Virginia preps for No. 5 North Carolina in ACC Tournament opener

Swanson and team seek third straight win against rival Tar Heels

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With the regular season in the rearview mirror for the fourth-ranked Virginia women’s soccer team, the Cavaliers now face one of their toughest tests in the first round of the ACC tournament this weekend.

Virginia (17-1, 9-1 ACC) travels to Greensboro, North Carolina as the third seed in the ACC tournament, taking on the second-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels (12-2-2, 9-0-1 ACC), who present one of the most difficult challenges thus far this season for the Cavaliers.

“We’ve got a very strong opponent in North Carolina,” coach Steve Swanson said. “Obviously we play them a lot over our time. We know what to expect, we know it’s going to be a difficult game — so we’re very focused on that.”

The two teams have squared off 41 times in storied rivalry, with the Tar Heels leading 35-3-3 — though Virginia is unbeaten (3-0-1) in matchups since 2011, and is confident as the team looks to avenge last year’s heartbreaking end to the season.

“For the girls that are on the team now that were on the team last year, I think we all have a little bit more grit inside to win,” sophomore midfielder Alexis Shaffer said. “Last year, we lost in the semis and this year we want to win at North Carolina and move on.”

While this game marks only the semifinals and precedes the NCAA tournament, it may present the hardest game — or at least second-hardest — the Cavaliers will play as they look to capture the program’s first-ever national championship.

“The ACC is such a strong conference and I think we’re lucky to be in it,” junior forward Makenzy Doniak said. “It prepares us for the NCAA tournament because we face amazing competition, and we’re going to face amazing competition this weekend.”

And while Virginia has had an incredibly impressive regular season — ranking second in the nation with 3.5 goals scored per game — the team has not been particularly strong on the road, with its sole loss coming at Florida State and the offense averaging more than 2.0 goals fewer away from home. Though Friday’s matchup in Greensboro may be billed as a neutral site, it will likely feel like a road environment for Virginia.

“We’ve got to do well playing away from home as well if we want to reach all of our goals,” Swanson said. “We recognize that, and we’re excited about the opportunity ahead of us and excited about the game on Friday.”

The Cavaliers have been enjoying a stretch of truly impressive play bolstered by the return of star senior midfielder Morgan Brian, who was away playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team for much of the season. Her impact was felt immediately upon her return — Brian scored two goals in last Saturday’s 6-1 win against Pittsburgh.

“We’ve been playing well together ever since Morgan’s got back from camp,” Shaffer said. “She’s been that final piece that’s made us all play really well together.”

Even before Brian’s return, though, Virginia’s upperclassmen leaders stepped up, bringing the team together despite a roster featuring nine new players and five losses from last year’s team.

“I think we’ve done a good job this season getting this team focused,” Doniak said. “Working on our chemistry on away trips and growing together. I think those girls have really meshed well with the upperclassmen and the second years, so I don’t think we really have a problem with that.”

The Cavaliers first round matchup will kickoff at 8 p.m. against the fifth-ranked Tar Heels. The game will air live online on ESPN3.

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