TOBIN: Staying hungry
Since its 7-0-0 start when senior goalie Morgan Stearns did not allow a single goal, the Virginia women’s soccer team has been far from dominant. After being shutout several times, the Cavaliers bowed out in the quarterfinals of the ACC Championships to eventual runner-up North Carolina — to finish with a record of 14-4-2.
While the latter half of its season was far from ideal, Virginia can still make a run for a title. Currently a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Virginia is well positioned for success. In the first round of the tournament, the Cavaliers defeated Monmouth (14-5-2) to move on to the round of 32.
Yet, while the 4-1 victory looked dominant on the surface, the Cavaliers were not happy with their play.
“There is a difference between getting the result and having a good performance, and I think we obviously will take the result and feel positive about the result,” coach Steve Swanson said. “But I don’t think there’s a person in our program that feels good about the performance.”
Sure — on the surface, it may seem like Virginia is struggling to find its footing and is in danger of exiting the tournament early. But it is exactly this self-awareness that the Cavaliers can use to improve and push forward.
Last season, Virginia reached the Elite Eight — a respectable feat for any team in any sport. But, the Cavaliers were poised for more. Winning 19 games to just one loss and three ties, Virginia not only earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament, but was also ranked as the top team in the country when the tournament started. Their relative success made the heartbreaking shootout loss to Rutgers that much harder, as the Cavaliers’ title hopes evaporated.
This season, with a lower seeding and even lower expectations, Virginia can play more loosely, without the burden of being the top team in the nation. This is something they can use to their advantage.
Instead of focusing on pursuing a championship and matching expected outcomes, the Cavaliers can just focus on one game at a time.
“I think from the start of the game, we need everyone to 100 percent compete and give it their all,” senior midfielder Alexis Shaffer said. “This is the NCAA Tournament — if you lose you’re out — and this could be every team’s last game, so everyone is going to come out 100 percent [and] that’s the way we need to look at it as well.”
Virginia will need to take these words to heart if it wants to beat Penn State (11-4-4) Friday. While the Nittany Lions do not have the most impressive record, they sent a message by defeating Bucknell (16-1-2) by a score of 6-0 in the first round of the tournament.
To beat this team, which has clearly shown that it does not plan to pack up and go home any time soon, the Cavaliers will need to channel its magic from earlier in the season. While Virginia scored 23 goals in the first seven games, it has only scored 26 in its last 13. To defeat Penn State and make a run at a championship, the Cavaliers must be able to score the way they did against Monmouth in the first round.
Virginia also needs to return to its defensive dominance. In talking about the Monmouth game, Shaffer felt that the Cavaliers had not competed hard enough.
“[Monmouth] did score a goal on us,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer’s frustration over allowing a single goal is a good sign for the Cavaliers. And this anger is completely justified — after all, the Cavaliers had not let up a single goal in the first seven games of their season. There is no reason why they can’t replicate that success down the stretch.
If Virginia were to beat Penn State, it would have a tough matchup in the Sweet Sixteen. It would either have to play Rutgers — the team that knocked out the Cavaliers last season — or Georgetown — the team that handed Virginia its first loss of this season.
But with six seniors on the roster, the Cavaliers are an experienced squad that has learned from its mistakes of last year and used them as motivation for this season.
Earlier in the season, I stated, “This team has a legitimate shot at bringing a title back to Charlottesville in 2016.” The road is certainly tough ahead, but with a team this hungry, I am confident in my claim.
Ben Tobin is a weekly sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.