Aug. 20, 2015

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — More than 40 percent of the players on the UVa women’s soccer roster are freshmen, and that added importance to the team’s annual trip to Michigan early this month.

“I think one of the things that we wanted to do, in addition to getting the work out on the field, was just integrate our team a little bit,” said Steve Swanson, who’s in his 16th season as Virginia’s head coach.

The training camp is held in Glen Arbor at the Leelanau School, to which the Cavaliers have bused each summer for more than a decade. The stay in Michigan helps with team-building, Swanson said, “because you’re in a little bit more of an isolated environment, and the way the housing’s configured, you’re interacting a lot with each other.

“But even more so for a team that’s as young as we are, with the inexperience we have with so many first-years. I think for them it was tremendous, and for the team moving forward I think it will pay dividends as we get into the regular season. We had great weather, and we accomplished a lot up there.”

The first-year class, with 12 members, is the largest Swanson has had at UVa, and when the coaches assigned roommates for training camp, they paired each freshman with a veteran.

For all the newcomers in the program, though, there’s plenty of experience, too. The Wahoos return nine players who started at least 17 games apiece in 2014 —Makenzy Doniak, Tina Iordanou, Kristen McNabb, Brittany Ratcliffe, Megan Reid, Alexis Shaffer, Emily Sonnett, Morgan Stearns and Kaili Torres ¬ as well as Morgan Reuther, who had eight goals and four assists last season, and Meghan Cox, who started 11 games.

“It is an interesting mix,” said Doniak, a senior forward who is likely to leave UVa as the program’s career leader in goals and points.

“It’s kind of a divide into two extremes, but we’ve integrated very well so far, and as the season goes on, I think it’ll just mix even better.”

After playing two exhibition games this month ¬ a 5-2 victory over Illinois in Michigan last Friday and a 2-2 draw with Maryland at Klöckner Stadium on Monday night ¬ Virginia is preparing for its season-opener.

UVa hosts UNC Wilmington at 2 p.m. Sunday at Klöckner. The ‘Hoos are No. 2 in the preseason National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll, but they don’t attach much significance to that lofty ranking.

“Really, those preseason rankings are all built on last year’s [results],” Swanson said. “So it’s a completely different team. We’ve got to prove ourselves, and we start this weekend doing that. I think everybody’s looking forward to that challenge. I don’t think we’re enamored with any sort of rankings or polls. The focus is how can we get better, and I think this team’s got a good focus about them, especially with what happened last year.”

In 2014, of course, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA championship game, where they lost 1-0 to their nemesis, Florida State, in Boca Raton, Fla. Virginia, which led Division I in scoring, finished 23-3.

All three losses were to FSU, each by the same score.

From that UVa team, the biggest losses were All-America midfielders Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico. Without those two, Swanson’s biggest concern is probably his team’s “ability to solve pressure,” he said.

“We’ve got to collectively do that. What we could do with one or two players last year, we’ve got to do that as a team.”

He’s confident the Cavaliers will find a way to do so.

“I think we’ve got a lot of good pieces,” Swanson said. “I think we’re capable of being a very physical, athletic team. I think we have that component. I think we need to be more technical, a little bit smarter in our decisions overall as a team.”

Swanson pointed to the exhibition game with the Terrapins, whom the ‘Hoos outshot 30-4.

“I thought we did some good things on the offensive end and we did some good things on the defensive end,” he said. “But just in terms of our sharpness and our overall quality, we didn’t do enough on both sides.”

Doniak wasn’t satisfied with UVa’s performance against Maryland either. Still, she said, in the two exhibitions “we’ve learned different things — our strengths and weaknesses and what we need to work on. I think they’ve only helped us. We’ve gotten to play different players, new players, and seen what their styles are.”

Among the freshmen who have impressed Swanson are Betsy Brandon, Hana Kerner, Lorato Sargeant, Ayan Adu, Brianna Westrup and Courtney Petersen, who’s recovering from an injury she suffered in Michigan.

