It was a brutally cold day in Happy Valley. There were mounds of snow behind UVA’s first half goal. The snow flurried pretty heavily late in the first half. The wind chill was biting. Some games you are not just battling your opponent, you are also fighting the weather. This was one such case.
Of course, the Xavier Musketeers were fighting the same biting weather conditions. For the Virginia Cavaliers, though, who left last weekend’s tragedies 300 miles behind them, this weather was surely reflective of their overall mood.
As head coach Steve Swanson said after the game:
“It’s just been a really hard week. I told the team before the game that we’re not going to be perfect today, but let’s give a perfect effort. As one of our players said, there was a little bit more emphasis on the ‘why’ this week. But I was really proud of the way the team responded to the tragedy. It’s really hard. It just puts life into perspective. You really have to come together and understand that life is so much more. It’s very precious, and you’ve got to hold on to all that you can.”
Well, as I wrote about the women’s basketball team Wednesday, mission accomplished. The team was not particularly sharp today. Lots of passes were made just a beat too slow and/or without the proper weight on the ball. And Xavier was unafraid of Virginia as they had advanced to the second round in that most exhilarating of fashions. They had been tied with Tennessee 1 – 1 after 90 minutes and then proceeded to knock home three (!) goals in overtime. I watch a lot of soccer. I am pretty sure I have never seen that before. To win in such a singular fashion would give any team a boost.
Xavier came out and pressed high and hard. They sent speed at Talia Staude when she was advancing the ball up her preferred left channel, catching her on at least four occasions (which is about as many times as she was caught all season). For the record, I have often mused why other teams don’t do this, but it worked today and she looked a bit more tentative playing the ball out of the back.
It was an effective strategy and it could have given Virginia problems, except that, on this day, the Cavaliers had Lia Godfrey. And Xavier did not. Godfrey scored just six minutes in. Virginia’s high press is not bad, either, and it forced a short clearance from Xavier keeper, Maria Galley. Virginia’s Emma Dawson took the ball out of the air on the full volley, and played it ahead to Godfrey. Lia was able to change direction with her first touch on the ball and leave two defenders in her wake. She shot from outside the box and kissed the ball off the left upright and into the goal. It was the first beautiful goal in a game that was filled with them.
Godfrey would score just 20 minutes later. Giving up the goal had deflated Xavier, understandably, a bit, and Godfrey was running rampant. She got the ball at midfield, drove right at the Xavier defense and played a give and go with Haley Hopkins. Hopkins delivered a perfect back heel pass to Godfrey at the penalty spot. Lia Godfrey? Running at pace, free 12 yards from goal with the full goal in front of her? It was like shooting fish in a barrel. No way was Godfrey going to miss this one. 2 – 0 and it looked like Virginia might just button up this game and go home early.
But soccer is a mercurial game. And Xavier responded to the second goal with much more fire than they had the first goal. If this was basketball, I would say that Xavier attacked the paint, only in this case, they attacked the penalty box and forced a handball just two yards outside the box. Xavier’s Ella Rogers lined up to take the free kick, and struck a doozy. The ball went up over the wall and then back down again, crossing the goal maybe a foot off the ground. Leo Messi? Catarina Macario? They couldn’t have hit the ball any better than Rogers. She’s going to remember this goal the rest of her life.
Predictably, Xavier’s press picked up, and the weather, if possible, got worse. The snow wasn’t sticking, but it was coming down heavily the last 15 minutes of the half. Virginia was having to work very hard to bring the ball out of the back, but Xavier was tiring doing all the chasing, so they couldn’t capitalize.
The second half started the way the fist half ended. It took about 10 minutes for Virginia to finally, well and truly, take control of the game.
The game was finally broken open with 19 minutes to go. Godfrey started a deep counter, played it up to Alexa Spaanstra, who played it to Hopkins, who gave a lovely ball ahead of Maggie Cagle. The keeper came out and Cagle wanted to push the ball wide before shooting onto the empty net, but her touch was heavy and pushed too far wide. Or so I thought. The Xavier keeper got back in her goal mouth, but Cagle was patient and composed on the ball, and slotted the ball home near post. Keeper or not.
3 – 1 and that was, finally, the game. With the win, Virginia advances to the Sweet 16, ahem, third round, to face Penn State. Penn State was the second seed and the highest ranked team of the four-team pod that included Virginia, Xavier, West Virginia and Penn State. They got the pleasure of hosting all three games, and they topped West Virginia 4 – 0 in the night cap. Virginia and Penn State face off on Sunday, November 20th at 5:00pm. The game will be streamed on ESPN with the men’s basketball team playing at 3:00. Should be a pretty great day of UVA sports.