CHARLOTTESVILLE – Banners and flags celebrating national championships adorn towering white columns that line the southern boundary of Klockner Stadium at the University of Virginia. The men’s soccer team supplied six of them, men’s lacrosse five and women’s lacrosse three.
The absence of women’s soccer laurels should not suggest a failing program. Far from it. The Cavaliers have qualified for the NCAA tournament every autumn for almost 20 years, prepped players for World Cups and Olympics, and won two titles in an ACC that has been dominated by North Carolina for decades.
One pursuit remains unfulfilled. And it’s a big one.
For all of their accomplishments — more than 200 victories in Steve Swanson’s 14 seasons as coach and an ACC title last year — the Cavaliers have fallen short of a national championship. But 2013 carries the promise to end the absence and add fresh color to Klockner’s ribbon of champions.
Boasting the nation’s highest-scoring attack, a veteran lineup and a collection of All-Mets, Virginia (14-0-0) has held the top position in the coaches’ poll for a month and stands two victories from equaling the program record for consecutive wins. No other Division I team, women’s or men’s, has a perfect record.
“This program has always had a rich tradition, and we take pride in it,” said Swanson, who has overseen three NCAA quarterfinal berths but has fallen short of guiding the program to its first Final Four appearance since 1991.
“We’ve been very close. For one reason or another, we haven’t pushed through to the very end. Hopefully, it will come. One day it will come. I am confident about that.”
The Cavaliers’ confidence has grown during the most challenging stretch of the regular season: a 3-2 overtime victory over No. 9 Notre Dame last Thursday and a 2-0 triumph at No. 14 Wake Forest three days later. After visiting North Carolina State this Thursday, they will face defending NCAA champion North Carolina on Sunday in Chapel Hill.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you feel pressure of being number one?’ ” said senior defender Molly Menchel of Alexandria. “The answer is ‘no.’ Every game we have this feeling we are going to win. There is no doubt in our mind, even if we are down. There is a belief and an excitement, but we’re not satisfied.”
Virginia last sat atop the poll 23 years ago.
The student body and community are taking notice. Attendance for the past three home matches averaged 2,460, more than double last year’s figure. A record 2,838 turned out in heavy rain for the Notre Dame thriller. The season average of 1,818 is just shy of the men’s pace.
Fans are seeing a team that not only wins and scores (3.21 goals per game), but does so with artistry and grace: a free-flowing, possession-oriented style centered around Georgia-born junior midfielder Morgan Brian (nine goals, eight assists).
Brian is also emerging with the U.S. national team. Last month, with her college teammates watching from the stands at RFK Stadium, she scored against Mexico in just her second international appearance. Brian will report to the world’s top-ranked team again for a friendly against Australia in San Antonio and miss the North Carolina trip. (Tar Heels star Crystal Dunn was also summoned.)
Brian was instrumental in the U.S. under-20 national team winning the world championship last fall in Japan — a team coached by Swanson.
The U-Va. roster includes seven players from Northern Virginia, mostly freshmen and reserves. They come from Potomac School (two), National Cathedral (two), O’Connell, W.T. Woodson and Edison.
Starting goalkeeper Morgan Stearns, a freshman, lived on and off in the Washington area, yanked around the country and world by her mother’s obligations as a military physician. She attended Lake Braddock for two years and played club soccer before moving to San Antonio. Despite the travels, she attended Swanson’s camps in Charlottesville most summers since age 10.
Her father, Chris, was a defensive lineman for Virginia’s football team from 1987 to 1990 and attended a Redskins training camp.
Stearns is not the only Cavaliers player with family ties to athletics. Sophomore forward Brittany Ratcliffe, who despite starting just once has scored eight goals, is the granddaughter of a former Brentford FC attacker in England.
Freshman midfielder Alexis Shaffer’s father, David, was Portland’s fourth-round pick in the 1986 NBA draft and her grandfather was the 1960 ACC basketball player of the year at North Carolina.
Senior defender Morgan Stith (no relation to one-time U-Va. basketball star Bryant Stith) is cousins with former NFL players Jamie and Darren Sharper as well as Hall of Fame basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer. Freshman midfielder Nicole Johnson (National Cathedral) is a cousin of Jeff Gaffney, who has held the Virginia men’s career goal-scoring record since 1985.
Coaches and players attribute much of the success to team chemistry that was forged during a spring trip to England. Aside from playing three matches, the Cavaliers attended an England-Ireland men’s friendly at Wembley Stadium and the women’s Champions League final between Wolfsburg and Lyon at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.
To reaffirm their commitment, before each match this fall senior midfielder Amber Fry stamps the players’ arm or leg with a message in black ink: ALL IN.
“The biggest signs to me are not so much in the results but the day to day,” Swanson said. “They love soccer. They love one another. They love competing. And they are good together.”