Brandon is “a real smart, savvy player,” Swanson said. “She values the ball really well. She’s somebody that can solve pressure really well. She’s just got a good demeanor. She doesn’t play like a first-year.”

Several freshmen are likely to redshirt this fall, Swanson said, “but I think [overall] it’s a very well-rounded class. They fit in really well. They’ve got really good heads on their shoulders. They’re all about the team, and we’re really happy with where those guys are right now.

“The great thing about this class is some of them are more ready to play now than others, but I think all of them have the ability to impact our program at some point during their careers. It’s just helping them develop a little bit.”

The other ‘Hoos will have to grow too, if the team is to realize its goals this season.

“I like where we are right now,” Swanson said. “I think the real question is the thing I ask our team all the time: How willing are you to continue to grow? How high do you want to set the standards? Are you going to accept where you are and feel satisfied? Or are you going to look at your performances and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get better. Here’s what we need to do.’

“I think one thing that’s been a trademark of our team, especially more recently, is that they’ve never been satisfied. They’re always working to get better.”

Players and coaches alike often talk about the program’s culture, which Doniak said has grown stronger in recent years.

In 2012, the Cavaliers won the ACC title for the first time in eight years but fell in the NCAA tournament’s third round. In 2013, however, the ‘Hoos advanced to the College Cup before losing to eventual champion UCLA in the NCAA semifinals. Last year, Virginia reached the NCAA title game for the first time.

“From my first year to now,” Doniak said, “I think the culture has changed tremendously. I’d say the last two years have been really growing years for the soccer program. I think now we’ve reached a level where we don’t want to go back to anything less.

“There’s more accountability. The standards are higher. Steve, I feel, holds us to a higher standard. And now that we’ve reached this level, not only of play, but how the team interacts with each other and the leaders and really every aspect of the program, we don’t want to go away from that.”

Having a stable coaching staff has helped. Swanson, associate head coach Ron Raab and assistant coach Kerry Dziczkaniec have worked together at UVa for nearly a decade, and volunteer assistant Jaime Frias is in his fifth year on the staff.

“I can’t imagine going through the turnover that some programs have, not just in our sport, but in other sports,” Swanson said. “It makes it hard. And I would even add our athletic trainer. [Bill Parente] has been with us for a long time, and I’m not kidding, that makes a big difference in terms of treating and monitoring injuries that have come up over the course of time.”

“Certainly the continuity has made a big difference. We’re very committed to the culture that we have. We’re very committed to the style of play we have, and we’re all committed to the players too.

“I just feel like we’re a staff that’s together in everything we do. It’s not like I’m the head coach and dictate everything. We’re all part of it. I’m sort of leading it, but really we’re all part of it.”

On the field, the Cavaliers’ leaders include captains Sonnett and Doniak, both of whom have played for the United States under-23 national team.

A senior from Marietta, Ga., Sonnett has started 68 games during her UVa career and ranks among the nation’s premier defenders.

Doniak, who’s from Chino Hills, Calif., also has started 68 games as a Cavalier. She ranks second all-time at UVa in career goals (50) and is tied for second with Brian in career points (125).

In the two exhibitions this month, Doniak totaled four goals.

“Mak’s really elevated her game,” Swanson said. “She’s scored 20 goals [in each of the] last two years, and yet she’s fitter than she’s ever been. She’s worked on her game, and I think she’s ready to attack this season like no other.”

Doniak said she’s never trained harder than she did this summer.

“I was here pretty much all summer, and so I had all the facilities available to me, so that’s definitely easier,” she said. “I did the whole lifting program. I pretty much just went to school and then ran or lifted or went out on the field by myself and did individual stuff. I definitely worked really hard.”

And now, a little more than three years after she arrived at UVa in the summer of 2012, Doniak is about to start her final college season. Where did the time go?

Doniak smiled. “It’s such a cliched statement to say these four years go by so fast, but they really do,” she said.

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