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Defense anchors Virginia in lean offensive times

Shaffer, Reuther assume scoring load minus Doniak; McNabb, Sonnett lead staunch Cavalier backline

<p>Junior center back Kristen McNabb and the Virginia defense have ceded just six goals in 12 matches this season. </p>

Junior center back Kristen McNabb and the Virginia defense have ceded just six goals in 12 matches this season. 

The Virginia women’s soccer team has made the most of a difficult road stand by both clipping No. 5 Clemson 2-0 and edging Wake Forest 1-0 a week ago. One more away test stands between the Cavaliers (10-1-1, 4-1-0 ACC) and a welcome return to Klöckner Stadium.

Virginia will engage in that 90-minute battle Sunday night at Boston College (9-5-1, 3-2-1 ACC) in near-freezing temperatures and on an unfamiliar playing surface.

“It’s a turf field,” junior midfielder Alexis Shaffer said. “It’s not something we are used to, so it’s definitely going to be different. But I think we’ll go up there and adjust, and if we play our style and get the ball [out wide], then we should come out with a victory.”

Winners of three straight conference games, the Cavaliers clearly exude confidence. But there has been a downward trend in the team’s scoring during the two-week stretch, which might be a little worrisome if it continues Sunday and into late October.

Virginia went into the Sept. 27 showdown against Duke with a scoring average of 3.55 goals per game. The Cavalier offense had scored two or more goals in every game except for its prior match, a 2-1 double-overtime loss to Notre Dame.

Virginia enters Sunday’s contest having produced only five goals in its past four ACC games, including the defeat at the hands of the Fighting Irish. A season ago, the Cavaliers’ lowest four-game goal total during conference play was 10. The team is well aware of the deficiency.

Coach Steve Swanson has continually chalked it up to an inability to finish chances, but Shaffer offered different reasoning.

“This season there has not been too many goals,” Shaffer said. “It’s not that we haven’t had enough chances. I just think that the goalies have been making really good saves and a lot of our finishes, even though they’ve been on target, they’ve been hitting the post or the keeper has been making a great save.”

Perhaps Shaffer is right: This Virginia scoring drought is just unlucky or uncontrollable. The ball and post have had a kind of magnetic attraction, and the goalkeepers have all been exceptional, robbing Cavalier attackers of goals left and right. But the statistics don’t fully back it up.

Virginia creates chances with the best of them, possessing up the field and swinging the ball to the flanks and back inside the box. The Cavaliers have averaged 14.5 shots in each of their last four contests — 20.3 over the course of the season — but out of those 58 total shots, only 16 have been placed on target (28 percent).

Sure, keepers have made a couple incredible stops to prevent Virginia goals recently, but not enough to account for the decrease in scoring. The Cavaliers should be directing more shots on goal. Hitting the post — as Virginia has done three or four times the past two games — is not a bad break but rather a slight imprecision that doesn’t force the keeper to make a goal-stopping save. It’s a missed opportunity.

Minus the heartbreaker to Notre Dame, the Cavaliers have been able to win during this scoring drought, which of course is all that matters. While star senior forward Makenzy Doniak has been sidelined with a still-nagging left hamstring injury, Shaffer and junior forward Morgan Reuther have combined to score four of Virginia’s last five goals. They’ve picked up a sputtering offense.

Teammates emphasize Reuther and Shaffer’s unparalleled toughness and desire more than their goal-scoring ability, though.

“When we get the ball to Reuty, we’re confident that she’s going to hold it,” senior forward Kaili Torres said. “She’s strong up there. I think she brings a level of competitiveness and intensity to the game that makes everyone want to join in and get the ball to her and get it up the field.”

Torres — who hasn’t scored a goal in 2015 after netting four a season ago — went on to compare the tangible and intangible abilities Reuther possesses to Shaffer’s.

“I think Shaff does the same things well,” Torres said. “I know I can always find her on the field. She’s always checking to balls, working hard. That’s encouraging when you have teammates like that, because it makes you want to keep working.”

Shaffer and Reuther have been bright spots for the Cavalier offense, but an overall shooting inefficiency remains, and these one- or even two-goal games week after week put pressure on the Virginia defense to remain impermeable.

The Cavalier backline has been just about that over the past three games. Junior goalkeeper Morgan Stearns picked up her sixth, seventh and eighth clean sheets of the season against Duke, Clemson and Wake Forest, respectively. Virginia has only allowed an average of 0.5 goals per game this season.

Senior center back Emily Sonnett, by virtue of her vocal and bold nature and in addition to her presence on the 2015 MAC Hermann Trophy watch list, receives most of the attention and acclaim. But Sonnett’s sidekick, junior defender Kristen McNabb, is equally important to the Cavalier defense.

“I think Kristen is definitely a glue that holds our back line together. She’s just kind of that silent force back there,” Torres said. “And I think Emily can do a lot of the stuff she does because she feels safe with Kristen behind her.”

When watching Virginia play, it is evident the two center backs trust one another. Over the years, they’ve developed an understanding of each other’s tendencies. They’ve come to believe in their collective strength.

As long as Sonnett and McNabb are leading the back four, the Cavaliers will find themselves in a winnable battle. And whether trailing or leading in that moment, Virginia knows how it responds next will reveal its true character.

“Everything we want still lies ahead,” Torres said. “And so for us, that’s what our eyes are set on. This is the time when we are going to be challenged and see what we are made of as a team.”