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Virginia aims to stay hot

Brian’s, Swanson’s return boosts No. 5 women ahead of weekend doubleheader

In the midst of an impressive streak, the No. 5 Virginia women’s soccer team starts ACC play this week with matches against N.C. State Thursday and North Carolina Sunday.

The Cavaliers (7-1-0, 0-0-0 ACC) come into the weekend winners of seven straight games, averaging more than two goals per game while holding opponents to just two goals total during the streak.

The offense has come from forwards, midfielders and even defenders — junior defender Molly Menchel scored twice last Friday. The prolific recent performance by the offense has emboldened the players as they prepare for a daunting conference schedule.

“We’ve done a much better job at this stage [of the season] at finishing,” assistant coach Ron Raab said. “I didn’t think we lacked for opportunities in some of our earlier games, but I think we lacked the quality to put them in the back of the net, and I think that’s been the biggest change.”

The already potent attack adds a new dimension this weekend when sophomore midfielder Morgan Brian returns from Japan, where she and head coach Steve Swanson helped the United States claim the U20 Women’s World Cup. Brian, the 2011 Soccer America Freshman of the Year, was vital to the Cavalier attack and finished with 11 goals last season. Her presence should boost Virginia. Re-incorporating her into a team already firing on all cylinders is one of the coaching staff’s main focuses in practice.

“Obviously we’re excited to have both [Brian and Swanson] back, but I think we need to take some things into consideration in terms of easing them back in, and keeping the momentum we’ve created here going as well,” Raab said. “That will be a process, but one we look forward to.”

First up for the Cavaliers is ACC foe N.C. State (5-3-0, 0-0-0 ACC), who enters the game following a 3-2 loss to Kansas last Sunday. Before its weekend loss, the Wolfpack had won five straight games, averaging 2.8 goals per contest during the stretch. Freshman forward Brittany Stanko leads the team so far in scoring with four goals in eight games, tied for seventh-best in the conference.

N.C. State’s weakness may be its defense, which has allowed the most goals in the ACC. Even though they are not among the top-flight of ACC opponents, the nature of the conference means the Cavaliers will have to be well-prepared for the game.

“We’re just going to recover from this weekend, work on a few things, probably look at some film, and have some really focused practices,” Virginia senior midfielder Julia Roberts said.

Virginia’s Sunday opponent needs almost no introduction, as No. 12 North Carolina (4-1-1, 0-0-0 ACC) sits firmly as the best program in NCAA women’s soccer history with 20 national championships in 30 years. This year’s edition is looking strong again, despite a shocking 1-0 season-opening loss to Portland at home. Since then, the Tar Heels have not allowed a single goal in a run that includes a dominating 4-0 win against then-No. 8 Marquette.
In last year’s matchup, Virginia got its first win in 38 tries against North Carolina in a thrilling double overtime win in Chapel Hill. The team looks to replicate that success Sunday.

“We can’t look past N.C. State, but of course UNC is a great rival,” Roberts said. “We’re looking to repeat on what we did last year, because that was a big moment in U.Va. soccer history, and we want to be able to do that again.”

Thursday’s kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Klöckner, with the Sunday matchup at 2 p.m.