The Virginia women’s soccer team has a chance to make its first NCAA tournament quarterfinal appearance in six years as they face the Rice Owls in Round of 16 action on Wednesday night. Virginia used wins over SIU Edwardsville and twelfth-seeded BYU to earn a chance at the Elite Eight. The Cavalier defense was outstanding against the Cougars, holding one of the best offensive teams in the country to no goals in a 2-0 victory.
Virginia goalie Laurel Ivory is looking to build off of her career performance against BYU — which saw her block a career-high 11 saves — as they take on a talented Rice team. The Hoos will have a much different type of test against the Owls as Rice took just one shot in their 1-0 win over No. 5 seed West Virginia. That one shot was all the Owls needed, but Virginia head coach Steve Swanson knows the Hoos cannot let up after surviving a BYU team that peppered Ivory with 19 shots.
“If you look at their body of work for the whole year, I mean, they’re a good team,” Swanson said of Rice. “They deserve to be where they are. They’ve been very consistent, and they’ve beaten some very good teams. I don’t think it was by accident. They’re well organized, they know what they’re trying to do, and they do it, they do it very well.”
For the Hoos, the offense has been running through third-year Alexa Spaanstra. She has four of Virginia’s five goals in the NCAA tournament, and leads the team with 10 goals this season. “She’s just a fantastic athlete,” Swanson stated when asked about Spaanstra. “She’s got probably the best engine of any player I’ve ever coached. She can, she can move for 90 minutes, but she can move at a really high clip for 90 minutes, which is rare.”
Spaanstra thrived against SIUE and BYU thanks in part to having more space to operate. She won’t be alone up front as second year Diana Ordoñez has continued to build off of her stellar freshman season by leading the team in points (23). Both will have to be sharp as they face a Rice team that has only allowed 10 goals in 17 games.
Defensively, Ivory is supported by a strong group that includes third year Claire Constant and first year Samar Guidry. It had been awhile since Ivory played in an NCAA tournament, however, as she missed 2019 with a broken jaw sustained in the ACC tournament finals and 2020 was canceled as a result of COVID.
Now, she’s excited to be able to be playing in the postseason again. “Right before the tournament, it kind of hit me that I hadn’t played in an NCAA tournament since 2018,” Ivory told media on Tuesday. “I was like, ‘whoa, first of all, I’m old. Second of all, that’s just crazy.’ The fact that 2020 didn’t happen, and it feels so long ago what happened in 2019. It’s been so fun. It feels good to be back out there with everyone.”
Like many other sports, women’s soccer dealt with schedule changes, postponements, and cancellations as a result of the pandemic. The Hoos played 12 games — including two ACC tournament games — from September to November of 2020 before playing a four-game spring season. While Virginia not being a nationally seeded team for the tournament was a new experience for Ivory and her teammates, the extra game (opening round) may have been a bit of a blessing. The Hoos had 18 days between their season finale against West Virginia and their NCAA tournament opener against SIUE, and, despite the slow start against the Cougars, they needed that competition against a strong opponent.
“I think we all kind of took a step back and realized how good this could be for us seeing that we didn’t really get a ton of games in the spring,” Ivory said of not getting a bye to the second round. “To get that extra game in, given it was against a good opponent in SIUE...if we could get through that game, we knew that was going to help us.”
Swanson says the Cavaliers need to be sound in all aspects of their game — offense, defense, transition, and set pieces — to be successful not only tonight against the Owls, but also going forward in the tournament. “Every facet of our game has to be be good. We have to be make good, smart decisions on attack, we have to make sure we’re getting the ball in areas where we can cause some problems for them, we have to be good in transition defensively, we have to be good and organized defensively, and we have to be good in our set plays.”
You can catch all of the action tonight as the Hoos and Owls kick off at 9pm at WakeMed Park in Cary, North Carolina. The game will be streamed here.