By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The NCAA crowned a new champion in women’s soccer on Dec. 6 when Penn State edged Duke 1-0 for the title in Cary, N.C.
Penn State entered the 64-team tournament as one of four No. 1 seeds. Another was Virginia, whose head coach, Steve Swanson, knows his team very well could have been the last one standing at WakeMed Soccer Park.
In the NCAA quarterfinals, though, UVA fell to Rutgers in a penalty-kick shootout at Klöckner Stadium, a stunning end to a sensational season.
“As a coach, you live with your wins and your losses all your life,” Swanson said. “That’s just the way it is. We can’t say we didn’t have every opportunity. We did a great job during the regular season to put ourselves in a position to get a 1 seed. We were at home. We had a great crowd, and unfortunately we just didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. We have to take responsibility for that.
“The only thing you can do is try your best. I know our players and everybody tried as hard as we could. It just didn’t happen for us in that last game.”
Through 110 scoreless minutes, Virginia (19-1-3) dominated possession, outshooting the second-seeded Scarlet Knights 12-6. In the shootout, the Wahoos took a 2-0 lead and later had an opportunity to secure the victory. But the `Hoos, on the brink of a third consecutive trip to the College Cup, stumbled, and Rutgers advanced.
“I felt very bad for our fans, because we had such a good crowd, and you wanted to make it all happen, because you felt you could,” Swanson said. “But that’s kind of the beauty of our game and the difficulty of our game, you know? You have to live with that.”
And so the Cavaliers, NCAA runners-up in 2014, have shifted their focus to 2016, when they figure to again rank among the nation’s elite.
“I think we have the potential to be a great team again,” said Swanson, whose record in 16 seasons at Virginia is 254-76-38. “I think we just have to get back to the drawing board, and everybody’s got to try to individually get better. I’m excited about that.”
At the end of the 2014 season, the Cavaliers bid good-bye to All-America midfielders Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico, both of whom now play for the United States national team. UVA’s departing seniors this season include forward Makenzy Doniak, defender Emily Sonnett and midfielders Brittany Ratcliffe and Kaili Torres.
Doniak and Sonnett are All-Americans who were honored last month as the ACC’s offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively. Ratcliffe was named to the All-ACC third team. Doniak will graduate this month as the Cavaliers’ all-time leading scorer, and Sonnett already is a member of the U.S. national team.
“We certainly have lost some good players, some excellent players,” Swanson said, “but the fact is, I can go back almost 10 years, and we’ve lost great players almost every year.
“I think the mark of a great program is one that can stay consistent year after year, no matter who they lose. I think that’s our challenge now. We’ve got some good pieces. The nucleus is there, but we’re going to have to work very hard, and hopefully we’re going to carry the feeling we had about the last game with us and into every training session that we have.”
Once the new semester begins at the University next month, that training will officially begin. The Cavaliers’ spring schedule has not been finalized, but they’ll play five exhibitions in all.
“I think the first thing is, as I told the team, it’s not an easy thing we’re doing,” Swanson said. “We invested a lot emotionally for 11 months and physically for 11 months to get to where we are. It didn’t happen for us, and now we have to look at it and see if we can emotionally get going again. Can we put the effort that’s needed to get better into the offseason?
“I know one thing: If we don’t, we’re not going to get even close to where we want to get.”
As painful as the loss to Rutgers might have been, Swanson said, “I think it needs to be a beginning for next year. I think that’s got to be the mentality, and the focus with which we go into this new year is really important for the players coming back.”
Eight of the Cavaliers’ top 11 scorers from this season will return: juniors Alexis Shaffer (36 points) and Morgan Reuther (20), sophomore Veronica Latsko (18), junior Meghan Cox (15), redshirt junior Kristen McNabb (11), freshmen Courtney Petersen (9) and Betsy Brandon (8), and junior Tina Iordanou (6), as well as junior Morgan Stearns, a three-year starter at goalkeeper. Also back will be sophomore Megan Reid, who started seven games this season.
Shaffer, a second-team All-ACC selection, scored 14 goals, a total matched only by Doniak (14) at Virginia this season. Reuther was third on the team with nine goals despite missing the final four games with an injury.
Reuther’s presence would have bolstered the Cavaliers’ attack during the NCAA tournament.
Still, Swanson said, “I think our team was built to withstand and fight through injuries. We had some depth. I never want to use that as an excuse. I don’t think it was the reason we didn’t get to where we wanted to be. I think we have to look at our performance [against Rutgers], and our performance I don’t think was as sharp as it needed to be on the day, for the 110 minutes we played.”
Petersen and Brandon were named to the ACC’s all-freshman team, and they’re part of a talented first-year class at Virginia that also includes Christiana Sullivan, Ayan Adu, Brianna Westrup, Hana Kerner, Montana Sutton and Lorato Sargeant, all of whom played this season.
Swanson redshirted four other freshmen — Mia Hoen-Beck, Jasmine Wright, Alex Connell and Morgan Beans — and hopes Sargeant will receive a hardship waiver that would grant her another year of eligibility. Sargeant played in only six games before an injury ended her season.
“So it was quite a large group [of newcomers],” said Swanson, who’s an assistant coach on the U.S. women’s national team, “and we had some tremendous contributions from the first-years.
“If those players continue to work hard, they’re going to get better, and they’ll be in a better situation and a better position next year to impact the team even more. And then hopefully this group that redshirted, they’ll be in a position to really impact the team after a year of getting experience about what college soccer is all about.”
The signing period for soccer opens in February, and Swanson is not allowed to publicly comment on Virginia’s incoming recruits until then. It’s a strong class, though, and several of its members are likely to contribute next fall.
“I think there’s a lot to look forward to [in 2016],” Swanson said. “We’ll have a pretty young group overall. Even though we’ve got some good experience in some positions, the bulk of the team will be made up of first- and second-years. So just getting them on board and getting them acclimated is going to be biggest thing.”
He’s eager for the progress to begin.
“I think to me the rewarding thing about coaching is just working with the players day in and day out,” Swanson said. “I’m already excited for that in January.”