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A net blessing

Defeat may help women's soccer accomplish lofty ambitions

Property of the Cavalier Daily,
Property of the Cavalier Daily,

There’s no doubt that the Virginia women’s soccer team has been on fire in 2013. The Cavaliers steamrolled their first 20 opponents by a combined margin of 65-10, the largest goal differential in the country. They lead the nation in every meaningful offensive statistic and are at or near the top of several defensive categories, as well. Six players were named to All-ACC squads, including first teamers junior midfielder Morgan Brian, sophomore forward Makenzy Doniak and sophomore defender Emily Sonnett.

It’s indisputable that Virginia is really, really good this year — a fact reinforced by its top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Friday.

“Being the number one overall seed was one of our main goals coming into the season,” senior defender Annie Steinlage said. “So to accomplish it now is pretty exciting.”

Yet the Cavaliers bowed out in the ACC semifinals to archrival Virginia Tech and failed to repeat as conference champions. The loss snapped the longest winning streak in school history, just eight days after Virginia completed a perfect regular season by shutting out those same Hokies.

With the loss coming just a week before the start of the NCAA Tournament, it would be tempting to see the defeat as a bad sign — an omen of an early exit to come. But I’m here to suggest that, in fact, snapping the undefeated streak and failing to defend the ACC title might be the best thing that could have happened to Virginia at this point in the season.

First, it removes any pressure centered on keeping the streak alive. Rather than worrying about maintaining an unblemished record, the Cavaliers focus on the central task of claiming a title.

“It was kind of nice to get that bad game out of the way,” Brian said. “So I think it was actually a blessing in disguise for us going forward.”

Going into the NCAA Tournament, the emphasis has to be solely on defeating each successive opponent, a fact that head coach Steve Swanson recognizes.

“[The number one seed is] a big reward for the season that we’ve had, but now the regular season doesn’t mean anything,” Swanson said. “Everyone is 0-0 again and you’re only as good as your last performance, and that is what we have to remember.”

Losing before the Tournament also provides a valuable learning opportunity for the Cavaliers. A loss in the NCAA Tournament means the end of the season, but getting knocked from the perch in the ACC Tournament instead meant that Virginia would have a week to iron out the mistakes that led to the Virginia Tech loss.

Few teams have been able to break down the Cavaliers this season, but the Hokies had some success by drilling long balls up to their forwards in search of breakaway opportunities. Virginia Tech also used its height advantage to great effect, scoring its final two goals on headers. If Sonnett and fellow defenders Morgan Stith, Shasta Fisher and Molly Menchel can effectively clear crosses and keep opposing forwards from slipping behind them on the break, Virginia will be one of the toughest outs in the tournament and could be hoisting the College Cup come Dec. 8.

But you know the scariest thing for Virginia’s potential tournament opponents? The Cavaliers seem to be handling things exactly the right way. They’re drawing motivation from the loss.

“It makes us more hungry and it makes us appreciate the streak we had the whole season,” Brian said.

A team hungrier than it was when it stomped its first 20 opponents? That sounds like a squad I wouldn’t want to face with a national championship on the line.

And Virginia may have weathered the toughest part of its schedule already. The other three No. 1 seeds in the tournament field? Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State — three ACC foes the Cavaliers have already defeated this season.

“We are expecting the best from every team we play,” Steinlage said, “But knowing the teams we have played so far in the regular season are among the top teams in the tournament gives us confidence.”

Look out, St. Francis. You have no idea what’s about to hit you.