By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Her childhood friend from the Philadelphia suburbs, Meghan McCool, is a prolific goal-scorer with the uncanny ability to put a soccer ball in the net.
“She’s always in the right spot,” Phoebe McClernon said. “I think that’s half the battle. It’s being in the right place at the right time, and she tends to find herself in those situations.”
McClernon, who like McCool is in her fourth year at the University of Virginia, scored dozens of goals for her high school team at the Academy of Notre Dame in Villanova, Pa. As a Cavalier, however, she’s scored exactly one: the game-winner against Penn State on Sept. 10, 2017.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” McClernon said, smiling.
She doesn’t miss her days as an offensive threat. Almost from the start of her college career, McClernon has distinguished herself at the other end of the field for the Cavaliers.
“I’ve never been who cares all that much about the spotlight,” said McClernon, who’s from West Chester, Pa. “Not to say that forwards do, but that’s not been what I was looking for in soccer. I never needed to be the one who scores the final goal. I find as much excitement in stopping a ball that’s about to roll over the goal line as I do assisting or finishing.”
The 5-7 McClernon averaged 44.7 minutes per game for as a freshman in 2016. Since then, she’s rarely come off the field. She was named to the All-ACC third team in 2017 and to the All-ACC first team in 2018, when she was a third-team All-American.
This season, she’s among the five Cavaliers who on Thursday were named to the All-ACC second team. (Junior goalkeeper Laurel Ivory was a third-team pick. McCool was the lone first-team selection from UVA, which is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 nationally.)
In high school and for her club team, Penn Fusion, McClernon primarily lined up as a center midfielder, and the skills that made her so effective in that role have helped her as a defender in college.
“Because we play out of the back, because we value the ball, I think having [defenders] that have central midfielders’ skills, it’s not a prerequisite, but it’s something that can really add to our style and the way we play,” UVA head coach Steve Swanson said.
“I don’t think Emily Sonnett was ever a back till she got to Virginia, but one of the great things about Emily is that she brought central midfield feet and central midfield brains and central midfield skill sets to that position. And I think with Phoebe, that was one of the things we gravitated towards right away. She can make space for herself on the ball very well, and yet she also has this very competitive, determined side about her defending. That was an easy one to mesh.”
McClernon’s teammates on Penn Fusion included McCool, whom she’s known since their middle school years. McCool committed to UVA as a sophomore at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. McClernon committed to the Cavaliers a day later while on a visit to Grounds.
Each arrived at her decision independently, McClernon said. “I don’t think we even talked about it until after we committed.”
Growing up, McClernon had no connection to UVA or Charlottesville. Her father played football at Washington and Lee in Lexington, but that’s “the only Southern tie I had whatsoever,” said McClernon, whose sister Farrell played soccer at Boston University.
Even so, she felt an affinity for UVA. “What’s not to like?” McClernon said.
She remembers watching the Virginia team that featured Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico, McClernon said, “and I was just like, ‘Wow. That’s the type of soccer I can get behind.’ And obviously Emily Sonnett, I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Swanson has been an assistant coach on the U.S. women’s national team, for which Sonnett now plays on the backline.
“A lot of the defenders that have come out of this program started in other positions,” said McClernon, who lives with teammates Anna Sumpter, Lizzy Sieracki and McCool. “You can’t just be a defender at this level, and especially at the next level. I’ve always been versatile, and I’ve always been able to play a lot of positions. So I think coming in here, I felt really good about that, because of the way Steve transitions people from position to position.”
She’s approaching the stage of the season when any game could be her last as a Cavalier. The NCAA tournament starts on Nov. 16. McClernon’s immediate focus, however, is the ACC tourney.
At 2:30 p.m. Friday, third-seeded UVA (15-0-3) meets second-seeded Florida State (15-4) in the ACC semifinals in Cary, N.C. The game will be carried on ACC Network and streamed live on the ESPN app to viewers who subscribe to a cable system that carries ACC Network.
When they met during the regular season, the Wahoos edged the Seminoles 1-0 last month in Tallahassee, Fla. Another victory over FSU almost certainly would secure one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAAs for UVA.
Florida State has been Virginia’s nemesis in recent years, and “I think for me personally that was a game you went into and were a little nervous,” McClernon said. “Especially last year in both the ACC tournament and regular-season play, I remember going into those games being like, ‘We might have to pull off a small miracle to get the W out of this.’ But I think this year the only people who stand in our way are us. The team energy is good, and we have a little chip on our shoulder.”
That competitive spirit is one of the things “I like about Phoebe so much,” Swanson said. “I never have to worry about Phoebe being ready to play mentally or anything like that. She always competes, and when it’s time to go, she’s going to get after it.”
Players are wired differently. Another UVA back, freshman Talia Staude, is “much more quiet,” Swanson said. “She’s not going to be outspoken. Phoebe has the ability to lead a little more vocally, and I would say in battle Phoebe would be the one that’s leading the charge, that’s not scared to risk putting herself out in front.
“She’s an emotional player, and she’s got the spirit and competitiveness. Sometimes it’s about trying to harness that to where she can make the right decisions in the critical moments based on all the right issues, as opposed to sometimes letting her emotions get in the way.”
McClernon, an American studies major, will be only four credits shy of her bachelor’s degree at the end of this semester, and she’s interested in playing professionally, whether it be in the National Women’s Soccer League or outside the United States.
“I’m strongly considering going abroad,” she said. “If that’s a possibility for me, I’d love to do that. Why not let the game take me where it can?”
Swanson said he’s always viewed McClernon as a future pro.
“I think she’s got the defensive skill set to play at the next level, and I also think she has the skills and the comfort level on the ball that you need to play at the next level,” he said. “There been a little bit of fine-tuning in her game that I give her credit for. She’s become a better decision-maker over her four years here. There were a lot of times I thought in her first year, if she lost the ball, she was going to win it back no matter what, even if it wasn’t the right decision. That was her mindset. And I think she realized, ‘I can’t do that all the time. If I just go flying in, these players are good enough to go around me.’ “
And after McClernon’s soccer career ends? “I want to go to culinary school,” she said. “I love cooking.”
When she’s not studying or training, McClernon, she’s often can be found watching cooking shows. Her favorite is the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table.
“I love that stuff,” McClernon said, laughing.