The Virginia Cavaliers had a lot to overcome as they traveled to Southern California for the Thanksgiving Weekend. The UCLA Bruins had already knocked off two ACC foes this year – Duke and UNC – and Virginia was making their sixth trip to Wallis Annenberg Stadium where they were just 1 – 5 versus UCLA in the NCAA tournament. My initial thoughts over the first 15 minutes of the game were that the Cavs looked jet-lagged; but of course they had been out West at least since Thursday.
At this point in the season, I have two early metrics for Virginia success: not giving up a 4th minute goal? Check. Seeing central midfielder Alexis Theoret active and on the ball? Check. Virginia opened up the game firmly in control against the #1-seeded Bruins, who also like to control the ball. UCLA was not pressing and looked very comfortable defending in depth.
Virginia was bossing the ball and UCLA was struggling to play out of the back, twice giving the ball back to Virginia on casual mis-plays. Virginia had three shots in the first 14 minutes, and while none were particularly dangerous, they showed a team that was in control.
Until they weren’t. Sunshine Fontes and Lexi Wright combined on a nice give-and-go with Fontes getting the ball back in full stride. From the corner of the six-yard box, Fontes fired off a speculative shot on the Virginia goal. Keeper Kayla White had position. The shot wasn’t particularly hard, but White muffed it and the ball squirted through her hands. I expect she will have nightmares about that goal until play starts again next summer because the shot should have been saved.
As is typical, the Bruins came out renewed after the goal. As the game announcer commented: Goals change momentum. Seven minutes later Virginia was lucky to have not surrendered a second goal when Lexie Wright was flagged for offsides before she bundled the ball into the net.
Virginia just looked off. Maggie Cagle and Alexa Spaanstra were just a step slow and they were well-defended all night. How teams defend against defender Talia Staude when she brings the ball forward is telling of how that team is going to defend. On this night, UCLA did not pressure Staude at all and she was free to spray passes around and start the attack. Unfortunately for the Hoos, her service was largely poor. I’ve railed for the past two years about this woman not receiving All-ACC consideration, but on her play in this game, she won’t be receiving any going forward. Lia Godfrey and Samar Guidry both had crosses that missed badly. Surprisingly badly. Jill Flammia came on and she promptly disappeared.
In short, it was as bad a performance as we’ve seen from the Cavaliers this late in the season in several years.
And yet, UCLA wasn’t able to take advantage and Virginia had the lion’s share of possession in the first half. Despite playing a #1 seed and having traveled clear across the country.
As Penn State found out last week, Virginia does not give up. They took control of the second half as the passes looked a little sharper and Virginia started playing with a little more urgency. Haley Hopkins moved out wide where she shredded the UCLA defense on two successive plays. Virginia won two corners in quick succession. The equalizing goal was coming.
30 minutes into the second half, it did come. Godfrey drilled a corner and Hopkins headed it home. If you can’t score in the run of play, set pieces can come to the rescue. Nine minutes later, Godfrey and Hopkins again teamed up on a corner but Hopkins couldn’t get much pace on the ball and the UCLA keeper made a fine save.
This year the NCAA has decided to bring the collegiate game more in line with world standards by way of eliminating the Golden Goal, or what soccer calls sudden death. The women could have used the current FIFA emphasis on extended stoppage time. The women had been on the front foot most of the half, they could have really used an extra 7 or 9 or 14 minutes added on.
Alas, the game ended after 90 minutes and went into overtime. The game opened up. Both teams were fighting to extend their season after all. Both had promising 1 v 1 drives that fizzled out. It was UCLA who was able to capitalize. A deflected cross fell to Sofia Cook, who took the shot beautifully into the lower right corner. Virginia would have 13 minutes to find a second equalizer, a task they were more than up to on the season. Ask Penn State. Ask UNC.
But not this game. With three minutes left, Staude found Hopkins for the kind of opportunity that the Cavs have been burying all year, but Hopkins’ header was about a foot high. With that last chance, so ended the 2022 season for the Cavaliers.
We’ll give head coach Steve Swanson the final word:
“It was a tough one to lose, obviously. We’re really proud of the team, the effort and the tremendous resiliency they’ve shown all season. It was tough to be down at the half, but we got ourselves back in the game. We put ourselves in a good position to win, we just didn’t make the plays down the stretch. We could have easily come out of here with a win and that’s part of why it hurts so bad.”
And so we bid farewell to Super Seniors Alexa Spaanstra, Claire Constant and Rebecca Jarrett. I have been proud to watch just about every minute they have played on the pitch. I had thought with this trio returning this could be the year that Swanson would get to lift the only trophy absent from his collection (Swanson does have two women’s world cup winner’s medals). Alas, there’s only one team that is going to get that privilege this season, and it won’t be UVa. Farewell also to captain Emma Dawson, and to transfers Haley Hopkins and Sarah Clark.
All That’s Left: I will be rooting for Alabama to take home the College Cup next weekend in Cary, North Carolina. Former Virginia player Ashlynn Serepca transferred to Alabama last season. She was never able to crack the UVa starting lineup, and to be frank, I didn’t think she had the speed or the strength to influence games at this high a level. But she has fashioned quite the second career at Tuscaloosa where she is the second leading scorer on the team. Serepca had a goal and an assist in the Tide’s win over Duke in the quarterfinals. Serepca was a model teammate at Virginia and she graduated in 3 ½ years. She’s the poster child for why relaxed transferring is the way to go in collegiate sports. Make your former teammates proud, Ash!