GREENSBORO, N.C. – In the second act of Friday night’s ACC Tournament semifinal drama, No. 4 Virginia (18-1-0) netted a pair of first-half scores against No. 5 North Carolina (12-3-2) to win 2-0 and move on to the ACC Championship final on Sunday.
Florida State beat Notre Dame in Friday’s other semifinal.
With a 35-3-3 series record, UNC routinely swatted the Cavaliers away for almost a quarter century, but Virginia have truly had the Tar Heels’ number over the last few years.. The tide changed in 2011 when Caroline Miller’s golden goal in overtime devastated the home side and announced UVa as a serious conference heavyweight. Since then, the teams have met three more times before Friday’s match, with Virginia winning two, including an away victory over the Heels to dump them out of the ACC quarterfinals in 2012, and drawing once.
This year’s Cavaliers looked to again have a decisive advantage over the Chapel Hill side on paper, especially considering Virginia’s average of 3.5 goals per game is twice as many as UNC’s average (1.75). Truth be told, though, the Cavaliers have faced much softer opposition, playing only three ranked teams in 18 games while the Tar Heels have faced nine ranked teams through 16 games, with Virginia being their 10th.
Carolina’s game strategy is almost always the same: their most intense pressure comes at the beginning and end of each half as they look to catch their opponent unprepared, off-guard, or tired, entrenching them deep in their defensive half while the ‘Heels bring wave after wave of offense. In fact, only one goal has been scored against UNC in the first 10 minutes or last five minutes of either half this season.
On Friday, the Tar Heels brought the instant offense, taking their first shot on goal in less than half a minute, but a full moon hung in the night sky and crazy things can happen. Within minutes, it was the Cavaliers who had the bold UNC players holding off a high-pressure attack and center back Emily Sonnett took the first Cavalier shot of the evening in the fourth minute. In the 10th minute, Virginia got off another shot and UNC head coach Anson Dorrance had seen enough, making an early substitution to remove Summer Green in favor of freshman Jessie Scarpa in a more defensive role.
Almost immediately, Virginia were back on attack and their scoring leader Makenzy Doniak was leading the charge. The junior broke through the center of the park as midfielder Alexis Shaffer fed her a through-ball to the right of goal.
“Shaff got it to her feet and the space around the back line was open so I made a run and she placed a great ball for me to finish,” Doniak said of how the play unfolded. “They were pressing us pretty hard so I was able to get in behind them.”
Doniak burst through the Carolina back line on a breakaway and, staring down ‘keeper Bryane Heaberlin, shot to the opposite post to open the scoring with her 14th of the season.
“Obviously, the first goal was really important for us,” said head coach Steve Swanson. “I can’t say enough about Mak, she’s one of the best goal-scorers I’ve coached. The thing about a good goal scorer, and Caroline Miller was this for us and Mak does this extremely well: no matter what the game, they put the ball in the back of the net… I think Mak’s shown consistently that she can do that. She’s the ultimate competitor.”
Swanson also said it was his players’ ability to detect and navigate the space in the Tar Heels’ system that opened things up:
“I think it was just our ability to solve pressure in certain spaces on the field that really opened the game for us. Full marks to the players, it’s one thing to say it, it’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to actually do it in the game and I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
After the game, Dorrance elaborated as well on his team’s game plan and how it unwittingly exposed a weakness in their formation that played into Virginia’s hands:
“Our philosophy is to start in the 3-4-3 and play it as long as we can. That system is impossible to maintain unless you’re constantly rotating players and… the area where we’re incredibly vulnerable in the 3-4-3 is in the midfield because what we’re requiring these two central midfielders to do is to basically play sideline to sideline, because we hunt the ball,” he said. “So wherever the ball is, the two central midfielders have to go and without pace in those positions, against the pace Virginia has, we were excited to be in there, hanging in there, with 10 minutes gone, but then we’re starting to see cracks appear in the foundations of the 3-4-3. So now we’re thinking…”
Virginia kept the pressure up after Doniak’s goal, knowing a one-goal advantage wasn’t enough to have on Carolina. Midway through the half, Dorrance began making his standard mass substitutions to rotate in fresh legs and try to keep Virginia from overwhelming his team.
In the 29th minute, though, Virginia hit the target again, this time on a rocket from the top of the box by substitute Morgan Reuther. The assist went to ACC Midfielder of the Year Danielle Colaprico, her 15th of the year to establish a new UVa single-season high-water mark. Dorrance credited the superb midfield play of both Colaprico and 2013 MAC Hermann winner Morgan Brian for bossing his team through the center of the park.
North Carolina picked up the pressure at the very end of the half and, with less than a minute left, Darcy McFarlane sent a shot into the net which defender Megan Reid headed off the line before it passed under the crossbar.
By the end of the half, Virginia were up 2-0 over Carolina, taking eight shots with five on target while UNC had managed only two shots, both on goal.
