Virginia faced off against North Carolina for the ACC title missing two starters and a key reserve. UNC scored in the opening minutes of play. It looked bleak for the women, but as I have written before, these women do not give up.
UNC is the strongest, deepest and fastest team in the country. While UVa coach Steve Swanson typically plays one of the deepest benches in the country, only UNC’s Anson Dorrance plays more subs, this year utilizing a second line of six players, much like a hockey coach. And when his second line comes in, he’s got them playing a different formation, so game planning for UNC must be a nightmare.
As for Virginia, we were short-handed from the get-go. Starting left back Courtney Petersen is out. The player who would have replaced her, Claire Constant, lost her fitness race and missed both ACC games this past weekend. Midfielder Anna Sumpter, perhaps the most improved player on the team, was also missing. Against Florida State in the semifinals, Swanson used a pair of forwards, Ashlynn Serepca and Alexa Spaanstra, and a midfielder, Sydney Zandi, to fill in on the back line. Against UNC, Swanson opted to change formations from his standard 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2. This was an extreme change on the fly so late in the season, but it reflected the challenge of playing the deepest team in the nation.
And the game could have been catastrophic. UNC came out on fire – they usually do, they may be the fastest starting team in the country – and off a corner, ACC Freshman of the Year, Macie Bell headed home. It was as glaring a mistake on Virginia’s part as Florida State leaving Zoe Morse wide open on a similar corner.
For the remainder of the 1st half, UVa was under relentless pressure but the back line of Morse, Phoebe McClernon and Talia Staude held firm. You know how announcers always talk of how the struggling team just has to make it to half time, keep the score line down, and then re-group? In this case, that was Virginia’s task, and to be frank, it’s not one we’ve been forced into this season. For the record, Virginia had only been behind once before all season, and that was against Wake Forest for three minutes.
But in this case, half-time was crucial because the Cavaliers came out with renewed purpose and pretty much controlled the second half. As per usual, Dorrance swapped in his second line, and on Virginia’s only corner of the game, freshman Diana Ordonez scored to level the game. Dorrance rushed his starters back in and it was game on.
Until the 85th minute.
Trying to play a chipped ball, UNC’s Brianna Pinto and UVa keeper Laurel Ivory both challenged for a ball at the six yard box. Pinto missed the ball, lowered her head slightly and demolished Ivory. While Pinto was surely not trying to take out the keeper, the fact is that it was a reckless challenge. It could have been a red card and an immediate ejection for Pinto. Only the ref didn’t see it that way. He didn’t even call it a foul and awarded a drop ball to Virginia.
You can decide for yourself.
Ivory left the game under her own power, but she has been lost for the season.
Backup keeper Michaela Moran came in, the game went into overtime, and UNC’s Alessia Russo scored the Sudden Victory goal in the first overtime period. Game, set and match to UNC who won their 22nd ACC title game under Anson Dorrance.
The women, nevertheless, have much to be proud of. Writers often talk about teams “clawing their way back into a game,” and while a cliché, it was very much true for this game. Injuries are part of the sporting landscape, and many times, it is the healthiest team that is cutting down the nets at the end of the season. Steve Swanson is as needlessly close-lipped as any other coach as regards the injury status of his players, so there is no word as to when Claire Constant is coming back. But I’m going to presume her return is a given. There’s no word as to if Courtney Petersen and Anna Sumpter will feature the remainder of the year. Ivory’s season is done.
And yet, I know that Swanson must be so proud of this team. While short-handed, they battled a physically stronger UNC team to a standstill. They got no favors from the ref. This was a tough game to call, I will give the ref that, but he wasn’t up to the task. He missed a potential handball in the box against us, he missed a slightly more obvious handball in the box against UNC, he called Meg McCool for a penalty in the box that seemed pretty much of a 50/50 call that could have been a penalty for us. Those were all kind of “niggling”. I get that refs don’t want to be the ones to decide the game, but I think Pinto should have been ejected, and that surely would have changed the scope of the game. And lastly, the ref had to deal with the “home” crowd. The game was played at Cary’s WakeMed stadium, so any game there is going to be a home game for Duke or UNC. I came of age when the ACC was an 8-team league, and yes, four of those teams were from North Carolina. Yes, this is still very much a Tobacco Road league. But with expansion, the league stretches from Miami to Boston, Syracuse to South Bend. Why North Carolina continues to be the home for so, so many ACC tournaments, across all sports, is a mystery to me.
These women have proved that they are truly one of the elite teams in the nation this year. They have suffered their fair share of adversity this season, but they have played hard and have given us attractive, yet smart, soccer all season long. The season has not ended and there is still a lot of soccer left to play. Despite the loss, UVa secured a #1 seed for the upcoming NCAA tournament, and as befits a #1 seed, get to host the next several games at Klockner. First up is Radford on Saturday night at 7pm. The women have a doable bracket – we’ve already beaten four of the teams in our region – and I am going to hold out hope that we can see some of our walking wounded back on the pitch as we challenge for the College Cup.
While the women were shafted to some degree in the awards for All ACC selection, the national All American teams were more favorable to the Hoos. Meg McCool was selected as a first teamer, while Diana Ordonez, Courtney Petersen, Alexa Spaanstra, Tarryn Torres, and Phoebe McClernon were named to the second team. Laurel Ivory was a third team selection. If you’ve been paying attention, these were the same selections as the ACC teams, but as I’ve long contended, ACC coaches are idiots. These selections reflect just how the rest of the soccer community values the contributions of Steve Swanson and his girls.
Congratulations, ladies. The second season is about to begin. Wahoowa!