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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE– In 2015, as a freshman on the University of Virginia women’s soccer team, Betsy Brandon averaged 71.8 minutes per game. She averaged 59.5 minutes in 2016 and 67.2 last season.
This season? She’s averaging 46.1 minutes, and not because her skills have diminished.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice within this team,” head coach Steve Swanson said.
At 8 p.m. Friday, third-seeded Virginia (15-3) meets seventh-seeded Florida State (13-4-2) in the ACC semifinals at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. This is Swanson’s 19th season at UVA, where his record is 297-90-44. 
One of the hallmarks of his latest team is its tremendous depth.
“I think we don’t have just 11 starters,” Swanson said. “We have more than that, and we’re trying to use them in a way that’s going to give us the best chance of being strong over 90 minutes.”
Eighteen Cavaliers have played at least 500 minutes each this season. Only five of them – goalkeeper Laurel Ivory, Phoebe McClernon, Zoe Morse, Alexa Spaanstra and Sydney Zandi – have played as many as 1,000 minutes.
“We’re spreading our minutes around,” Swanson said, “and now, in the postseason, we’re in a pretty good position, because you don’t have 10 players with 2,000 or more minutes.”
Brandon started 22 games in 2015, 22 in 2016, and 18 last season. She’s started nine this fall. 
It’s been an incredibly interesting experience, I think, for every single person on this team, because I think no matter what you want to be on the field,” said Brandon, who’s fourth on the team in goals, with five.
“It feels weird, because you think that you’re talented, you’re going to start, and you’re going to play a lot. But when you are dealing with a team that has so much talent, it’s a hard balance. It’s hard to find that middle ground, and so it’s been a really unique year in the fact that we’re all very close, too, off the field and on the field.
“You have to embrace whatever is given to you. That’s not always easy, and it’s specifically not easy when you have hopes and expectations for a season, and I think every single person has had to deal with that.”
Spaanstra, a freshman, leads the Wahoos with 20 points, on seven goals and six assists. With 16 points (eight goals), junior Meghen McCool is next, followed by freshman Rebecca Jarrett, who has 14 points (six goals, two assists).
Jarrett is from Washington Township, N.J. In club soccer, she said, “I was the captain of my team, so I was very used to playing the whole game and being kind of like the central feature of the team. But I was in no way expecting that when I came here.”
At UVA, she’s averaging 43.5 minutes per game.
“Most of the girls that come to a school like this were the best on their teams and the captain of their teams, too, but you can’t have 27 captains and 27 starters,” Jarrett said. “So it is a bit of an adjustment, and it’s a little bit different than most of the girls are used to, but it’s also a really good program to be a part of.”
If the Cavaliers win Friday night, they’ll play for the ACC championship Sunday night. In the NCAA tournament, a team that reaches the title game will have to deal with two Friday-Sunday turnarounds.
“Our sport is unique in that it’s not meant to be played so many times all in one week,” Swanson said, “and then when you add the cumulative effect of that, it’s really challenging.
“So depth is really important. It’s something that every year is a little different. We’ve always had good depth on our team, but we haven’t been this deep. We can put two good lineups out there and still not lose anything.
“What’s hard for me this year is I feel like there’s some really good players that aren’t seeing as much time [as in years past].”
Swanson made clear before the season, Brandon said, that he planned to use a lot of players.
“It’s really great that we have so many talented players that this is our ‘problem,’ ” Brandon said. 
“In sports you can get it done in a number of ways, and this is just the way we’re going to be most successful. It takes selflessness. Selflessness is one of the things we’ve talked about and how you truly have to be able to give whatever the team needs.
“In the past three years, I have played a significant amount, but my talent can be used in certain games better than in other games. That doesn’t make it any less hard to not be able to play, because any competitive athlete is going to want to be on the field. But it’s good to know that if I’m having a bad day or a starter’s having a bad day, you can sub someone in. And that’s what a team is: picking up the slack when someone can’t perform.
“There’s no division [on the team]. It’s a very close group of people, and that drama has not been present, which is also a huge thing.”
Swanson’s rotation policy means players can “put a 90-minute effort into 45 minutes,” Brandon said. “You can clearly put more work into those minutes. And so when you have quite a few subs come in and they have fresh legs, that makes a huge difference when it comes to bringing that energy.”
Jarrett said: “Starting doesn’t mean you’re going to play the full 90 minutes. So when you go in, you can just run your heart out, especially knowing that the girls on the bench are just as capable. You can really sacrifice yourself and know that if you need to come out, you can, and the person who’s going to go in for you is not going to change the standard of the game. It’s a good system.”
Swanson said he goes into a game with a plan for when to make substitutions. The goal, he said, is for the Cavaliers’ caliber of play to stay consistent, no matter which players are on the field or when.  
“I know that everybody does want to start,” Swanson said. “But our decisions are made on getting the best relationships on the field that mesh together.
“It’s tough, but you have to look at what’s best for the team and what’s going to give you the best position of strength, if you’re looking at the prospect of maybe playing two games in three days. I think as a staff we’ve looked at that, and we also have looked at our team. We feel like we’ve got a lot of strong players, so we’re going to play them.”
Peter Alston, the strength and conditioning coach for men’s and women’s soccer at UVA, closely monitors the workloads of players.
“We use the science to help us make decisions [on personnel],” Swanson said. “It’s not the only thing that we use, but it certainly can help. I think we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve got somebody like Peter. He’s out on the field with us, and he’s been a big asset for us in terms of injury prevention and things like that.”
Another trademark of this team is its offensive balance. Eleven UVA players have at least two goals apiece. Twelve players have at least two assists each.
“We’ve had years where we’ve had somebody that’s really stood out as a goal-scorer,” Swanson said, “but I think our M.O. as a team is that we want everybody to have the capability to score. I think the way we attack is predicated on that. We don’t want to [allow opponents to say], ‘Here’s the one goal-scorer: Shut her down, and that’s it.’
“Our whole attacking principles are based on getting multiple options and having multiple ways to score. I think that’s been of value.”