Women's soccer hosts Rutgers in Friday NCAA clash

Team hopes to maintain momentum after 8-0 blowout against High Point

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Following its convincing 8-0 victory last Friday, the second-seeded Virginia women’s soccer team will enjoy a week of rest before its next matchup — an invaluable asset for a Cavalier squad which has played a 20-game season and is heading into a potential Friday-Sunday, second and third round NCAA tournament schedule this weekend.

Virginia (19-2, 9-1 ACC) hosts a familiar opponent Friday night, as the No. 25 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (13-5-1, 8-4-1 Big Ten) travel to Klöckner Stadium for the seventh matchup between the two squads. The Cavaliers have prevailed in the last three and looked primed to secure a fourth-straight victory in the series, after easily securing a win against High Point within the game’s first 30 minutes.

“Obviously the game was over in a hurry — that’s not always an easy thing to do,” coach Steve Swanson said. “For a lot of teams it’s been difficult, but for us to put them away early was a good sign. But we know that Rutgers is going to be more challenging.”

The Scarlet Knights pose a particular challenge for Virginia’s prolific offense, boasting one of the best defenses in the country. They’re headlined by freshman goalkeeper Casey Murphy, who ranks No. 11 in the nation in goals allowed at 0.52. Additionally, with the two teams having played twice in the past three seasons, Rutgers is familiar with the challenge of facing Klöckner’s size and noise level as well as the Cavaliers’ pace and positioning.

“Rutgers has played a lot of good teams and they’ve shown that they can be successful,” Swanson said. “They play in a good conference, and they’ve played us twice before, so they’re not going to be intimidated and they know what to expect.”

Virginia — boosted by the return of senior midfielder Morgan Brian — is scoring goals at a staggering rate. The Cavaliers are tied for first nationally with 3.48 goals per game, and junior forward Makenzy Doniak leads the ACC with 15 goals and 38 points. Though Doniak has dominated, she credits much of her success to the coaching staff.

“Steve has really prepared us for every game,” Doniak said. “The whole coaching staff has really helped us prepare really well to overcome every challenge, because every opponent brings a new challenge, and I think we have the tools to get past each game. We’ve had some difficult challenges against us, and I think we’ve dealt with them really well, so I think we’re ready.”

Though Rutgers may be an opponent the Cavaliers can handle, another challenge looms large this weekend, and that is the quick Friday-to-Sunday turnaround staring down the Cavaliers if they win against the Scarlet Knights.

“The Friday-Sunday games are really tough because you have a tough game Friday, and then a really quick turnaround for Sunday,” junior forward Brittany Ratcliffe said. “But having played them in the ACC tournament and during the year, we’re used to the competition and the high level of play, we’re ready for it … but it’s definitely not easy.”

Depth, however, is a tool often utilized to combat quick turnarounds — and Virginia boasts depth largely unrivaled across the NCAA. Eight players boast double-digit point totals and 16 different players have scored this season, with the Cavaliers having seamlessly integrated nine new members following the loss of half of last season’s College Cup starting lineup.

“It definitely helps because the starters played, but our reserves played a solid amount of minutes so they got their experience in that game,” Ratcliffe said. “And now we know that if the starters come off, the level of play won’t drop and they’re just as good as anybody else.”

While the team has thrived this season, Swanson said there still are many improvements to be made.

“I think we’ve gotten better as the year’s progressed,” Swanson said. “We’re getting contributions from a lot of new faces, but I think our best performance is still out there and that we haven’t peaked yet.”

The team's continued improvement throughout the season makes imagining their NCAA Tournament run intriguing — despite the squad's difficult ACC Championship loss to second-ranked Florida State. While getting to the final was impressive, the loss raised many questions for a team that was then on an eight-game winning streak.

“The loss in the ACC Tournament really exposed our weaknesses and what we need to work on,” Doniak said. “We know why we lost to FSU and we can really get better and I think we’re even more prepared now.”

The Cavaliers and Scarlet Knights will square off in what is shaping up to be another frigid Friday night game at Klöckner Stadium. The predicted 6 p.m. kickoff temperature is 30 degrees — though both teams advanced from the first round while playing in below-freezing conditions last week.

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