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Bruno: Breaking down ACC happenings thus far

Morgan Brian and unbeaten Virginia still sit atop the ACC and the nation. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

Now a month into conference play, we can take a step back and see how the conference table is shaping up in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Several teams have a game or two in hand, with the maximum number of games played up to this point being eight (of which Boston College is the only team to have played). At stake are eight spots in the conference tournament in early November, with the four highest teams hosting the first round, then moving on to Cary, NC for the semifinals and final.

No. 1 – Virginia (6-0, 18 points) The No. 1 team in the ACC and the country, Virginia leads the conference in every team offense category. The Cavaliers are currently first in the country in scoring, averaging 3.33 goals and 23.8 shots per game (2.5 gpg and 21.83 spg in conference play), placing 44 percecnt of those on frame. Sophomore Makenzy Doniak leads the team with 25 points (10 goals, 5 assists) while Morgan Brian is a close second with 24 points (8 goals, 8 assists) and could be on her way to a MAC Hermann Trophy despite being invisible on the preseason watch list. It’s not just a two-woman show in Charlottesville, though, as nine other players have contributed to the goal tally this season and 13 others have pitched in for assists. Freshman Morgan Stearns has emerged as the keeper of choice for Steve Swanson over the more experienced Danielle DeLisle and has only allowed four shots past her in nine games.

Although they’ve already knocked off Penn State and Santa Clara in the pre-conference season, some critics might be a little bearish on the Cavaliers, given they have yet to play any of the ACC’s other Top 5 teams, while their entire pre-conference schedule was played at their home base of Klockner Field, making upcoming road tests in Chapel Hill and Tallahassee a little difficult to predict. To their credit, the Cavs have already weathered a three-game road stretch against Boston College, Pitt and Duke, but they seemed to make those matches harder than they needed to be, spotlighting a minor criticism, if there’s one to be found: UVA seem to be more vulnerable in the first half.

In each of those matches, Virginia went in the hole early and had to come from behind to get the win, as the Cavaliers have allowed over two-thirds of their goals-against to come in the first half while the majority of their goals scored have come in the second half. Thursday’s match at home against Notre Dame, a team that has specifically focused on getting quick starts this season, will provide the first sampling of the cream of the conference crop. After that, Virginia will travel down to North Carolina to face Wake Forest, NC State and the UNC Tar Heels on Oct. 20th in a match that, unfortunately, won’t feature each team’s brightest stars (Brian and UNC’s Crystal Dunn will be with the USWNT). For the last three matches of the season, the Cavaliers can unpack their bags as they host Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

No. 2 – Florida State (5-0-2, 17 points) Defense has been the key to success for the Seminoles again this year and the team goes into the eighth week of the season as one of only four teams in the nation yet to suffer a loss. Not surprisingly, keeper Kelsey Wys and FSU are tied for the lead with four shutouts through seven conference games and Wys’ season goals-against average is .51.  Losing all-time scoring leader Tiffany McCarty and career assists leader Jessica Price has hampered attacking productivity, but the offense generally does just enough to get the job done. The Icelandic pair of redshirt freshman Berglind Thorvaldsdottir and junior Dagny Brynjarsdottir lead the team with six and four goals, respectively (a combined total that matches Doniak’s output at Virginia).

The Seminoles have dropped points twice, with draws against Clemson and Wake Forest, but hang onto the No. 2 spot by a point after seven games. They’ve already faced North Carolina, winning 1-0, but have the other Top 5 teams saved for the last three games of the season, with a late-October weekend in Virginia to face the Hokies and Cavaliers, before wrapping up with a Halloween fixture against Notre Dame.

No. 3 – Notre Dame (5-1-1, 16 points) Picked to finish fifth in the preseason conference poll, coaches didn’t give the three-time national champions much of a shot in their new league, but the Fighting Irish have had a solid showing so far. It was looking rosy for the Irish through the first five as the ACC newcomers were perfect, but the team only collected one point in Week 4 of conference play as they tied Wake and lost for the first time in program history to Miami. Their marquee result so far is the victory over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, but stern challenges await, with Virginia next on tap on Thursday night.

