By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – When Virginia’s opening game in the NCAA women’s soccer tournament ended on a cold, raw night at Klöckner Stadium, the dejection on the faces of Monmouth’s players struck Alexa Spaanstra.
The Hawks’ 2-0 loss to UVA dropped the curtain on their season. For Monmouth’s seniors, their college careers were finished, too.
“Just seeing their reaction, it really kind of hit me,” said Spaanstra, a freshman forward who has 24 points (nine goals and six assists) this season, by far the most of any Virginia player.
The Cavaliers, one of the four No. 3 seeds in the NCAA tournament, have reached the point of the season where any game could be their last.
“So we want to take that into account and translate that into our next game and make sure we won’t have to feel that disappointment any time soon,” Spaanstra said.
In the tournament’s round of 32, UVA (16-4) meets Texas Tech (14-5-2) on Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern in Waco, Texas. The winner advances to take on second-seeded Baylor (18-5) or Vanderbilt (16-3-1) in Waco in the Sweet Sixteen on Sunday.
If Spaanstra was nervous about playing in her first NCAA tourney, it wasn’t apparent last Friday night. She scored both goals against Monmouth. She’s had at least one goal in six of Virginia’s past 10 matches.
“The neat thing about her is her trajectory over the course of the season,” head coach Steve Swanson said. “She’s kept getting better and better and better. She certainly doesn’t play like a first-year.”
Spaanstra, who enrolled at UVA in January, is a 5-5 forward from Brighton, Mich. She’s the latest in a long line of players from the Wolverine State to excel at UVA for Swanson, a Michigan State graduate.
Others have included current Virginia players Zoe Morse and Courtney Petersen and former standouts Lindsay Gusick, Olivia Brannon and Annie Steinlage. (One of the Wahoos’ recruits for 2019, Jansen Eichenlaub, is from Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)
“All the players that we’ve had from Michigan, I think, have been very impactful for us,” Swanson said. “Their experiences have been good here, mostly because of the education and all the resources here at Virginia. It’s just an amazing school to recruit to, and I think that’s obviously been a huge factor.”
That Spaanstra has been so productive in her first year of college soccer does not surprise Swanson.
“I remember the first time I saw her,” Swanson said. “I think she might have been a freshman in high school, and I came back and told [associate head coach] Ron [Raab], ‘I think she’s the best player in the country for her class.’ “
Spaanstra, whose parents were college athletes, has extensive international experience, and that’s accelerated her development at UVA.
She represented the United States in 2016 at the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. This past summer, she was on the U.S. team that competed at the U20 Women’s World Cup in France, along with three fellow Cavaliers: Morse, who’s a junior, and sophomores Taryn Torres and Laurel Ivory.
“Bonding with them in a different country was really cool,” Spaanstra said.
At 18, Spaanstra was among the youngest players on the U.S. team, and she’ll be eligible for the U20 World Cup in 2020, too. She headed to France knowing she was unlikely to see much time on the field, but benefited from the experience anyway.
“I kind of had a different perspective on it than other people, because I was mostly watching from the bench,” Spaanstra said. “But I learned a lot from watching our team and then also from watching Japan and Spain play [against the U.S.].
“I took my role and I thought I did it to the best of my ability. The coaches told me I would probably be on the bench most of the time, which I was OK with. Making the roster was one of the biggest goals I had in the first place, and then if I did get any minutes, I wanted to make the most of that. But I think even just training [with the U.S. team] helped me. The environment was really competitive.”
After returning from the World Cup, she sat out the Cavaliers’ season opener but has played in every game since. Spaanstra credited her coaches and teammates at UVA with helping her “adjust to this level and show me the ropes and show me how we need to compete and play. I think in the beginning of the season I struggled a little bit more finding my way, but now, towards the end, I’m fitting in pretty well.”
Enrolling at UVA midyear allowed her to train with the team last spring and adjust to the rigors of college classes. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve made, honestly,” she said.
Spaanstra smiled. “If I could have come earlier, I would have. I think just being around the girls and getting to know them and how they play helped me connect with them way more on the field in the fall.”
Many freshmen struggle with the physicality of the college game, Swanson said. Not Spaanstra.
“She’s adapted to that,” he said, “and I think she’ll continue to adapt to that. And I think the thing that I like most about her is she comes to practice every day wanting to learn, and never gives less than her best, and competes all the time.
“She’s motivated, she’s disciplined, she’s competitive, and she’s talented. We’re all excited to see how much she can develop, because I think there’s a lot there to continue to work on and get better and improve. I think the sky’s the limit for her, I really do.”
The pressure on players and teams builds as the NCAA tournament progresses, but Swanson is confident that won’t faze Spaanstra.
“I think players like Alexa have been put into those situations already at an early age, with the World Cups and things like that,” Swanson said. “They understand the pressure that goes with that and the fact that everything can come to a screeching halt. And so I think playing within those environments has helped her.”