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By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – A look at the record book for University of Virginia women’s soccer shows that Morgan Stearns is the program’s all-time leader in career victories (69) and single-season wins (22) by a goalkeeper.
Stearns, who now works for the Virginia Athletics Foundation, knows her records are unlikely to last forever. She won’t be surprised, in fact, if Laurel Ivory, her successor as UVA’s starting keeper, breaks them.
“I told a couple of people, ‘It was nice to get those, but I don’t think I’m going to hang onto them for too much longer,’ ” Stearns said, laughing. “[The Cavaliers’ coaches] did a great job of bringing somebody in to really challenge those.”
Stearns’ final season at UVA ended in November 2016. Back then, Ivory was a junior at Miami Country Day School in Florida who planned to enroll at Virginia this summer. But when the opportunity arose for her to start college a year early, Ivory broached the possibility with her guidance counselor.
“He understood my whole situation, and he was like, ‘Well, it’s possible,’ ” Ivory recalled. “I said, ‘OK, what do you mean by possible? He said, ‘It’s not going to be fun, but it’s possible that you could do it.’ “
Ivory accepted the challenge. She shouldered a massive academic load for the 2017 spring semester, taking classes online as well as at school, all while juggling her obligations with the United States Under-20 national team.
Her efforts paid off. She started classes at UVA last summer.
“It was very stressful,” Ivory said, “but I knew at the end of the day it was the best decision for me.
“There were definitely moments where I would see my friends and want to be with them and experience a senior year, because that is probably the best year of high school. But the people that I met here, and the way I’ve developed as a soccer player with this coaching staff, made it all worth it.”
Stearns’ graduation left the Wahoos thin at goalkeeper heading into the 2017 season, and Ivory helped fill that void, head coach Steve Swanson said. He’s not usually a proponent of early enrollment, but “you felt like Laurel was a student-athlete that could handle it on every end,” he said.
“She was mature enough to deal with it and handle it on that end. She was a good-enough soccer player to handle it on that end, and academically she was strong enough to handle all those transitions.”
Ivory was only 17 when she arrived at the University last summer, but she immediately proved herself on the pitch. She started every game for a team that finished 13-6-4 after advancing to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. Ivory posted nine shutouts and did not allow more than two goals in any match.
“She didn’t seem like a first-year last year,” Swanson said. “She fit right in, and I give her a lot of credit, because she should have been a senior in high school.”
Ivory, who turned 19 this week, said she plans to carry a double major: Women, Gender & Sexuality and either psychology or media studies.
“She’s a very mature person,” Swanson said, “and I think that reflects her experiences so far in her life and the travels that she’s had and what she’s seen and how she’s grown. I give her parents a lot of credit. I think they’ve raised her extremely well. For as talented as she is, she’s humble.”
As a keeper, Ivory has extensive international experience, “and that’s obviously aided her transition to the college game,” Swanson said.
In 2016, Ivory started in goal for the United States at the U17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. She moved to the U20 national team in 2017.
This summer, she was one of four Cavaliers, along with junior Zoe Morse, sophomore Taryn Torres and freshman Alexa Spaanstra, to represent the U.S. at the U20 Women’s World Cup in France.
“Zoe and I are really, really close,” Ivory said. “She’s one of my best friends. We live together now. I lived with Taryn all last year, and I went to the Under-17 World Cup with Alexa. I have kind of a personal relationship with all three of them, which is really cool, because we were traveling and pretty much with each other 24/7 … So it was really nice to share that with them.”
In group play, the US. went 1-1-1, losing 1-0 to Japan, beating Paraguay 6-0, and drawing Spain 2-2. The first two matches were played in Concarneau, the third in Dinah-Lehon. The U.S. needed to defeat Spain to advance to the quarterfinals.
“We have a lot to learn from it, all of us, going back to our college teams,” Ivory said, “and hopefully what I learned there [can be applied at UVA].”
Ivory, who lost her starting spot on the U.S. team early in the year, won it back before the World Cup. She started all three games in France.
“I think it was really good for Laurel psychologically and mentally to have the mentality to come back and start the three games in the World Cup they played,” Swanson said.
Ivory sat out Virginia’s opener after returning from France, but she’s started every game since then. She hasn’t allowed a goal for sixth-ranked UVA (4-0), which hosts Hofstra (2-1) at 2 p.m. Sunday at Klöckner Stadium.
She played well as a freshman, Swanson said, but Ivory at a different level this year.
“She’s just in a much better place,” he said, “and I think it has to do with a combination of playing at the college soccer level last year, and also playing at the Under-20 level. Those things have really helped her.”
Playing with and against talented “20-, 21- and 22-year-olds” was a new experience for her last year, Ivory said, and she had to adjust to the physicality of the college game.
“But I was way more nervous before I got here than when I did get here, because everyone was just so welcoming,” Ivory said. “I think because everyone had a really good understanding of what I had gone through and that I did give up a year [of high school], the welcoming that I received when I got here and the inclusivity of this team was unbelievable.”
Former players such as Stearns were equally hospitable.
Ivory is “really, really an incredible kid,” Stearns said. “She is so mature, so hard-working, so kind and above all else so fun.”
In the offseason, Stearns and Ivory trained together, and they talk regularly after Virginia games.
“Just to hear what she has to say about [her UVA career] and the success of their team and what led to that success, it’s awesome,” Ivory said. “She just welcomed me in with open arms. I know the records she’s broken here, and she drives me to break her records, which is something that’s really, really cool.”
Stearns said: “I think for anybody who’s ever played for our program, that’s what we want. We want to come in and do the best that we can while we’re here, and push it forward so that the people who come after us are even better, and it keeps moving forward and we continue to work toward that ultimate goal of winning a national championship and then competing for it every single year.”