Judging from the Miami result, ND’s lack of proximity to any school in the ACC may be starting to wear on the players and they’ll be out for another long road trip again for the last two games of the season, taking on Clemson in South Carolina then heading further south for the aforementioned Oct. 31st matchup with FSU. Lauren Bohaboy leads the team with six goals, while the all-star midfield duo of Morgan Andrews and Cari Roccaro each have four. Coach Randy Waldrum tinkered with the role last year’s goal-scoring leader, Crystal Thomas, changing it role from scorer to provider and the sophomore has responded brilliantly, leading the team in assists with seven. Goalkeeper Kaela Little has had an excellent rookie campaign in net, allowing seven in through 12 games with the most recent game against Miami being the only time the freshman has allowed more than a goal in a game. In front of her, center backs Katie Naughton and Sammy Scofield are shaping up to be one of the best pairs in the league, but the defense overall has struggled to close out games, giving up six of their seven goals allowed in the second half.

No. 4 – Virginia Tech (5-1-1, 16 points) Since the conference opener loss to UNC, the Hokies have gone on a six-match unbeaten streak, winning five and drawing one. With Notre Dame, Wake, FSU and Virginia still left, that streak is likely to stop soon (possibly as early as Sunday’s match against the Irish). The absence of Hokie career points leader Kelly Conheeney from the offense has given senior Jazmine Reeves, utilized mostly as a sub in 2012, and sophomore Ashley Meier the chance to step up and they’ve filled the void capably, tying for the team lead with seven goals each. Canadian keeper Dayle Colpitts is closing in on the end of a fantastic career at Tech and her senior season performance thus far might see her set all-time marks in some of Tech’s goalkeeping categories. Colpitts currently has six shutouts on the season, one away from the high-water mark of seven she established in 2011 and 2012, and is ranked fifth in a league chock full of quality keepers with a 0.61 goals-against average.

Not everything has gone well for the Tar Heels this season, but there are plenty of games left to be played. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

No. 5 – North Carolina (4-2-0, 12 points) Almost universally chosen to win another national championship, the Heels are still in decent shape despite conference losses to Notre Dame and FSU, and have moved up in the latest NSCAA poll to No. 4 in the nation. At this time last year they were 3-2-1 in the conference and 7-3-2 overall, so they’re actually better off than last year. Five of their last seven conference games will be at Fetzer with next Thursday’s home fixture against No. 1 Virginia looking like the most critical match on the schedule. The UNC/UVA rivalry has picked up steam of late since the Cavaliers actually started winning a couple of the matches (UNC has a 35-2-3 edge in the series) and there are still plenty of Tar Heels on the pitch that remember 2011’s gut-wrenching loss on Caroline Miller’s golden goal, as well as the Carolina Killer’s return to Fetzer in 2012 when UVA eliminated the Heels from the ACC Tournament. If the home side can secure a win this year, the season’s early losses will be forgotten in the minds of many and Carolina would be back on track to fulfill their preseason expectations.

 

Coach Anson Dorrance continues to platoon goalkeepers Anna Sieloff and Bryane Heaberlin, but the edge in conference play is definitely with Sieloff, who has yet to allow a goal against an ACC opponent this year while Heaberlin has conceded all four scores against the Heels. Dangerous as ever, Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai have done most of the heavy lifting in the attack, accounting for 58 percent of the team’s goal haul, while only five other players have scored for UNC this year (Paige Nielsen and Summer Green each have four). Both Alexa Newfield and Amber Munerlyn are back from injuries and each player adds a unique dimension to Carolina’s high-power attack.

