By Jeff White (email@example.com)
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Dusk was falling over Klöckner Stadium by the time the University of Virginia women’s soccer team emerged from the locker room Friday. The Cavaliers’ mood was no brighter.
For Virginia, which entered the 64-team NCAA tournament as one of the four No. 1 seeds, a sensational season ended on a heartbreaking note. On the brink of a third straight trip to the College Cup, UVA fell to Rutgers in a nine-round penalty-kick shootout after the teams played 110 scoreless minutes.
The Wahoos, who led 2-0 after the first two rounds of the shootout, ended up losing 7-6, to the dismay of the home fans in the crowd of 2,789. Virginia closed the season with a 19-1-3 record.
“I think for us to be as gutted as we are now, and to be as devastated as we are, shows you how far the program’s come,” Virginia head coach Steve Swanson said, “that we can lose a quarterfinal on penalty kicks and not be satisfied whatsoever.”
Virginia entered the game averaging 3.3 goals. “They’ve scored more goals than I can even count,” the Cavaliers’ starting goalkeeper, junior Morgan Stearns, said of her teammates.
On Friday, though, the `Hoos found themselves matched against an opponent that had posted 18 shutouts and allowed only eight goals all season.
“They’ve been very difficult to break down all year,” Swanson said of the Scarlet Knights (19-3-3), who were in the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time. “We knew this would be the kind of game that would transpire today.”
Indeed, Rutgers’ defense proved every bit as stout as advertised. The `Hoos, who ousted the Scarlet Knights 3-0 in the NCAA tournament’s second round last season, dominated possession Friday, to no avail.
Not until the 29th minute did the Cavaliers get off a shot.
“They did a very good job of being organized,” Virginia junior Tina Iordanou said of the Scarlet Knights. “We tried our best to kind of move the ball and get in there when we could and make opportunities when we could. But at this point of the season, you’re putting everything on the line. There’s only going to be so many opportunities that come your way in an Elite Eight game. We had to finish, and we didn’t.”
The Cavaliers totaled 12 shots, to six for No. 2 seed Rutgers, but only two were on goal. To Swanson, his team’s offensive struggles were the story of the game, not the shootout. Rutgers sophomore Casey Murphy, the Big Ten goalkeeper of the year, didn’t have to make a save until the 66th minute.
“I didn’t think we moved the ball as well as we should have and could have,” Swanson said, “and I don’t think we moved it as quickly as we needed to get them out of position. But credit them. I thought they battled very hard. They didn’t give us a lot of good looks, and they got it into a penalty-kick situation where, for all practical purposes, anything can happen there, and it did.”
In the ACC championship game Nov. 8 in Cary, N.C. — also the site, coincidentally, of next weekend’s College Cup — Virginia and Florida State were tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. That was still the score after two 10-minute overtimes, and the game went to a shootout that the Seminoles won 7-6.
In that match, Stearns was the Cavaliers’ keeper during the shootout. Against Rutgers, Swanson inserted Jessie Ferrari, and the redshirt junior from Fairfax stopped the Scarlet Knights’ first two penalty kicks.
Junior Alexis Shaffer and freshman Ayan Adu, meanwhile, converted their PKs to give Virginia a seemingly commanding 2-0 lead.
“That makes it doubly difficult,” Swanson said of the shootout loss. “But we had 110 minutes to break [Rutgers] down, and we weren’t as sharp as we normally are, and that’s on us. We all have to share that load. We all have to share that burden. You just can’t look at it like somebody missed a PK or somebody didn’t do something in the PKs. We never looked at it that way.
“To me, you gotta look at the 110 minutes we did have, and you gotta say we didn’t do enough in that time, and you gotta credit Rutgers for that.”
In the third round, Murphy made her kick, then saved Kristen McNabb’s attempt. That cut Virginia’s lead to 2-1. Both teams scored in the next round — Emily Sonnett converted for UVA — and so it was 3-2 heading into what could have been the final round.
After Rachel Cole scored to pull Rutgers to 3-3, senior forward Makenzy Doniak stepped up with an opportunity to send the Cavaliers, last year’s NCAA runner-ups, back to the College Cup. Murphy broke the wrong way, and UVA’s all-time leading scorer had an almost empty net in front of her. But Doniak’s shot hit the crossbar and bounced away, and so the shootout continued.
“To even get to PKs, it’s an unfortunate situation,” said Doniak, who ended her college career with 64 goals. “You go through a whole [110 minutes] of playing soccer, and you have to decide it through penalty kicks. You can either be on the winning side of that or the losing side. It can go either way on any given day.”
On this day, it went the Scarlet Knights’ way. Given a reprieve, they put the pressure on Virginia, making their kicks in Rounds 6, 7, 8 and 9.
For UVA, freshman Brianna Westrup, senior Kaili Torres and freshman Montana Sutton (who had not played in the game) answered to keep the shootout deadlocked. But with Rutgers leading 7-6, Murphy dived to her right to save Iordanou’s kick, and suddenly, stunningly, the Cavaliers’ season was over.
“It’s unfortunate,” Iordanou said. “I don’t think I put enough pace on the ball, and [Murphy] made a good run on it.”
Swanson said: “We felt pretty confident after Jessie made the first two saves, but it was not meant to be. These are the way things go sometimes. We put ourselves in a position to win the penalty-kick contest, and we lost it. That’s something we’ll have to deal with.”
As Rutgers’ players celebrated nearby, Iordanou dropped to her knees in the penalty box. Stearns rushed over to console her, a gesture for which Iordanou was grateful.
“Players come out and they pick you up and try to make you feel better,” said Iordanou, who began her college career at Vanderbilt. “I think it’s just something that has been amazing to me since I’ve been here at Virginia. We all love each other so much, and that’s something I think I’ll cherish the most after my career is done here.”
The UVA careers of several players, including Doniak, Sonnett, Torres and Brittany Ratcliffe, ended Friday, and the result took an emotional toll on them. It was difficult for their teammates and coaches, too, and not only because the Cavaliers would not be returning to the College Cup.
“I think much of the reason why it hurts so much now is because of what we established off the field and the relationships that are made,” Swanson said. “I would say that’s true with every team that we’ve had here, but especially with this group. They’re just a fantastic group off the field.
“It’s hard, because we’re not going to be doing what we love to do together [any more]. That makes it difficult. But as much as I’ll remember them for all they’ve done on the field, I think these fourth- and fifth-year [seniors], they’re just a class act off the field. They do all the things you’d want student-athletes to do, and they just do it with a lot of class and a lot of style. And if our society’s going to be in the hands of these kind of people, we’re in good shape down the road.”
Doniak said: “I’m very blessed to have been able to come here, and I couldn’t have asked for a better four years, or a better group of girls throughout those four years, especially this last year. Being a senior, I really tried to take it all in and tried to make the most of it. I think my senior class can agree, we did that, and we had a great four years.”