After falling to Florida State 1-0 in the 2014 national title game, the Virginia women’s soccer team had one goal to begin 2015: win the NCAA championship. Come Friday at 6 p.m., the Cavaliers will start the road to redemption by hosting Howard in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Virginia (16-1-2, 9-1-0 ACC), with the nation’s second-best scoring offense at 3.26 goals per game, earned a No. 1 seed for its dominant play during the regular season. However, this past Sunday, the Cavaliers hit a rough patch, falling in penalty kicks to fellow No. 1 seed Florida State in the ACC Championship.
“It’s never fun to lose in penalty kicks,” senior forward Brittany Ratcliffe said. “It’s a horrible way to decide a 90-minute game that goes back and forth. It’s an intense game and then at the end, it’s decided by five kicks.”
While the game was certainly a heartbreaker for the Cavaliers, it, in conjunction with last year’s national-championship loss, only fuels Virginia’s desire to be NCAA champion. Not only did this game serve as positive motivation, but it also represented a resurgence for senior forward Makenzy Doniak, who has struggled with injury throughout the season but scored Virginia’s only two goals in the loss.
“It’s definitely awesome having [Makenzy] back,” Ratcliffe said. “It was frustrating because she had been hurt. Now that she’s back, she is playing awesome. She is scoring goals for us — not only goals, but important [ones] and game-winning [ones].”
The Cavaliers will need standouts like Doniak to play well against the 16th-seeded Bison (13-7-2, 7-3 SWAC), whose defense has only allowed four goals over the past 10 games. By beating Alabama State 2-1 in the SWAC Championship, Howard earned its spot in the NCAA tournament.
Not only do the Bison have a stingy defense as of late, they also boast a potent offense. Led by sophomore forward Kela Gray, who has scored 17 goals this season, the Bison feature the nation’s third-best scoring offense at 3.05 goals per game. If the Cavaliers get complacent on defense, the team’s championship dreams could be quashed early.
“[Coach Steve Swanson] always tells us to focus one game at a time,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s about right now, and it’s about the game we are about to play, and that’s all that matters.’”
Although Howard is deceptively underrated — putting up phenomenal offensive and decent defensive stats — it does have one key weakness: the ability to play on the road. With the Bison sporting a 3-5 record in away games, the Cavaliers, who are 9-1 at Klöckner Stadium, will have a significant home-field advantage in this matchup.
Home field, furthermore, is not only important for this game: if the Cavaliers keep winning, they are guaranteed to have home-field advantage up until the semifinals of the tournament.
“It’s awesome to play at home,” Ratcliffe said. “Klöckner is such a great atmosphere.
We have great fans.”
Additionally, Howard has not played a challenging schedule. This season, the Bison have only played five games against teams that finished the regular season with a record of .500 or better. Against these teams, Howard went 1-4-0. Virginia will prove to be the Bison’s biggest test of the season by a large margin.
Meanwhile, Virginia has run the gauntlet this season. Playing in a conference that has eight teams in the NCAA tournament — the most out of any major conference this year — the Cavaliers lost only to Notre Dame and Florida State in 2015 conference play. While the Bison are a good team, Virginia is used to dealing with adversity.
“The ACC is one of, if not the, best conferences in the NCAA,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s awesome going in to the NCAA tournament knowing that we’ve had this great competition all year.”
The game against the Bison will mark the 22nd consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for the Cavaliers and their 28th appearance overall. However, despite so many tournament berths, Virginia has never won a championship. The team is hungry to pursue its first starting Friday.