by Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– To his players, scattered around the country since the middle of March, University of Virginia head women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson issued a challenge this spring.
“Initially I spoke to the team about the fact that we’ve pushed pause on soccer for a while here, and this is a chance for everybody to get better individually,” Swanson said Thursday. “And so when the play button gets pushed again, you can be at a different place. You can really develop during this time. This is an opportunity. Are you going to make the most of that opportunity, so that you can come back and be a better player and our team can be a better team?”
The Cavaliers’ veterans include Alexa Spaanstra, a rising junior who’s home with her brother and parents in Brighton, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. Swanson has no doubt that Spaanstra, a second-team All-ACC selection in 2019, is using her time wisely.
“She’s always been one who takes care of herself and works at her game,” Swanson said, “and I think that’s the case with all our players. I think this is a unique time, but rarely, if ever in life do we get a chance to push pause on the button and develop ourselves in whatever way we need to.
“I don’t worry about Alexa. She’s got very high aspirations and goals. Given my experience [with U.S. Soccer], I think the sky’s the limit for her. She’s always been a special athlete, but she’s also a special talent on the soccer field as well, and there’s not a lot of things that she can’t do, which is exciting.”
If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put sports on hold in most parts of the world, Spaanstra would in all likelihood be preparing to add to her already impressive soccer résumé.
In late winter, Spaanstra and another Cavalier, classmate Rebecca Jarrett, helped the United States win the CONCACAF U20 women’s championship in the Dominican Republic. In the March 8 final, the U.S. defeated Mexico 4-1.
“It was kind of right after that when the outbreak happened,” Spaanstra said, “and there were cases being announced in the United States. So it was really interesting to see if we were going to be able to come back to the United States or if we were going to have to stay in the Dominican Republic, but luckily we were able to come back.”
By reaching the final, the U.S. qualified for the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup, which was to have been held late this summer in Costa Rica and Panama. Because of concerns about COVID-19, the tournament has been rescheduled for 2021 (Jan. 20 to Feb. 6).
Spaanstra will turn 21 before the rescheduled World Cup ends, and it’s not clear yet whether that will affect her eligibility to play, given the extenuating circumstances. “I’m hoping that they allow for the age group to be 21,” she said.
She has extensive international experience. In 2016, Spaanstra played for the U.S. at the U17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. In 2018, she was one of four UVA players, along with Zoe Morse, Taryn Torres and Laurel Ivory, who represented the U.S. at the U20 Women’s World Cup in France.
The U.S. roster had not been selected for this summer’s U20 World Cup, so Spaanstra wasn’t assured of participating, but “if you were a betting person, you would have thought for sure that she’d have been on the team,” Swanson said.
Spaanstra, one of many standouts from Michigan to play at UVA during Swanson’s tenure, enrolled in January 2018. In her freshman season, playing forward, she led the Wahoos with 24 points (nine goals, six assists) and was named to the All-ACC third team.
Her role changed in 2019, when an exceptional center forward, Diana Ordonez, joined the Cavaliers’ program. Ordonez led Virginia with 34 points (15 goals, four assists) last season, and another forward, Meghan McCool, was second with 33 points (15 goals, three assists).
The 5-foot-5 Spaanstra, playing more as a midfielder, totaled 18 points (three goals, team-high 12 assists), as did Jarrett (five goals, eight assists).
With Ordonez in the lineup, Spaanstra said, “I knew that my position would change on the field, and my role might change. But I was just going to try to do anything to help the team win, whether that be scoring goals or creating chances or assisting people, and I think it worked out pretty well.”
Swanson, who was a longtime assistant coach on the U.S. Women’s National Team, calls Spaanstra “a budding world-class player no matter where she plays on the field. Alexa has many special qualities, but the first thing that you tend to notice on the field is her “engine.” She can get up and down like nobody’s business, and at a really high level. It’s very unusual to see somebody that not only has the pace that she has, but the ability to last the entire game playing at that pace.”
In 2019, the Cavaliers’ coaches “wanted to try to get her around the ball a little more, but also take advantage of her ability to cover ground on the field,” Swanson said. “I think playing in the midfield for the first time was a challenge for her, but she’s just been great, very open-minded about it and her overall impact on the field was incredible for us this past season.
“I think in the long run, even if she goes back to playing higher up the field, it will help her development enormously. It challenged her to become more of a 360-degree player, where she’s got to process everything going on around her more. It put a little more onus on her positioning and spacing, her problem-solving, decision-making, and her overall execution offensively and defensively, not to mention, her versatility, and those are all good things for her down the road.”
Virginia, one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, finished 17-2-3 last season after falling to Washington State at Klöckner Stadium in the second round. For such players as McCool, Morse, Courtney Petersen and Phoebe McClernon, that defeat marked the end of their college careers.
“We had a really special team,” Spaanstra said, “and it is disappointing that we lost a lot of those players. But I think it also puts into perspective that we can’t take anything for granted, and we just have to be ready and motivate ourselves even more to do better in the tournament this upcoming season.”
In Michigan, Spaanstra has access to a field on which she can run and hone her soccer skills, and she has a set of free weights at home. She stays connected to her teammates and coaches through regular Zoom meetings, some of which hav featured guest speakers, including former UVA greats Becky Sauerbrunn and Angela Hucles.
Living at home while taking online classes was “really crazy” at first, Spaanstra said. “I felt like I was in high school again, but the adjustment wasn’t too bad. My main priority was just trying to find a schedule that would help me work out and work on my technical abilities while also being able to focus on getting my schoolwork done.”
She was able to train with her UVA teammates for only a few weeks this semester before leaving to join the U.S. squad. Spaanstra was looking forward to playing in Virginia’s spring games once the CONCACAF tournament ended, but the pandemic spoiled those plans.
Spaanstra has been reunited with one of her former teammates on the Michigan Hawks club, Sarah Clark, who enrolled at UVA in January. Clark, also from Brighton, spent the past two seasons at Purdue, where she started 36 of 37 games on defense. She’s immediately eligible at Virginia.
“She’ll have no trouble coming in in the fall and making a major impact on our team,” Spaanstra said.
Jarrett and Spaanstra weren’t in Charlottesville for all of the Cavaliers’ workouts there this semester, but Swanson said the “six-week block before spring break was very productive, because the weather was so good, for us at least. I don’t think we were inside once, which is rare. But the challenge for us is making up for the six- or seven-week block that we would have had after spring break. It’s such a good teaching time where we had some great games lined up, and we missed that.
“So that was disappointing, but obviously you have to take this with a grain of salt. For us it was tough, but the spring sports lost their seasons, and the winter sports lost their championships, and even now we are still in the midst of this pandemic.”
When UVA students will return to Grounds remains unclear, “so I’m kind of just waiting around to see what that’s going to happen,” Spaanstra said.
A psychology major, she twice has been named to the ACC’s All-Academic team. Spaanstra had not planned to enroll in summer school this month, but the pandemic changed that. She’s taking an online class from Washtenaw Community College.
“I decided that with everything we have going on, it’s the perfect time to take a summer class, because it’s online and I’m able to do it at home,” Spaanstra said. “It’s a lot more convenient, so I’m just doing that and having the credits transferred in.”