It was looking dire for Virginia with 12 minutes left in the game and the Cavaliers holding onto a 1 – 0 lead versus Duke. Senior defender Phoebe McClernon came off with what I can only suspect was a knock. We were already missing sophomore Claire Constant, and in the game senior Courtney Petersen had limped off the field, unable to put any weight on her left foot. Our two outside backs were now Ashlynn Serepca and Alexa Spaanstra. You read that correctly. A pair of strikers were trying to contain a Duke team that would outshoot us on the night.
It was a strange sight seeing McClernon walk off the field. She had successfully won a goal kick on our end line, and she hadn’t fallen as if from injury. The referee was almost escorting her off the field, like she was a high schooler who had received a card and it was mandatory that she be subbed. She didn’t look hurt, but six minutes later, as Virginia was struggling to maintain the lead, I could hear her shout to assistant coach, Jaime Frias, as she raced to be subbed in: “I can give you four minutes!”
She would give the team two and a half minutes, helping a team that was, to be frank, playing scared and largely just booting the ball in trying to wind down the clock. This was the first time all season that the team has looked so ragged and utterly without composure. We’re in the post season now, and the stakes are obviously higher, especially for a team that knows it is positioned to make a serious run at the national championship.
This is a bad time to pick up injuries, obviously, and I’m going to hope that McClernon just got a kick that I wasn’t able to see. Constant, though, is in a race for fitness ahead of Friday’s semi-final match vs Florida State. Claire seemingly twisted her right ankle against Boston College a week ago. She did warm up pre-game, but she was moving gingerly and immediately afterwards her foot was iced and then placed in a boot. She’s missed four games now and it has negatively affected her development. We need her back.
Because Petersen’s injury could be catastrophic. As she came off the field, she was unable to put any weight on her foot and she missed most of the second half until she came out an sat in a chair, away from the rest of the team, with a boot on her left foot. Petersen is perhaps the most unique player in the ACC this season: no one else can do what she does with a ball. She can cross the ball from the middle of the field (which I have always felt is the most direction for a cross to come from), or, if the defender bites, she can explode to the baseline and cross from there. Her accuracy is phenomenal, and as I’ve written before, she seems to have picked up an additional gear this season. Losing Petersen robs us of width on the left, and for the past three years, Virginia has been a left-side dominant ball club, precisely because of Courtney Petersen. Changing team shape because of a coaching decision is one thing; it’s another thing altogether when your shape is changed by injury.
Every team must deal with injuries, but hopefully Bill Simmons’ Ewing Theory may apply here. It seems to have applicability for Duke, who have had severe injuries of their own to contend with. Duke was without standout freshman Sophie Jones, but Lily Nabat looked much more in control as the driving force in midfield and she played faster than Jones seems able to. Duke was more dangerous without Jones. Maybe the Cavaliers will be more focused without Petersen.
Yeah, it is a slim hope, but I am grasping at straws here.
As for the game itself? Duke possessed most of the ball for the first eight minutes or so, but it wasn’t good possession. The Cavaliers pinned the Blue Devils in their half for much of it, and while Nabat and Ella Stevens were able to control the ball, Virginia’s midfield was able to deny them space. I was sitting in front of a trio of Duke fans who weren’t familiar with the Virginia team, but as the game wore on, they were increasingly awed by Tarryn Torres who made nary a poor turn on the ball all night and played the entire game. If there is an unsung hero on this team, it must surely be Torres whose game has grown by leaps and bounds. She was always the hardest worker on the team, but as a left wing and then a left midfielder, she was more peripheral to Virginia’s game plan. Playing the center this year has showcased her game. I wrote at the beginning of the year that next season, the team would be Spaanstra’s. I was wrong. Spaanstra is a wonderfully gifted technician, but next year the team will be Torres’.
Ten minutes into the second half, Virginia scored the decisive goal. Sydney Zandi, who lost her starting spot in midfield when she was slowed at the beginning of the season with a back injury, seems to have embraced her role as first-sub-off-the-bench, much like Betsy Brandon did last year. Zandi chipped a cheeky pass to Meg McCool, who turned, played the ball off the volley, and fired the shot past Duke keeper, Brooke Heinsohn. McCool is riding the wave of the best form of her collegiate career and has scored 14 goals on the season. Five of them have been game winners. She can turn in either direction and shoot with both feet. Rebecca Jarrett, who had several runs, the likes of which must cause opposing coaches to shiver, is the potential game changer on the team. But is becoming more and more obvious that it is McCool that holds to the keys to Cavalier expectations.
In the two games that we have played against Duke, they have proven that they are the team out there that can counter us most effectively. Their finishing against us has been lackluster. Keeper Laurel Ivory only had to make two saves this game as Duke pushed at least two quality chances wide. Ivory’s reputation may precede her: if the attacking team knows there is a good keeper awaiting them, they're under pressure to make “the perfect shot.” It is, after all, always a good thing when the defending team can put the pressure on the attacking team.
Next Up: It’s grudge-match time this Friday as Virginia gets Florida State for the second year in a row in the semi-final round. Last year the FSU juggernaut was just gathering steam as the Seminoles handled the Cavaliers pretty easily. We’ll see if Virginia can exact revenge this time around.