Women's soccer battles Texas A&M in NCAA Semifinals

Cavaliers back in College Cup, look to build on momentum of 2-1 win against UCLA

It’s that time of year again for the fourth-ranked Virginia women’s soccer team — when it departs from the friendly confines of Charlottesville to meet the three other surviving teams of the 64-team NCAA tournament. If this feels familiar, it is because the Cavaliers are going to their second-straight College Cup, and will again have the chance to take home the school’s first national championship in women’s soccer.

Virginia (22-2) faces an unfamiliar foe in the semifinals as they square off against No. 1 seed Texas A&M (22-2-2), which has had an impressive run to the final four, defeating powerhouses Notre Dame and Penn State. The Aggies are the only SEC team still active in the College Cup, but their rise to national prominence in recent years has put the traditionally football-dominated conference on the women’s college soccer radar.

“They’ve had a strong program for a lot of years,” coach Steve Swanson said. “This is actually the first time they’ve broken through in the College Cup, although they’ve been very close for the last decade or so. I think they’re one of the premier teams in the country — they’re an experienced group, an athletic group, they’re well coached and they’ve got a rich heritage.”

Conversely, Virginia is coming off its most impressive win of the year, arguably in program history. In the NCAA quarterfinals last Friday, the Cavaliers knocked off the top-ranked UCLA Bruins 2-1, a squad that had not lost in more than 40 games and was responsible for ending Virginia’s dream season last year in the semifinals on penalty kicks. The win felt like much more than an Elite Eight victory, as UCLA provided the motivation all season for the team to get back to this point.

“Obviously that game was huge for us, they were number one and we knocked them off,” junior forward Makenzy Doniak said. “In a way, we accomplished what we wanted to do in knocking off the national champs, but Steve reminded us that it was just one game and … each game is a step to the national championship.”

Though it was a momentous win for the program, the Cavaliers must be ready to once again face a dangerous foe. The Aggies rank eighth nationally in goals scored and they have been on fire throughout the tournament, outscoring opponents 16-4.

“We didn’t play that many SEC teams this year,” senior midfielder and Academic All-American Danielle Colaprico said. “But we know that they’re athletic and they’re a hard working team and they’re just as ready as we are for this tournament.”

In addition to Virginia’s recent success in the tournament, three players — Colaprico, Doniak, and senior midfielder Morgan Brian — were named semifinalists for the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy Award, which is the most prestigious award in college soccer. Virginia is the first team to have three semifinalists in the same year since 2008, when both North Carolina and Wake Forest achieved the rare feat.

“I think it’s a product of our team and the performances of our team,” Swanson said. “The better our team does, the more people are going to get recognized individually. I think we take great pride in all of those players getting those honors. The team has helped produce that … because we’ve had a team concept and everyone’s bought into that.”

Equally impressive is that these three players achieved such profound success in the midst of extensive roster turnover from 2013’s College Cup team. Five starters departed and nine new players joined the team, leading to much uncertainty early in the season as the team struggled through some weak performances.

“It’s definitely a little scary at first,” Colaprico said. “I was wondering how we were going to do, and how we were going to develop. I think that as the games went on, I realized that we were going to be great at the end of the season, we were improving with every game, and a lot of teams don’t have that.”

Virginia’s new additions have seamlessly transitioned to the Cavalier style of play. This ascribes to Swanson’s distinct team ideal that greatness is not limited to players, but rather is an overall characteristic of Virginia’s program.

“Steve’s a great coach and he knows how to develop a team very well,” Colaprico said. “I think when some teams get a lot of new faces they think that they won’t do as well, but I think all the girls are motivated and want to win a national championship and that helps a lot in practice.”

Throughout the season, players and coaches have spoken of improving for the College Cup.

“We’ve evolved and improved so much this year,” Swanson said. “This team’s never had a mindset to be satisfied. They’ve got their goals in mind and they know what they are and they’ve gone all season knowing that we have to prove ourselves and … they’ve done everything we’ve asked so far so now’s a chance to see if we can be ready for Friday.”

Kickoff between the Cavaliers and the Aggies is set for 5 p.m. at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPNU.

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