No. 6 – Boston College (4-4-0, 12 points) Boasting one of the more potent offensive tandems in the conference, the Eagles have the ability to punch well above their weight and showed it against Stanford, Virginia and Florida State. Through eight conference games, BC have already claimed quality wins over Wake Forest and Duke, while losses to the Cavs and Seminoles could have been so much different if the defense could have held on to early leads. Sophomore McKenzie Meehan currently leads the conference in goals with 13 in 12 games (six of which are game-winners, also a conference-best) and strike partner Stephanie McCaffrey has seven of her own, making them the highest-scoring duo in the league. Sunday the Eagles have a chance to test another Top 10 team, hosting UNC on the tough turf in Newton. Beyond next week’s non-conference match against Central Connecticut, BC have Miami, Notre Dame, Maryland, and Syracuse left on their agenda. The way the Eagles have been playing this season, you wouldn’t count against them having a small run of fortune and taking points of each of their remaining opponents.

No. 7 – Wake Forest (3-2-2, 11 points) The Demon Deacons have had something of a Jekyll and Hyde season: Sometimes they sparkle, sometimes they’re flat. A come-from-behind win against Portland along with draws against FSU and Notre Dame indicate Wake can still go toe-to-toe with the best, but make losses to Maryland and Boston College seem that much more baffling. Much of that rides on forward Katie Stengel, who, by her standards, is still having a decent year with six goals through 12 games, but has generally trended downwards in production since her stellar underclassman seasons. Scoring partner Rachel Nuzzolese has been injured for most of the season, so it’s been even easier for teams to isolate Wake’s career scoring leader and nullify her effectiveness. Midfielder Riley Ridgik has done her best to take the pressure off Stengel with a decent amount of success as the two share the team lead in goals.

After that, though, the offense really tapers off as only four other Deacs have scored this season and the team as a whole ranks in the bottom half of the ACC in all major offensive stats. A stingy defense, guided by senior keeper Aubrey Bledsoe, has posted five clean sheets already, while the victory over Portland marks the only time this season a team has scored more than one goal against Wake. With six games left in the conference season, the Demon Deacons still have to contend with Virginia at home on Sunday, but travel to Blacksburg the following week to take on Virginia Tech. If they can grab points off either of those fixtures, they should be in decent shape come post-season time with winnable matches against Clemson, Pitt and NC State still to come.

No. 8 – Clemson (3-3-1, 10 points) To see Clemson sitting just at the cutoff for the ACC Tournament is fairly impressive and is indicative of the team’s gradual rise above ACC futility to actually be a program to be taken seriously. They’ve already won two more conference games than last year (so that accounts for Pitt and Syracuse’s addition), but a win over BC and a draw against Florida State are nothing to sneeze at either. It will be difficult for Clemson to get many more points through their next six, though, with away matches at NC State and Miami looking the only likely suspects. On paper the Tigers’ scoring output looks great with 26 goals on the season, but, realistically, if you factor out the game in which Clemson worked over hapless Alabama A&M like a speed bag you can strike 14 goals from their tally, dropping their respectable 2.00 goals per game to the less impressive but more appropriate 1.00 average.

No. 9 – Maryland (3-4-0, 9 points) The feel-good story of 2012, coach Jonathan Morgan, now in his second year at the helm, is finding it difficult to repeat the success of his inaugural season which earned the Terps second place in the ACC standings and runner-up in the tournament. A 1-0 home victory over Wake is probably the team’s only result worth bragging about as their other two conference wins are against Clemson and NC State. The 0-5 loss on the road in South Bend put Maryland out of contention in many people’s minds as the visitors hardly made a go of it, putting one shot on target while the Irish were swarming the net on the other end of the field. Twenty-two seconds into the UNC game on Sunday it looked like Maryland might at least continue their run of success against the national champs, but Carolina pressed them back for the rest of the game and eventually squeezed the Terrapins for three goals. Senior Hayley Brock’s output for the team has been prodigious, as usual, and her nine goals currently has her tied with Crystal Dunn for third-best in the ACC.

