Dec. 5, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Emily Sonnett paid a price for scoring the biggest goal of her soccer career. In an NCAA quarterfinal in Los Angeles, UCLA’s goalkeeper plowed into her an instant after the ball left Sonnett’s right foot, knocking the University of Virginia defender to the turf.
“I’m still recovering,” Sonnett said a few days later. “That one hurt. I got the air knocked out of me.”
A junior from Marietta, Ga., Sonnett was happy to sacrifice personal comfort for such a moment. Her goal, in the 33rd minute, opened the scoring last Friday night and ended UCLA’s 969-minute shutout streak. The Cavaliers went on to defeat the reigning NCAA champion Bruins 2-1.
“I don’t know what made me think I could go all the way from the back to the other side of the field, but I did it,” Sonnett said, shaking her head.
The Bruins, who ousted Virginia in last year’s NCAA semifinals, entered the rematch on a 44-game unbeaten streak. The new NCAA champion will be crowned this weekend at the College Cup in Boca Raton, Fla., where UVa (22-2) meets Texas A&M (22-2-2) in the first semifinal Friday at 5 p.m.
ESPNU will televise the game, as well as the 7:30 p.m. semifinal between Stanford (20-1-3) and Florida State (22-1-1). The NCAA title game is Sunday at 1 p.m. at FAU Stadium.
The Wahoos are two wins from their first NCAA championship, but head coach Steve Swanson doesn’t want his players worrying about the big picture.
“We just have to focus on this first game on Friday,” Swanson said. “That’s the biggest thing. We had a big game last week, and that was our big game for last week, and now we have to put that one aside. This is our big one for this week. We’re very focused on Texas A&M, what we need to do, and I think our players are excited about that … We’ve had a good tournament run so far, but you’re only as good as your last performance, and that’s this one coming on Friday.”
On the nation’s highest-scoring team (3.54 goals per game), players such as forward Makenzy Doniak and midfielders Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico get much of the attention, and understandably so. But Sonnett, whom Swanson called “probably the underrated soccer player in the country,” has been instrumental in the Cavaliers’ success.
“I think she’s the best defender in the country,” Swanson said. “And the reason I say that is I feel she has this ability to play both sides of the ball. She’s not only good in the air, she’s not only good at shutting players down individually, she’s not only good at organizing our backline, but she can get forward, she’s creative, she can solve problems as a center back.
“I think as the women’s game becomes more modernized, you’re going to see a lot more backs that are going forward, that are mobile, and I think Emily has kind of got an attacking center midfield’s mindset going forward, and for us that’s great.”
The National Soccer Coaches Association of America this week named Sonnett to its All-Southeast Region first team for the second straight season. In high school, she was a midfielder who graduated from Fellowship Christian as its all-time leading scorer. At UVa, she plays right center back.
“I’ll give Emily a lot of credit,” Swanson said. “Emily didn’t say, `Hey, this isn’t my normal position.’ She didn’t say, `I don’t want to play [defense].’ She just embraced it, and she’s been fantastic.”
As she showed against UCLA, Sonnett can still be a force in the attacking third. “She’s scored some amazing goals for us so far,” Swanson said, “just in terms of getting forward and using some of her attacking talents that she’s had as a midfielder.”
In 2012, when she started 16 games on a team that won the ACC championship, Sonnett rarely flashed those offensive skills, finishing the season with one goal and no assists. As a sophomore, though, she had two goals and five assists, and she has 11 points this season, on four goals and three assists.
Equally important, though, has been Sonnett’s presence on a defense that had to replace its other starters from 2013.
“Emily really had to take that whole back four under her wing,” Swanson said. “I think with the two years of experience behind her, it was natural for her to take more of a leadership role, and I think she’s done that.
“She’s a big catalyst for our team, and not just in terms of organizing the back four. What you don’t realize is how much she does for everybody else in terms of communicating what we need. The game’s all in front of her, and I think that’s good, that we have somebody like that, who’s not scared to take the initiative, to talk and communicate.”
Sonnett said she’s seen a “huge transformation of not just individuals, but coming together collectively as a back line. I think we’ve made huge steps from Day One to now.”
Never was that more evident than against UCLA, which entered the 64-team NCAA tournament as the overall No. 1 seed.
“I thought the effort and the toughness of the defense against UCLA was out of this world,” Sonnett said. “I don’t know what else to call it. I just haven’t seen our team play like that, with that kind of edge or chip on their shoulder, and I think that’s what helped us, because we didn’t have a lot of the ball in the second half. That team defense is what really kept us in there.”
At 5-7, Sonnett isn’t especially tall for a college player, but her personality belies her size. She has a sharp wit and does not hesitate to use it.
“Off the field, I think she just lightens the mood all the time,” Colaprico said. “She’s always there. If we’re down, she’ll crack a joke or something and get a laugh out of us.
“On the field, she just brings total competitiveness, and she’s always pushing us to be better and telling us what to do on the field and stuff like that.”
And that’s fine with her head coach.
“The thing about Emily that I appreciate, and I think our players appreciate,” Swanson said, “is she has high standards for everybody, and she’s not scared to confront [teammates]. She’s also such a good-natured person, and they know when she steps on the field she wants to win and she’s going to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means confronting people on the field.”
Colaprico said: “At first it was a little scary when she would get in people’s faces, but I think now we realize that that’s just how she is, and she’s not doing it to try to hurt us or make fun of us or anything, but that’s just who she is, and that’s just her personality.”
Sonnett has a twin sister, Emma, who plays soccer, too, and starts on defense for Georgia. They considered some of the same colleges before choosing different schools and different conferences.
“It was just each of us trying to find a fit,” Sonnett said.
Even with her sister at Georgia, Sonnett has hometown friends at UVa, including women’s basketball player Sydney Umeri. As middle-school students at Eastside Christian, Sonnett and Umeri were teammates in hoops and soccer.
“She was a seventh-grader when I was an eighth-grader,” Sonnett recalled, “and she decided to play keeper, because we needed someone with good hands, and that was obviously who we’d pick.”
A sociology major, Sonnett is on track to graduate in December 2015, after which she hopes to pursue a professional soccer career. She’s already a member of the United States’ under-23 national team, whose head coach is Swanson.
“I think she can play at the highest levels,” said Swanson, also an assistant coach on the senior women’s national team. “She’s not only competitive and a great athlete, but she’s a sophisticated soccer player. I think she had to mature a little bit in her first two years as a soccer player and learn good decisions at the back, just because she hadn’t played there, but I think that’s all coming together.”
She’s also tough. Sonnett played most of last month with a broken bone in her right hand. The cause of that injury?
“Sucker-punched someone,” Sonnett said.
She smiled. “I’m kidding,” said Sonnett, who broke the bone in practice and didn’t get the cast removed until this week.
The `Hoos arrived in Boca Raton on Wednesday, looking to make history before heading back to Charlottesville. The Cavaliers’ trip to the College Cup in 2013 was their first in 22 years, and the overall experience overwhelmed the team at times.
“I think there’s a lot of other things that go along with making the Final Four,” Swanson said. “I think our players did a good job of handling that last year, but still this is a little different. I think they understand the whole process now, having been through it once before.”
Sonnett agreed. Of the hoopla surrounding the College Cup, “I think that’s going to be a little bit more in the background this time,” she said.