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July 17, 2015

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — For University of Virginia soccer player Brittany Ratcliffe, there was nothing unusual about watching Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach represent the United States this summer. Ratcliffe, after all, had followed Rapinoe and Wambach and other veterans of the U.S. women’s national team for years.

“You know who those people are,” Ratcliffe said this week.

“But seeing Morgan out there — and seeing people I knew from my high school tweeting about her, ‘Morgan Brian is so awesome!’ — it’s so odd thinking she’s a celebrity to everyone else, and she’s just a teammate to me.

“It’s a weird feeling, but we’re so happy for her and Steve and Becky.”

With millions of viewers following the action on TV, the United States defeated Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women’s World Cup championship game July 5 in Vancouver, Canada.

UVa was well-represented on the winning squad. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’ starters included former Virginia greats Morgan Brian (2011-14) and Becky Sauerbrunn (2003-06). Her assistants included UVa head coach Steve Swanson.

“It’s cool,” Virginia star Emily Sonnett said this week in the women’s soccer office at the McCue Center. “They were here, and now they’ve done this.”

For Sauerbrunn, whom some of the current UVa players met a couple of years ago in Charlottesville, this was her second World Cup.

For Brian, who at 22 was the youngest player on the U.S. team, it was her first. Rooting for her around the country were her former UVa teammates, who fully expected to see Brian’s trademark brilliance in the midfield. They were not disappointed.

“People will come up to me and say, ‘Is that weird, seeing her out there?’ ” Ratcliffe said. “It is weird, but at the same time she’s been in the national-team system her whole life. We all know how awesome she is. We’ve played with her. It’s not even a surprise. She belongs there.”

Swanson’s current players were young girls in 1999 when the U.S. women won the second of their three World Cup titles. They don’t remember much about that ’99 tournament, but the Cavaliers followed this year’s World Cup passionately.

“No matter what, we’re going to support the [U.S.] team,” UVa senior Makenzy Doniak said this week.

Still, this year was different. The Virginia connections made every World Cup match a must-see event for Swanson’s players, several of whom, including Kaili Torres, Morgan Reuther, Tina Iordanou and former standout Annie Steinlage, traveled to Canada to cheer on Brian during the tournament.

Others stayed in touch with Brian through text messages — group and individual — and phone calls.

“She’ll always be a teammate to us,” Ratcliffe said.

Brian and Sauerbrunn are among the five players from UVa who have been named to World Cup rosters, along with Amanda Cromwell (1995), Lori Lindsey (2011), and Angela Hucles (2003, ’07).

In the professional National Women’s Soccer League, Brian plays for the Houston Dash and Sauerbrunn for FC Kansas City. Ticket sales for NWSL games have increased significantly since the World Cup.

“Women’s soccer is definitely growing,” Doniak said.

Ratcliffe said: “It’s really great to see all these girls, especially Morgan and Becky, who put in all this work, and [women’s soccer] finally getting the recognition, the publicity, the status it deserves.”

Sauerbrunn was a three-time All-American at Virginia. Brian twice received the MAC Hermann Trophy, which is presently annually to the nation’s top college player. During her illustrious UVa career, in fact, only one prize eluded Brian: an NCAA title.

In 2013, Virginia lost to eventual champion UCLA in the NCAA semifinals. In 2014, UVa fell to Florida State in the NCAA title game.

Seeing the U.S. team celebrate its World Cup title reminded the Wahoos how close they’d come in December. If they needed more motivation for the coming season, they have it now.

“It was a bummer,” Ratcliffe said of losing to FSU. “We were like, ‘Morgan, you won a World Cup, but we missed out on that national championship.’ It’s definitely like, ‘OK, we can do it. Now it’s our turn. The United States won. Now it’s Virginia’s turn to get the gold.’ So we’re excited.”

The Cavaliers return nine players who started at least 17 games each in 2014: Doniak, Ratcliffe, Sonnett, Torres, Iordanou, Alexis Shaffer, Kristen McNabb, Megan Reid and Morgan Stearns. Other veterans include Reuther, who had eight goals and four assists last season, and Meghan Cox, who started 11 games.

Twelve recruits joined the program this summer, the largest class in Swanson’s 15 seasons as Virginia’s head coach. “Seeing all of them together, it’s like, ‘Wow. It’s a whole army. There’s so many of them,’ ” Ratcliffe said. “But they’re good girls, so we’re excited.”

Doniak said the Cavaliers’ goals — ACC and NCAA championships — will be the same in 2015 as they were last year.

“We lost a great class, especially Morgan and [All-America midfielder Danielle Colaprico] on the field,” Doniak said, “but I think this summer and this preseason, we’re going to work to build our chemistry as a team, because there’s so many new players. We’re really going to keep the culture of the team alive, because I think that’s what gets us so far.”

The World Cup title will pay dividends for UVa’s program, Swanson’s players believe.

“It’s definitely awesome,” Ratcliffe said, “because you see people like Morgan and Becky, and even Steve as a coach, come out of a program like this, and people growing up who might not have heard of UVa before, they see these names and they think, ‘UVa is a contender now. UVa is a place I want to go.’ “

Sonnett agreed.

“I think it definitely will attract [talented recruits],” she said. “They see Steve in with the national team. Steve’s a great coach, and getting you to the next level is why I think a lot of players pick what college they attend.”

Doniak said prospects can “see how Steve develops his players. And then seeing Morgan having gone through the program, I think that’s a great thing for Virginia.”

When Swanson’s obligations with the national team pulled him away from Charlottesville, associate head coach Ron Raab and assistant coaches Kerry Dziczkaniec and Jaime Frias oversaw the Cavaliers’ program.

But the players “never lost touch with Steve, even though he wasn’t here,” Ratcliffe said. “With the text messages, the emails, calling us, texting us individually, you can tell that even when he’s away, he has you on his mind.”

Swanson did great job of “keeping us informed, just like really connecting with every single person,” Sonnett said. “He probably contacted us once a week while he was [at the World Cup].”

The final weekend of the World Cup found Swanson’s players scattered around the country. Doniak, for example, was in Utah, Sonnett in Chicago, and Ratcliffe in Charlottesville.

In Vancouver for the championship game was a contingent from UVa, including Raab, Dziczkaniec, Torres and Iordanou. That group later joined Brian, Sauerbrunn and Swanson at the postgame party to celebrate the championship.

“It was cool,” Dziczkaniec said this week. “Lots of smiles. Lots of happy, happy, joyous people.”

Of the current Cavaliers, Sonnett, Doniak and Shaffer have played for the United States’ Under-23 team. To see what the United States accomplished in Canada has made them that much more eager to represent their country at the next World Cup.

“I think it’s kind of a motivator for anyone who’s grown up with the youth national teams,” Sonnett said.

Doniak said: “When I was watching the final, I was just like, ‘It’s all worth it.’ It’s such hard work to get there, but watching them scoring that many goals and winning, it made me want to work.”

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