It is a truism that, at the highest level of sport, which describes a game between the Virginia Cavaliers and Florida State Seminoles, games are won and lost at the margins. And the margin here was a shin pad. Talia Staude’s shin pad to be exact.
Florida State is arguably the best program in the country over the past decade, having won three of the past eight national championships. Despite losing head coach Mark Krikorian out of the blue this past spring — and a couple of four-year starters who otherwise would have come back for their super-COVID fifth year — new head coach Brian Pensky has the ‘Noles sitting atop the ACC in their customary place.
Last year, the Cavaliers won the ACC regular season title, drawing 1 – 1 with FSU along the way. Florida State won the ACC tournament, knocking off Virginia 1 – 0 in the final. This game was always going to be the best game of the season.
Which brings me to Staude’s shin pad…
In the first minute of the game, on Florida State’s first foray into Virginia territory, Jenna Nighswonger drove the ball towards Onyi Echegini. Staude, as is her wont, had cut out the pass, only the ball hit her right on her shin pad, and bounced right to Jody Brown – who was just past the penalty spot – and she buried the shot. 47 seconds into the game and Virginia was down a goal. It was a fortuitous bounce to be sure, but FSU was dictating the action and Jody Brown is too fine a ballplayer to spurn that chance.
The Virginia women just shrugged off the goal and went to work and, four minutes later, had the first of a trio of good opportunities. All came to nought, but the tone was set and, for the most part, Virginia controlled midfield. It was clear that Brian Pensky had tasked Leilanni Nesbith with the unenviable task of marking Lia Godfrey. It was an enjoyable battle to watch all game long but, in the first 20 minutes after Brown’s goal as Virginia was trying to get back into the game, Godfrey clearly had the upper hand.
Florida State is clearly playing more directly under Pensky than they might have under Krikorian and, about 10 minutes in, they had a wonderful counter that was snuffed out by keeper Kayla White. For the most part, that would be the end of any serious threat of the ‘Noles scoring. FSU did have one sequence where they had three straight corners — remember that Virginia lost to Notre Dame on a botched corner — and they defended all three successfully.
It took a long a time for Alexis Theoret to get involved in the game as I noted that at the 27-minute mark, Theoret seemingly had her first touch on the ball. I’ve observed a couple of times this season that Samar Guidry has “lost” her dribbling mojo, but she nevertheless had her most dynamic offensive game of the season, and she put in a pair of lovely crosses. One of those Haley Hopkins headed inches over the post. It was a game of margins, and Hopkins’ margin was four or five inches too high.
With three minutes left in the half, Jill Flammia, Maya Carter and Sarah Brunner all entered the game and the spark they brought was palpable. With 30 seconds left, Flammia started an attack that led to a dangerous Brunner cross to Carter, which, alas, Carter couldn’t convert. At that moment, the midfield battle which Virginia was winning, turned into a rout.
The rout, as it were, continued in the second half as Virginia piled on the pressure for 45 minutes on the FSU goal. It was all one-way as Virginia simply ran Florida State off the pitch. But you have to put the ball in the back of the net, and Florida State refused to crack. Virginia’s best chance came off a brilliant Laney Rouse drive to the touchline and cross to Hopkins, who finally got the ball exactly where she wanted it, and she neaely headed it home. Except that keeper Cristina Roque made the save of the season.
Seriously, that was stunningly great.
Virginia kept knocking and Florida State kept answering. Three separate times a Florida State defender saved the ball off the goal line, past a beaten Roque. It would have been nice if the half had lasted another 10 minutes — Virginia was on the verge of scoring. But the ‘Hoos had 89 minutes to equalize and couldn’t pull it off. And, with two ACC losses already, the likelihood that they will defend their ACC regular season title seems remote.
Injury Notes: Jill Flammia, who saw decent minutes in the team’s first four games and then missed the next six, returned with a bang today. Her three-minute cameo in the first half was so impressive that she started the second half. She turns on the ball beautifully and possesses Alexa Spaanstra-like vision. It’s good to get her back.
Head coach Steve Swanson is notoriously paranoid about revealing the injury status of his players, but with ACCN’s lead announcing crew spending time with him the past couple of days, he apparently did not rule out the return of Rebecca Jarrett this season. I caught her a couple of times on the telecast and she was walking easily, without crutches and seemingly without a boot. Her return would be huge.
Congratulations: Kayla White was named National Player of the Week by the United Soccer Coaches, the same folks who give us the weekly ratings. I think it’s fair to say that White has emerged from Laurel Ivory’s shadow.
Goon watch: Florida State in the Jaelyn Howell and Emily Madril years displayed a certain thuggishness on the pitch. Howell and Madril are gone, but FSU has a new candidate in Ran Iwai who twice delivered forearm blows to Maggie Cagle in the space of five minutes. Iwai is a natural midfielder who is playing defense just because there is no one else available for FSU, and she had been roasted all game long by Cagle and Laney Rouse. But the blows were needless, and they could have been dangerous. Welcome to the club, Iwai.
Fans: A special shout out goes to the fans for this one. Over 3000 came to the match, the Pep Band was in full voice, the joint was jumping, and I could hear the thunder stix on the telecast. It was a shame Virginia couldn’t equalize.
Next Up: The women host Syracuse on Sunday at 2pm. The game will be shown on ACCN Extra.