No. 10 – Miami (2-4-0, 6 points) A few days ago, this space would have been occupied by some mediocre praise, but the Hurricanes are coming off a nearly-inexplicable 2-0 victory over Notre Dame, the same Notre Dame that used to smack them around the Big East years ago and the same Notre Dame that had never tied or lost to Miami, so there may be some rays of hope beaming in Coral Gables now. Last year, the team squeaked into the ACC Tournament after a dramatic last-day win over regular season champs FSU and, with Pitt and Syracuse due up next, there are still winnable games left on the calendar to boost their chances of a return. There’s also the matter of a rematch with Maryland, a team that currently sits one spot above Miami in the table. Last season the two teams split a pair of games, both times in College Park, with the first match going to the ‘Canes in overtime after some on-field fisticuffs saw a number of cards distributed, while the revenge match in the ACC first round was won by the Terrapins, again in OT, as Hurricane Sandy loomed overhead. With Clemson still to play in the season finale on home turf, there’s still a chance the ‘Canes can perform some last-day heroics to get their name in the hat for the tournament.

No. 11 – Duke (1-4-2, 5 points) Winless in six straight, you can’t help but feel for Robbie Church and his Blue Devils (unless you’re a Carolina fan). Injuries to key starters Cassie Pecht and Gilda Doria among others have forced Church to shuffle his lineup weekly, trying to find some sort of balance between the three lines. To look at the offensive stats for this team is just bizarre if you’re familiar with the players as no one amongst the talented group of Kelly Cobb, Kim DeCesare, Kaitlyn Kerr and Laura Weinberg has scored more than three goals, while freshman keeper Ali Kirshner has had a real baptism by fire in the net. Theoretically, it should get easier for the team, with three of the Top 5 already out of the way, but they have an unlikely amount of ground to make up if there’s any post-season to be had for a stellar group of seniors that, just two short years ago, was so very close to a national championship.

No. 12 – Syracuse (1-5-1, 4 points) Syracuse had steadily improved in the Big East over the last few years and 2012 was a banner year for an Orange program that generally struggled to win just a handful of games, finishing 6-3-1 in conference with a nine-win season for the first time in almost a decade. Then they came to the ACC and they’ve got to do it all over again. A 4-0 win against Pitt was something of a given, but Syracuse pulled out a great result with a draw against Duke after going down by two goals in the first half. Former Big East Goalkeeper of the Year Brittany Anghel and her back line have done an admirable job keeping the team close as only two of their five ACC losses have come by more than a goal, including contests against Wake and Notre Dame, but the offensive production is sorely lacking with the Orange ranking 12th in goals and dead last in the conference in shots taken (Dunn and Ohai for UNC have taken almost as many as the entire Orange roster). Freshman Stephanie Skilton leads the team with seven goals, largely on the strength of a hat-trick in the victory over Pitt. With a large group of underclassmen, Syracuse have something to build on for the future, but, barring an improbable run of results over the next few weeks, are certain to continue their long drought of November appearances.

No. 13 – NC State (1-6-0, 3 points) Basement-dwellers no more, the Wolfpack were probably giddy with delight when the ACC adopted Pitt and Syracuse this season. NCSU have already improved on last season’s conference record just on the merits of the one victory over Pitt and, with Syracuse still to play, it could be NC State’s first two-win season since 2009. Although they have lost four of seven in conference play by three goals or more, there have been a few glimmers of hope as NC State jumped out to an early lead in the conference opener against Notre Dame and held the Seminoles scoreless through 86 minutes before FSU found a late game-winner. Jackie Stengel is having an excellent freshman campaign, accounting for nearly 40 percent of Wolfpack goals with eight, two more than sister Katie of Wake Forest.

No. 14 – Pitt (0-7-0, 0 points) Pitt’s 15 minutes of glory this season may have been the first-half lead they held over No. 1 Virginia. Through seven games, it’s been the only time the Panthers have held an advantage over an ACC team, or even scored against one at all. The rest has been mostly gruesome as a team that only won two in the Big East last season find themselves in the unenviable position of ACC piñata. Goalkeeper Nicole D’Agostino has produced some eye-opening performances to keep the team from getting truly shellacked, posting four consecutive ten-save games for a conference-leading total of 77. Sunday’s match against Syracuse likely represented the only hope Pitt had for taking any points away from this season and the Panthers lost that contest 0-4.

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