By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — She played her first official game at Klöckner Stadium on Aug. 17, 2012, and scored her first goal as a Virginia Cavalier that night.
“I definitely remember it,” senior forward Makenzy Doniak said Sunday afternoon at Klöckner. “I do. It was a long time ago, but I also wish I was back there starting all over.”
In that position — at the start of their college careers — are Betsy Brandon and the rest of the UVa women’s soccer team’s first-year class. The freshmen made their Virginia debuts Sunday in front of a crowd of 1,956, led by Brandon, who came off the bench to play 52 minutes as a holding midfielder.
“Very exciting,” Brandon of the experience.
Brandon, who’s from Littleton, Colo., has represented the United States at the Under-14, U15, U17 and U18 levels, so it was no surprise to see her play a significant role Sunday.
“She handles pressure really well. There’s a lot of things that she does that go unnoticed in a game. [As a holding midfielder] she has more defensive responsibilities, but she’s really important to our attack and distribution. She’s a ball winner and distributor, and she does both of those really well. She reads the game very well.”
The second-ranked Cavaliers returned a talented group of veterans from the team that in 2014 lost to Florida State in the NCAA championship game, and Swanson started no freshmen against UNCW (0-2). By game’s end, however, eight first-years had played: Brandon, Courtney Petersen (41 minutes), Hana Kerner (35), Montana Sutton (24), Lorato Sargeant (23), Brianna Westrup (15), Ayan Adu (12) and Christiana Sullivan (12).
“I think we all know that as we go through the season, it’s going to be tougher in a lot of ways,” Swanson said. “And so it’s hard, but you want them to get educated real fast about the speed of play at this level, the organization defensively you need to have, the intensity that you need to play with competitively. And also just how important set plays and little things, the details, are.
“I think they’ve done a really good job so far, but trying to expedite that process and speed that learning curve up is going to be something that we’ll have to take this next two or three weeks to continue to do.”
For the first-years, Doniak said, it’s important to try to absorb everything they can in practices, “just to get that in the back of their heads, so when they go out in a game, they’re ready. I think they’ve done a great job so far.”
The freshmen make up more than 40 percent of the roster, and the class will have to make a significant impact if the Wahoos are to reach the College Cup for the third straight season.
Brandon is confident the freshmen will deliver.
“I think that everyone has something different to offer,” Brandon said. “[The team’s] motto is `All In,’ and I think everyone’s really bought into that. There are a couple [of freshmen] that are redshirting, and I think that they understand that they have just as big of a role as everyone else.
“But I think it’s definitely important for us to always be listening. Even if you don’t start, be listening. And then if you get the opportunity to play, just go in and execute to the best of your ability.”
The freshmen would be wise to follow the example of Doniak, who’s on track to become UVa’s all-time leading scorer. She needed only 79 seconds Sunday to score her 51st goal as a Cavalier, and Doniak added a career-high three assists in her 60 minutes against the overmatched Seahawks.
“She’s just hard to handle no matter what,” Swanson said. “I think if you mark her, it should open up more space for [the other Cavaliers], but with a zonal defense, if she can find some room — and she did out on the flank a few times — [she can] create off the dribble.
“It’s not always going to be that way, but today it was good for her to find the spaces that she did, and to get on the assist end of things is good for her as well.”
Junior defender Meghan Cox, who began her college career at JMU, led the `Hoos (1-0) with a career-best three goals, and junior midfielder Alexis Shaffer and junior forward Morgan Reuther contributed a goal and an assist apiece.
“We had a game plan from the beginning, get the ball to our feet and go wide with it, and I think we did well with that,” Doniak said. “We’ll take a lot away from this game, and the next week in practice is going to be good for us to keep moving forward.”
UVa returns to Klöckner at 7 p.m. Friday to face Cal Poly (0-0-2), the preseason pick to win the Big West Conference, and that game is likely to draw another festive crowd. Brandon, who’s accustomed to playing in sparsely attended club games, marveled at the scene around her Sunday.
“This is an extremely cool environment to be in,” she said. “It was so cool, to have so many supporters, and just seeing people from Charlottesville coming in and supporting us. Especially little girls. It’s cool to see them come out.”
For the fans, it will be cool to watch the freshmen develop. This is a talented class, Swanson said, “and one thing that I’m really pleased with right now is how well they’ve integrated with the team. They fit not only on the field, but they fit off the field too, into our culture, and they deserve a lot of credit for that.
“They haven’t been here a long time, but I think they’ve fit in really, really well, and I think the returners have done a great job of integrating them and welcoming them. I think as the season wears on, they’ll get better and better and they’ll impact more and more.”