Cavaliers prepare for top-10 clash with Notre Dame

Fighting Irish feature stingy center back duo, dangerous scorer in Jacobs; Virginia’s Doniak says she’s ‘back’ after win against Syracuse

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Thursday night's game features some of the nation's best center backs, including Virginia senior captain Emily Sonnett. 

Kiley Lovelace | Cavalier Daily

Having silenced Syracuse in its conference opener Sunday, the Virginia women’s soccer team awaits a home showdown Thursday night against now-No. 7 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish (7-1-1, 0-1 ACC) fell two spots in Top Drawer Soccer’s national rankings after a double-overtime loss Friday at No. 10 Clemson.

The Tigers held a supremely talented Notre Dame attack scoreless, which no defense had been able to accomplish since Stanford shut out the Irish on November 7, 2014. Clemson’s golden goal at 101:27 after a poor clearance likely stung Notre Dame as much as the game winner the Cavaliers produced a season ago in South Bend, Ind.

On that chilly Oct. 5 afternoon, with 20 seconds remaining in the match, then-junior forward Brittany Ratcliffe — who so often finds herself in the right place at the right time — placed a rebound shot past diving sophomore Irish goalkeeper Kaela Little and sliding freshman defender Sabrina Flores. Teammates piled on Ratcliffe inside the penalty arc to celebrate another tight victory over Notre Dame.

Virginia has won each of three hard-fought regular-season contests versus the Fighting Irish, including a 3-2 double-overtime victory in 2013. Coach Steve Swanson anticipates another marquee matchup Thursday night.

“Well it’s always been a very competitive game with them,” Swanson said. “They’re really good defensively, a lot of good athletes. Their coach [Theresa Romagnolo] has been there now, this is her second year, so they’re settling into her and her style. We expect a challenge.”

Minus the late miscue against Clemson, Notre Dame’s back line has been tremendous in 2015. The Irish have recorded six clean sheets through nine games; opposing offenses have manufactured an average of 3.1 shots and .44 goals in those matches.

Two captains and senior center backs, Cari Roccaro and Katie Naughton, direct this stingy Notre Dame defense. A member of the Mac Hermann Trophy Watch List and the All-ACC First Team a season ago, Roccaro never seems to get rattled on the ball.

Her touch, vision and balance are all top shelf. Although Roccaro doesn’t score or assist very often — two goals and one assist in 2014 and zeroes so far — she foils offensive threats and facilitates possession. Any team would be lucky to have Roccaro, but Naughton at the other center back spot — that’s just not fair.

Naughton — who played with Roccaro on the U.S. Under-20 National Team in 2013 and garnered All-ACC second-team honors in 2014 — uses her 5-foot-10 length to dominate balls in the air and close down attackers in space. Naughton and Roccaro are to the Irish what captain and senior defender Emily Sonnett is to the Cavaliers.

Sonnett leads an equally strong Virginia defense, which has allowed an average of 4.9 shots and .5 goals per game. Local high-school coaches should bring their players to Klöckner to watch Sonnett’s in-game clinic on communicating, positioning and challenging. She’s arguably the best center back in college soccer; her Cavalier teammates see and believe it every day.

“Emily keeps us organized,” senior forward Makenzy Doniak said. “She’s our rock back there. Whoever we’re facing, she keeps us tight, keeps our shape together. She’s a great voice for our team on the field and an awesome player.”

Most of the battling Thursday won’t be in the final third but in the midfield, where Virginia freshman Betsy Brandon and Notre Dame senior Glory Williams will square off for close to 90 minutes. The Cavaliers are confident Brandon can stay composed and do Thursday night what she’s been asked to do (and has done) all season.

“It’s not a glamorous position,” Swanson said. “We just need her to do specific things, and she does those well. She’s got good touch and good vision. She can distribute the ball with either foot and win 50/50s. She consistently makes good decisions.”

The Irish can’t let Brandon link up repeatedly with Cavalier senior forwards Ratcliffe and Kaili Torres or with junior midfielder Alexis Shaffer, because they’ll find target player No. 9. And when Makenzy Doniak has the ball at her feet, great things happen for Virginia.

Doniak tallied a goal and an assist in the 5-0 win over Syracuse, after which she declared with a wide grin, “The hamstring feels good, yeah, a lot better. I’m back.” There’s no better time for Doniak to be back at full strength than this week; she could be the difference up top.

Notre Dame has an elite goal scorer of its own, though, phenom freshman Natalie Jacobs. Jacobs — the No. 6 recruit out of high school last year and member of the U.S. Under-20 National Team earlier in 2015 — has netted four goals and four assists thus far. She’ll endeavor to score on one end, while Doniak will do the same on the other.

Incredible matchups up and down the pitch and packed Klöckner bleachers should make Thursday night special. Get out and support the top-ranked team in the nation, as it defends a 38-game home winning streak. Your being there could help them get revenge on that school from South Bend and make one Virginia fan in particular a little less sad.

“Hopefully, the crowd Thursday night can really bolster our efforts,” Swanson said. “It makes a big difference to have a great atmosphere when you face a team like Notre Dame, and I think we will.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday against the Fighting Irish.

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