She deserves a lot of credit. She’s worked very, very hard to get to where she is. I think the biggest thing with Kristen is making her realize what an impact player she is and how good she can be. I don’t think there’s a level she can’t play at.

“Defenders, in general, I don’t think get enough credit for the success of any soccer team. Kristen is one of those players who takes great pride in shutting players down and not giving up opportunities to score and those kinds of things, but she also has a real offensive side. She’s good with the ball, and she’s a natural left-footer. She’s got very, very good skills, and so she can handle the ball under pressure. For us and how we play, we like to build out of the back, she’s an integral piece.”

After having her knee reconstructed last fall by Dr. David Diduch, one of UVa’s orthopedic surgeons, McNabb embarked on another long rehabilitation. She was well-prepared for the challenge, she said, “just because the first time I was kind of nonchalant about it. I was like, `Oh, it’s fine,’ and it was a lot more of a struggle than I thought. The second time I knew it was going to be hard.”

The medical staff cleared McNabb to play in late July, about two weeks before the Cavaliers started preseason practice. She pushed forward, not worrying about the possibility of another injury.

“Honestly, this time I came back and I was like, `You know that? What happens, happens,’ ” McNabb recalled this week. “I didn’t really think about it at all, thankfully. The first time I was kind of like a head case, and I was thinking the whole time.”

McNabb, a sociology major, said she was never seriously injured as a girl, “so now I definitely appreciate it a lot more every time I step on the field.”

Like her teammates, McNabb has one overriding goal as December approaches: to help Virginia capture its first NCAA title in women’s soccer.

UVa, which entered the 64-team NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed, has encountered little resistance so far. The `Hoos have outscored their opponents — High Point, Rutgers and Kentucky, respectively — by a combined 18-0.

Nothing is likely to come so easily for Virginia in Los Angeles. UCLA, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, is on a 44-game unbeaten streak. The Bruins have shut out their past 10 opponents.

“I think we just realize that when we play them we have to come out and play for a full 90 minutes, because they’re a great team,” said Colaprico, the ACC midfielder of the year. “And I think if we play our style of soccer, we’re ready to go and we can beat them.”

The `Hoos haven’t forgotten their College Cup loss to UCLA, Colaprico said, but “I think that we realize that we’re in a new season and we’re on to better things this year, and we’re ready to get after it this year against them.”

Swanson said: “We’re looking forward to the game. I’m excited, obviously, because it’s another chance for us, and it’s a chance for us to move on against a very good team.”

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