By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Six months after coming agonizingly close to winning an NCAA title with the University of Virginia women’s soccer team, Alexis Shaffer spent two weeks in Omaha, Neb., watching as another championship was decided.
Shaffer flew to Omaha to see her boyfriend, Josh Sborz, pitch for UVa’s baseball team in the College World Series, and the experience was one she’ll never forget. The Cavaliers, NCAA runner-ups in 2014, were crowned champions on June 24, and Sborz was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“It was just the most amazing feeling to be there to support them and be in a UVa environment, with everyone chanting and everyone excited for the win,” recalled Shaffer, a junior midfielder. “So seeing that, how they felt, it just makes me want that even more.”
Upon learning she played soccer, Shaffer said, people in Omaha who weren’t familiar with the team would ask her how 2014 had gone for Virginia. It was the best season in program history, but it ended on a painful note.
UVa surrendered a late goal to ACC nemesis Florida State in the NCAA title game and lost 1-0 in Boca Raton, Fla.
“So it was a constant reminder, because a lot of people tended to ask that question,” Shaffer said. “I feel like this year we’re all super hungry and ready and determined to finally finish the goal.”
That’s been evident in UVa’s play this season. Heading into its Thursday night showdown with sixth-ranked Notre Dame at Klöckner Stadium, Virginia is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 nationally. The Wahoos (7-0-1 overall, 1-0-0 ACC) host the Fighting Irish (7-1-1, 0-1-0) at 7 o’clock.
The Cavaliers are coming off a 5-0 win over ACC foe Syracuse at Klöckner.
“I’m super excited to play Notre Dame,” said Shaffer, who scored an unassisted goal against the Orange. “I think that we played very well against Syracuse, and that was the first game attacking-wise we played well, and we finished most of the chances that we had. So I think overall that game really helped us and set us up to play Notre Dame.”
Virginia soccer scarves will be given away to fans Thursday night at Klöckner. Another attraction: Former UVa greats Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico will sign autographs from 6 to 7 p.m. at the stadium and then be honored at halftime.
“It’s definitely really cool to have them back, because I’m playing in the position they played in the past four years,” Shaffer said. “Having them watch the game, I think they can help me a lot, because they’re very experienced and very good players, very technical, so they can give me advice.”
A media studies major, Shaffer came to UVa in 2013 after graduating from Green Hope High School. As a freshman, she started one game and scored 15 points, on three goals and nine assists, for a team that finished 24-1-1 after being ousted in a College Cup semifinal in her hometown of Cary, N.C.
The 5-7 Shaffer’s role grew last season. In a midfield that featured All-Americans Brian and Colaprico, she started 18 games and totaled 19 points, on seven goals and five assists. The contributions of her more celebrated teammates, though, often overshadowed those of Shaffer.
“In fairness to her, she came in and she was playing in this midfield that included Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico, and I think that’s been tough for her,” head coach Steve Swanson said, “because you look at her and instead of seeing the qualities she does possess, some people would say, ‘Well, she’s not like Morgan Brian in this regard,’ or, ‘She’s not like Danny in this regard.’
“But I look at that as a positive for her. What a great environment in order to grow as a player. You can learn from those two. And credit to Alexis. She’s done a good job processing that information and putting it into her game.”
Eight games into her third college season, Shaffer leads the ‘Hoos with 12 points, on four goals and four assists.
“I think it has been a natural progression, but my confidence has grown a lot over the past two years, and I think I’ve just become more comfortable playing with the girls around me,” Shaffer said.
Swanson said: “There’s a different player this year. There’s a much more confident player, and there’s a much more creative player there. I think her game is coming out more, and she’s got a lot of qualities that make her pretty special. She’s very good with the ball at her feet. She can create. She can shoot with both feet, and she’s got power, and she’s explosive.
“From the attacking end, she’s always had those qualities. But I think the biggest part of her game that’s picked up for us is her defensive presence.”
On a team with legitimate NCAA title aspirations, it’s not enough for Shaffer to be an elite offensive player.
“She’s got to do both,” Swanson said. “She’s got to be a box-to-box player for us, and I think that was a little bit eye-opening when she first got to college: ‘Hey, you’ve got responsibilities. We can’t afford to have one person out of 11 not be in touch and be in tune with the defending piece.’
“I don’t think it’s that she’s lazy or anything like that. I think it’s more that she’s just gotta be focused on it and she’s gotta understand that role and make sure that those habits are ingrained. And I think that’s what we’re seeing a little bit more from her as a junior.”
Shaffer has basketball is in her blood. Her grandfather, Lee Shaffer, was the ACC player of the year for North Carolina in 1959-60 and played in the NBA for three seasons. Her father, David Shaffer, starred at Clemson and Florida State and was a fourth-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1986.
Yet Alexis, like her sister, Ashley, gravitated not to the basketball court but to the soccer field.
Ashley, who’s two years older than Alexis, starred for Green Hope High before playing at Georgetown University, from which she graduated last spring. Alexis was named North Carolina’s Gatorade player of the year in both 2012 and ’13 and as a senior led Green Hope to the Class 4A state title.
Shaffer’s dream is to play for the United States national team, for which Brian has become a fixture, and U.S. Soccer is well aware of her progress. Shaffer, like two other standouts on this year UVa team, senior forward Makenzy Doniak and senior defender Emily Sonnett, has represented the U.S. at the under-23 level.
In May, Shaffer played for the United States U23 team that won the Four Nations tournament in Norway, where the Americans defeated England and Sweden and tied Norway.
“It was an incredible experience,” recalled Shaffer, who turned 21 this month. “Growing up I played with the U18s a lot, and then when the U20 cycle came around I wasn’t really present in that cycle. So when I got the invite last year to the U23 camp in Florida, that was just very big.
“I definitely think it gave me a lot of confidence. I’ve been working very, very hard the past two years in order to get picked and invited there.”
Swanson said Shaffer’s upside is higher than that of many of her peers.
“Everybody’s evolution is different,” said Swanson, an assistant coach on the U.S. team that won the Women’s World Cup this summer. “For others, they may be the best player at the under-16 level, but they’re not going to go any farther than that level. They’ve peaked.
“With Alexis, as long as she keeps working at it and as long as she keeps focused on her development, she’s going to continue to get better and better. She’s done a great job. I feel a little bit bad for her because I feel like every time we’re like, ‘Hey, you did this really well ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬” but you gotta work on this, but you gotta improve that.’
“But I think coming from a family of athletes, she understands that and she appreciates that, and she knows that the biggest thing that we’re trying to do is help her get better and reach her potential. That’s part of our job, to help her develop.”
Not long after Shaffer was born in Charlotte, N.C., the family relocated to Orlando, Fla. The Shaffers moved to Cary when Alexis was 6, and she’s played many times at the town’s WakeMed Soccer Park.
In 2013, Cary hosted the women’s College Cup, and Shaffer savored her homecoming.
“Coming into college everything was new to me, and it was all a big change,” she said. “So going back home for the College Cup, it was very special to me, because I felt comfortable there.”
The women’s College Cup is back in Cary this season at WakeMed Soccer Park, and that’s where the ‘Hoos intend to end their season.
To help the Cavaliers win their first NCAA women’s soccer title anywhere would be an unbelievable thrill for Shaffer. To do so in her hometown, she said, would “be the most amazing feeling. All of my friends and my family would be there to support me with my teammates. It would just be the most incredible experience.”