The season had evolved into one of such promise: the women had been the #1 team in the country for 8 weeks; five members were All-Americans; a 19 – game undefeated streak; just 2 goals conceded in the ACC regular season; and Diana Ordonez blazing her way into the national consciousness. Adding to the 14-season streak of reaching the Sweet 16 seemed all but assured. But the promise fizzled out as the Cavaliers ultimately couldn’t overcome the injuries to Courtney Petersen and Laurel Ivory and whatever the hell it was that happened to Phoebe McClernon.
Petersen did start the game – she would go on to play the entire 90 minutes – providing a welcome boost because she had missed the previous three games and UVa had been without the finest crosser in the women’s game. Petersen seemed fit and as fast as she’s been all season, but her touch was off and the rust was evident.
But there was no sign of McClernon at the right back, the spot she had come to claim as her own. Manning the right side, for maybe the third time this season, was winger/midfielder Alexa Spaanstra, who is simply put, the most creative player we have. More on that later.
When the history of this season is written, the defining narrative will be the season-long de-evolution of Phoebe McClernon, who was (pretty easily) the best player on the team last season. She started out at her familiar spot at left center back, paired with Zoe Morse, but as freshman Talia Staude emerged, McClernon lost her place and was shifted to right back, a position that she negated her quality. She played fewer and fewer minutes, she was on the bench for some of the most important minutes of the season, and last game she was replaced by Makenna Angotti at a moment when Alyssa Gorzak (another forward) was playing left defensive back.
And then against Washington State, she was nowhere to be seen. She might have been on the sideline with the team, but the TV cameras only isolated on keeper Ivory when they showed the team, and from long range, I could not distinguish between three ponytailed brunettes wearing winter parkas. It is frustrating following, and covering, a non-revenue collegiate sport. Before the UMBC game, every Virginia fan knew that DeAndre Hunter was out of the tournament with a broken wrist. When Austin Nichols was kicked off the team it was announced right away. Yet because no one cares about women’s sports in general, and soccer in particular, coaches don’t have to say anything. There’s just no demand for them to. And I want to respect Phoebe McClernan’s privacy, if it is in fact a matter than demands privacy, but it is natural for the fan to wonder “what if” following a loss. I wonder what happened to the player that is now the shell of McClernon. (Actually, The Husk of Phoebe McClernon would make a great punk band name.)
For the game itself, Washington State came out confident and attacked from the opening whistle. If there is a conference as good as the ACC in women’s soccer, it is surely the PAC 12, and having already played Stanford, UCLA and USC, they were certainly not afraid of the #1 seeded Cavaliers. It didn’t help that Virginia played like it was the first game of the season, not the 22nd. All the players were off: passes were too long or too short, we missed simple traps, and then when we did hit the player, it was to her wrong foot. We even muffed two throwins. I don’t think it was due to Washington State’s play – we’ve been pressed harder several times this season – we were just “off”. Petersen’s touch was absent, Spaanstra was stuck in defense, Anna Sumpter didn’t start, and even Taryn Torres (I can make a case for her as MVP of the team this year) got caught in possession twice in the first 10 minutes. Throw in a couple of poor throw-ins and we never established our rhythm.
And Washington State knew exactly where to attack: Alexa Spaanstra at right back. Wazzu scored their opening goal and the winning goal (as well as a goal called back for offsides) down our right side. Spaanstra is a brilliant player and she may well have the clearest path the pros of any UVa footballer, but she was exposed as a defender, though Claire Constant, who made it back for this game, fared little better on the right when she relieved Spaanstra.
The team fought back, because these women always do, from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits. We played better in the 2nd half, not uncoincidentally because Sumpter started the 2nd half, and we had a pair of really good chances to take the lead late in the half (though to be honest, Wazzu missed a potentially easier one.)
The game winner came with 8 minutes remaining in the game and it’s one that keeper Michaela Moran will have nightmares about because she had a chance to make the save, and then save the rebound, but in the end, it bounced off a Cougar and trickled into the back of the net. And just like that, UVa became the biggest upset of the year.
And so ends the careers of seniors Zoe Morse, Meg McCool, Courtney Petersen and Phoebe McClernon. Turnover is the very essence of collegiate sports, and you would think that after 40+ years of being a college sports fan, I would be used to it by now. (What Virginia fan didn’t secretly fantasize that Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome were going to return to the fold this year and defend their national title?) But their departure hurts more, and I will miss them more than any graduating class. This quartet were so good and they played the game the way I coach my girls to play, and they never stopped competing. We have a wealth of talent returning to Klockner’s confines next year, and the forecast is for lots of great games and a lot of wins next year. But these four will be etched in my memory.