Dorrance credited Virginia’s strength of passing and playing keep-away for his team’s inability to gather momentum in attack. “Part of Virginia’s ability to defend,” the Tar Heel coach said, “is to not let the other team have the ball much and that was certainly the case in the first half.”
“We play the game at a pace that no one else plays it and so Virginia could stay with our pace in the first half,” Dorrance added, noting how the tide started to change in the second 45 as the balance shifted toward his team’s strength.
The Tar Heels did slowly manage to wrestle some possession away from Virginia, creating a 3-2 advantage in shots in the second half, but couldn’t quite connect all the dots together to create many meaningful opportunities.
As the players began to fatigue, the game became more physical and fouls started piling up.
“It’s a tough game between us,” Doniak said of the increase in tough tackles and players hitting the turf. “We’re great competitors and so when you let the physical part of the game get into it, you have to settle the ball down and not let that become the deciding factor of who controls the tempo. I think we did better in the first half with that, keeping the ball on the ground and moving it. The second half I think we could have done a little better.”
Despite the grueling contest, Virginia managed to close out the game with the clean sheet intact, their tenth of the season. Much of the credit goes to the Cavaliers’ backline. Renovating the defense has been one of coach Swanson’s main projects this season after losing three senior starters. As the only holdover from last year’s starting lineup, center back Emily Sonnett has been an intimidating presence in the back for the past two seasons, harassing and bullying all opponents who try to breach her defense. The converted midfielder played Friday with her right arm in a heavy cast after sustaining a broken bone in Monday’s practice, yet she battled all night with her trademark rugged tenacity.
“I think Emily Sonnett is as good as they get, I’ll be honest,” Swanson said of his backline general.
For UNC, the loss marks the third year they’ve dropped out of the tournament before the final, a tournament they’ve won times in the past. While the team have hardly put on the fireworks display that many would expect from Chapel Hill, Dorrance is far from disappointed or concerned with their performance:
“If we look at our attack, I’m actually shocked at how well we’ve done. Have we done it through a superstar system? No. We’ve done it by grinding and having everyone take their moment.”
Sophomore Joanna Boyles, one of the Tar Heels’ most dynamic players, leads the team in points with three goals and seven assists for thirteen points. Emily Bruder’s five-goal total is best for UNC in that category and forward Paige Nielsen has four goals of her own that have all been game-winners.
The Fetzer faithful are still waiting to see signs of consistency from the occasionally-brilliant Summer Green, though — a player that has the raw talent to be that irresistible force on offense, but hasn’t yet staked her claim to it as a junior. It’s not for a lack of trying as Green leads the team in shots, but her rate of return is alarming: two goals off of 45 chances.
“Do we have a superstar attacking personality? No. Were we hoping it was going to be Summer? Actually, we were hoping it was going to be Alexa Newfield, but she had a knee issue and that sort of took her out,” Dorrance said, pointing out how shockingly different the team he fields every week is from the team he had envisioned earlier in the year.
“We lost four kids to injuries: One, a career-ending concussion injury. That was Caitlin Ball, she was my starting center back. Then we lost Alexa Newfield, my best, my most talented returning player. Then of course, we lost Hanna Gardner to a redshirt, my starting central defender. Then we lost Brooke Elby, the only fast player I have that plays in central midfield for me and, trust me, today, a little bit of speed in the middle of midfield would’ve helped us a little considering we had my turtles chasing their jack rabbits,” the coach said with a hint of exasperation in his voice before firming back up, “so I’m pretty damn proud of what we’ve done this year.”
The Tar Heels have also played the type of schedule only a masochist could love. Opening weekend in Chapel Hill included a tough opening loss to No. 6 Stanford in overtime. Then the team played a series of seven consecutive road games from August 29th to September 28th. Over that stretch, UNC played six straight against ranked opponents and all of those games were decided by a goal or less. In fact, nine of the programs they’d faced this year have been to the College Cup at least once in the last four years. Virginia was the tenth.
“If we had tied or won today, we would’ve been a number one seed,” Dorrance says of everything they’ve accomplished in spite of the odds. “How many people could say that with a team that lost ten starters? And there are some people that are still speculating we might get there because, in terms of strength of schedule, we’re second.”
“Am I incredibly proud of what this team has done this year? Absolutely.”
Virginia will have a chance on Sunday to avenge their only loss of the season if they can defeat No. 2 Florida State in the tournament final. At stake is not only the championship trophy, but a win should guarantee the Cavaliers that coveted top seeding for the NCAA tournament on Monday. Coach Swanson says the team took things away from that early-season setback against FSU which should help in Sunday’s contest:
“We didn’t really handle their pressure, we didn’t really handle the way the game was played in the first half… but I thought we did some things in the second half that gave us a lot of confidence, I think, moving forward. we learned from that game, for sure. We’re going to have to play well to beat them just like we had to play well to beat Carolina today. They have a lot of weapons, they’re big and strong and they don’t give up a lot of opportunities We’ve got to try to find ways to manufacture goals and get good chances against them which is difficult.”
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