Freshman Murielle Tiernan hated that her season had come down to penalty kicks last Sunday, but the moments that followed may have summed up exactly why the Virginia Tech women’s soccer team suddenly finds itself on the right side of history.
For one, Coach Chugger Adair and his staff had noticed on film that Santa Clara’s Morgan Marlborough always seemed to shoot left on penalty kicks. So when she did again with the Hokies and Broncos deadlocked at 1 after 110 minutes of an NCAA third-round match, goalkeeper Dayle Colpitts was there for the save.
Still, the wait was “nerve-wracking” for Tiernan, Virginia Tech’s fourth shooter and lone goal scorer that day. So she began to think about some of the lessons from the team’s weekly sessions with sports psychologist Gary Bennett.
“Dr. B would talk about how we would have to trust each other and believe in each other and it’ll work out, and it did,” said Tiernan, whose penalty shot ultimately clinched the win. The two-time All-Met player of the year from Stone Bridge has a team-high 11 goals this season.
“Halfway through ACC season, I think we really got our confidence going because we kept getting good results, so towards the postseason, we’ve really believed in ourselves that we can make a run.”
This is the sort of resolve that Adair thought had been missing from the program previously, and it’s why the Hokies are in the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time in school history. No. 4 Virginia Tech faces Duke on Friday afternoon in Blacksburg, Va., with a chance to advance to next weekend’s College Cup in Cary, N.C.
It has been a season of records. The Hokies registered more wins overall (18) and in ACC play (nine) than they ever have before. They also have scored more goals (51) than any team in school history, breaking last year’s record, and earned the program’s first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But it’s the grit they’ve shown against teams with far better pedigrees that has left a lasting impression.
“In the offseason, we focused on mental toughness and how to hold leads, maybe be a little bit tougher in those situations,” said Adair, citing three games last season when the Hokies faltered late. “I think we’ve become a possession-oriented team over the years and not overplaying when we have leads.”
Added senior Taylor Antolino: “It’s just kind of knowing that we’re part of something so much bigger than ourselves and each player on the team matters so much.”
Virginia Tech’s rise, though, had been a long time coming since the program moved from the Big East to the ACC. The Hokies are making their sixth-straight NCAA tournament appearance this year. But Adair -- his first name is Charles, but friends and family have been calling him Chugger since he can remember -- has taken them to heights few could have predicted.
The former all-American forward from San Diego is always quick to credit his players, noting he hasn’t scored a goal this year, and perhaps it’s because they’re the reason he’s in this position.
When former coach Kelly Cagle resigned in 2010, Adair was her top assistant, best scout and primary recruiter. So once Athletic Director Jim Weaver went looking for a new head coach, the players began to inundate the school’s administration with requests for Adair to be considered.
It didn’t matter that Adair had never been a head coach above the club and high school levels. The response was overwhelming and convincing, Weaver said, and the players’ faith has been rewarded.
“Chugger knows the game probably better than anyone, and he knows how to get that across to us,” Antolino said.“He’s very good at what he does. If something doesn’t go right, he always knows how to fix it or communicate it to us properly.”
The success this season has forced Adair and his team to re-adjust their goals. Before this year’s ACC tournament, the Hokies again met with Bennett and decided a national championship was within reach. Virginia Tech then became the only team in the country to beat Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals, a victory Adair says “established ourselves on the national scene.”
Still, the team felt slighted when many pundits deemed the Hokies to be the least deserving of the four ACC teams that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. On Friday, they can put all that behind them for good.
“It’s great to be part of a program that’s continually getting better as opposed to a top program that can’t go any higher,” Tiernan said. “So we really just want to back it up and prove that we deserve it.”