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Cavaliers assert themselves with win over UNC

Brittany Ratcliffe scored in No. 1 Virginia's big win over No. 4 UNC. (Photo copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The Untouchables from Charlottesville continued their perfect season on Sunday as No. 1 Virginia (16-0, 12-0 ACC) toppled fourth-ranked North Carolina (13-3, 9-3 ACC), 2-0. A first-half goal from Brittany Ratcliffe got the Cavs off to a flying start and Makenzy Doniak put the game out of reach in the second set with her team-leading 12th goal of the season.

Virginia have had the Tar Heels’ number over the last few years, winning twice and drawing once in their last three matchups. An air of uncertainty hung over the field for the Cavaliers coming into this year’s edition, though, as Caroline Miller, so often the bane of UNC’s existence, graduated last year and now plies her trade at the professional level, while Morgan Brian, the keystone in the Virginia attack, was suiting up simultaneously, albeit halfway across the country, for the U.S. national team.

Just to make it a fair fight, the Tar Heels were without midfield locomotive Crystal Dunn who joined Brian in Houston as an outside back for the U.S. squad.

The game started, as most do, with Carolina launching out of the gate from the starting whistle in their high-intensity 3-4-3 formation. A spell of pressure had the Cavaliers mostly back in their defensive half for the first eight minutes, but Virginia eventually settled into a rhythm and began to control more of the run of play. Neither team managed a shot, though, through the first 12 minutes.

Virginia would shock the home crowd in the 13th minute as Danielle Colaprico served a ball into the box where Ratcliffe was isolated one-on-one with Amber Munerlyn. Ratcliffe, getting her second start of the season with Brian out of the lineup, took full advantage of the Cavaliers’ first foray into the box, running up on the ball to create space from Munerlyn then hitting a nifty flick with the outside of her boot toward goal. The quick touch sent the ball just between the near post and the scrambling mitts of Carolina keeper Bryane Heaberline to put the Cavs up 1-0.

The goal was Ratcliffe’s 11th of the season, one behind Doniak for the team lead, with all but today’s score coming off the bench.

[MORE: With only one College Cup appearance, is this finally Virginia’s year?]

Attempting to wrestle control back from Virginia, Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance made a running alteration to his lineup, switching from the attack-minded three-back, three-forward to a four-player backline with five in the midfield. Although the switch didn’t pay immediate dividends, the Tar Heels came out in the second half and began to dictate play in their favor.

“We just tried to play a little bit more conservatively in the other system and even though we switched to the other system midway through the first half, we didn’t really change the flow of the game till the second half in the same system, so I don’t think going to the 4-2-3-1 really stemmed the tide as much as it made us just a little bit more secure and then we managed to play a little bit better in that system in the second half.”

“Virginia sat on us in the first half and I thought the kids in the second half came out (and) played with a lot more composure. We played a lot better in the second half, we sat on them.”

Virginia coach Steve Swanson knew his team were in no position to bunker in or relax in the second half despite of the one-goal advantage:

Annie Steinlage of Virginia. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

“When we left the locker room we talked about getting the second one as opposed to just being content to be up. I didn’t think one was going to win it, I thought we needed to get another one, but they stepped up the pressure there. At times it’s difficult ‘cause you want them to play, but you have to be careful where you’re trying to play and we got caught a little bit, pinned in a little too much there in the second half, and I thought we were trying to clear a lot of balls.”

As Carolina pushed for the leveling goal, Swanson would need a tremendous, resilient performance from the Cavalier defense and he got exactly that. The Tar Heels managed only one shot through the first half and could only add three more in the second despite having a decisive advantage in possession. Only one of those four shots required a save from freshman goalkeeper Morgan Stearns as Virginia’s rear guard largely stifled and frustrated UNC’s limited chances.

“Our two center backs were fantastic today,” Swanson emphatically said of defensive duo Shasta Fisher and Emily Sonnett. “I thought that was the best game Shasta Fisher’s played for us… she just raised her whole level today and I was really proud of her. I thought she solved pressure well at times, making good decisions about when to clear it and when we could play.

“And Emily Sonnett… here’s a kid that never has played center back for us, never, and she’s been a big part of our defense the last two years. She’s a two-way player and very heady.

“I thought our whole backline, Morgan Stith, Kristen McNabb, Molly Menchel, did a great job,” he continued. “I don’t think we win the game unless those guys play well.”

Swanson was equal in his praise of Michigan State-transfer Annie Steinlage. A rock-solid center back in her previous life as a Spartan, Steinlage has successfully adapted to her new holding midfield position as a senior, quietly becoming the fulcrum between the Cavs’ tenacious back four and the blitzing attack.

“I think it’s been a good fit for her,” the coach said of Steinlage’s conversion. “and I thought she stepped up her game again today, too. I think we needed her to be more of a ball-winner today and I thought she got out of pressure at times really well and just worked very hard, so I thought she was a big factor in the game.”

It would be midfielder-turned-centerback Sonnett, though, who would lead the charge on a counter-attack to ultimately put the game beyond doubt.

In the 84th minute, Sonnett dribbled upfield from the back line and, meeting little resistance through the middle of the park, continued her drive into Carolina’s defensive half. Sonnett dished off for sophomore Doniak who broke down the right side and fired a shot to the opposite post to double the lead.

Dorrance admitted afterward that he reverted the team back to its initial attacking formation for a late push, opening the space Virginia needed for their second goal:

“Last ten minutes we tried to figure out a way to steal a goal, so what we did is we took a system that was working for us in terms of sitting on them in the 4-2-3-1, and then we went to the 3-4-3. We were a bit too fatigued to play that system at the end and Virginia stole another one to give them the 2-0 margin.” “That’s the nature of the beast for them,” Swanson said of his team’s ability to exploit Carolina’s strength in the end. “They’re going to give away something maybe a little bit in the back for what they get up top in terms of pressure.”

Two goals down and barely six minutes left on the clock, an optimistic Carolina supporter immediately took up the rallying cry: “Taaarrr!!!” Among the 1,600 in attendance, only a handful of fans meekly echoed the call. Another attempt to lift spirits and ignite some hope among the Tar Heels faithful was again met with a timid reply and the chant quickly died. All but the most half-full of glasses knew the writing was on the wall.

Ultimately there would be few chances over the dying minutes as Virginia marched to a milestone victory, tying their best string of consecutive wins in program history with 16. The Cavaliers also became the only team over three decades to ever defeat the Tar Heels at home in three straight seasons as well as being one of only two teams to win by a margin of two or more goals since 1985.

For a team that just accomplished so much, Swanson and his Cavaliers remained relatively subdued in their celebrations, shaking hands and offering back-pats as if beating the reigning national champs was just another day at the office. The restrained delight is indicative of a mature, seasoned team whose desires aren’t satiated by short-term goals.

“I think it’s just trying to get better as the season goes on,” Swanson said about the team’s drive and focus, “and our players have been great about just not really looking at anything other than the performance ahead. I think that’s one of the keys for us getting better is that I don’t think they’re satisfied, they don’t really worry about all this other stuff as opposed to just making sure we’re concentrating as a team on getting better and focusing on the next game.”

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