Classes are just starting, but for the No. 11 Virginia women’s soccer team, another promising run is already underway. Led by an experienced core of returning players and a strong crop of exciting new talent, the Cavaliers have their eyes set on the goal that has eluded them for years: a national title.
Championship aspirations are nothing new for Virginia (3-1-0, 0-0-0 ACC). The team has qualified for the NCAA Tournament every season since 1994 but has fallen short of the title game each year.
The Cavaliers snapped their five-year streak of Sweet Sixteen exits by advancing to the quarterfinals in 2011 before falling to Florida State 3-0. The goal for 2012 is simple: push that success even further.
“I think we’ve just been training even harder,” junior defender Morgan Stith said. “… We know that we’re a good team, so I think just having that confidence going into the tournament will be great so we can make it all the way into the finals.”
Most of the team’s offensive firepower from 2011 — including sophomore phenom Morgan Brian and senior forward Caroline Miller — returns for this season. Brian was named the 2011 Soccer America Freshman of the Year and was a First Team All-American after notching 11 goals and eight assists in 23 games. Miller, who led the Cavaliers with 15 goals in 2011, joins Brian on the attack.
“We’ve got a lot of players from last year’s team back, which always makes the transition a little easier,” said assistant coach Ron Raab, who currently oversees the team while head coach Steve Swanson leads Brian and the rest of the U.S. team in the U20 World Cup in Japan. “That being said, we’ve brought in a few new faces, and it just adds to the dimensions we have offensively.”
The most prominent of those new faces is emerging star forward Makenzy Doniak, who headlines a talented class of freshmen. Doniak has already scored five goals this season, becoming the first Virginia player in history to score in each of the first four games of a season. Her run has impressed coaches and teammates and brings another asset to an already-strong offense.
“It’s awesome having her on the field,” junior midfielder Kate Norbo said. “She’s one of those players who has a big presence in the game, and I feel like every time we give her the ball she’s either going to score or set up an assist or a nice play. She uses her body really well, and has had a huge impact on us.”
Virginia is going to need more sensational play from Doniak and her teammates if they are going to rise to the top of a cutthroat ACC lineup. The conference currently has eight teams ranked in the national top 25, including No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Florida State.
“The ACC is a dogfight every year,” Raab said. “[The conference] from top to bottom is one of the top conferences in the country, and I think the more we can get used to playing together, the more rhythm we get, the more confident we get, I think the better.”
That confidence is already starting to develop in the young season. After a disappointing 3-1 season-opening loss to No. 6 Penn State, in which Virginia allowed two goals in the final 15 minutes, no team has scored on the Cavaliers. In the three contests since that defeat, Virginia has dealt shutouts to Radford, Liberty and UNC-Wilmington.
“I think the loss against Penn State was a little tough because we had worked so hard to rally and then we lost it in the last couple minutes of the game,” Stith said. “But I feel like that was a really good starting point for us, and since then, we’ve had all shutouts. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season, and I think we’re going to keep building momentum.”
The Cavaliers are heading to Texas for the Longhorn Invitational next weekend, with matches against Southern Methodist University and Texas.