The Virginia women begin the 2019 season ranked at #9. Which is about right. We return nine starters from last year and welcome the TopDrawer #14 recruiting class in the country. What does the season hold for the Wahoos?
Well, we’re going to be good, we’re going to win a lot of games, and we’ll make it to the Sweet 16 again (we’ve done this 14 consecutive times, the current longest active streak in Div I Soccer), but I fear that we’re not going to make any serious noise. Our team speed is marginal at best, we have an exploitable weakness defending corners, and we’ve enjoyed pretty good health the past couple of years and still rarely made it past the Sweet 16.
First, the ACC numbers: Last year the ACC sent 10 teams to the NCAA tournament and seven of those teams advanced to the Sweet 16. The final was an All-ACC affair as Florida State defeated UNC 1-0 in the championship. This dominance is reflected in the pre-season top 25, as there are 7 ACC teams represented, as well as the first team on the bubble, so eight of the top 26 teams. While there might be some PAC 12 apologists who would point to their conference’s strength with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th ranked teams, the PAC 12 falls off a cliff after that. The ACC remains the class conference for women’s soccer.
Leading the pack is near-unanimous #1, and defending champion, Florida State. The Seminoles are buoyed this year by the return of senior striker Deyna Castellanos, who for reasons that are still unfathomable to me, did NOT get drafted this spring. The best player in the country is Stanford’s Catarina Macario, but if you can’t have her, Castellanos is the most dynamic forward in America. FSU did lose their best player last year, defender Natalia Zuikka, but they are bringing back the best pair of midfielders in the country, Yujie Zhao and Jaelin Howell. Howell is going to be the best player in the country her senior year. You read it here first.
If there is a chink in #2 UNC’s armor, it may be that long time defensive guru (39 years as head coach Anson Dorrance’s assistant) Bill Palladino, is stepping down. While the national poll had FSU ahead of UNC, the ACC Coaches Poll chose UNC. But then, I think the ACC coaches are idiots when it comes to pre and post season voting/accolades. So there is that.
Duke, at #8, is a slot ahead of Virginia. While Duke lost their two top forwards from last year, they are bringing in TopDrawer’s #4 recruiting class. All schools aspire to “reload” after seniors depart, but Duke’s Robbie Church is just as successful as his more illustrious men’s basketball counterpart, having brought in top 10 classes just about each of the past 10 years.
In terms of preparation for the ACC slate, UVa plays last year’s final four Georgetown (#7 preseason), #11 West Virginia, and #6 Penn State (who poached the reigning ACC player of the year, Sam Coffey, from Boston College.) We’re also playing Minnesota, a team which garnered votes from about 1/3 of the voters. It’s not an OOC slate that is as sexy as the FSU and Florida round-robin with UCLA and Stanford, nor as thrilling as UNC’s battle with Lyon’s reserves, but it’s still plenty solid.
As far as individual accolades go, UVa apparently doesn’t do much stumping for her women. We’re touted as the 3rd best team in the ACC and we didn’t get a single preseason selection. Phoebe McClernon gets shafted again. But, remember, ACC coaches are idiots, as their top-heavy 2 – 4 – 4 selection shows.
At least national voters are paying some attention. Three players are on the pre-season watch list for the Mac Herrmann trophy — soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman — the aforementioned McClernon (senior, defender), Laurel Ivory (junior, keeper) and Alexa Spaanstraa, (sophomore, striker). McClernon is a stud, and this team will be Spaanstraa’s once McClernon departs, and Ivory may have the most international experience as any third-year player in UVa annals.
Every season brings new story lines, but the central arc to this season will be who emerges to take the central midfielder job. I had thought the job was Anna Sumpter’s, but she did not feature there in the (weather-abbreviated) spring season. I think it will be utility knife Tarryn Torres, who if she does move there, could earn her third all ACC team in a third position. She was All Freshman ACC as winger her first year and a second team All ACC left midfielder last year. Torres may be the player most emblematic of Coach Steve Swanson’s on-the-pitch vision for this team.
Which is a topic I’ll cover in Part 2 of the preview.