BOCA RATON, Fla. – In 2013’s College Cup, eventual champions UCLA crushed the dreams of two ACC sides in dramatic fashion en route to their first national title. On Sunday, both of those teams will have another chance at glory as Atlantic Coast rivals No. 2 Florida State (23-1-1) and No. 4 Virginia (23-2) collide for this year’s national championship.
A win for either school would be their first national championship. While it’s unsurprising that an ACC school is in the final, given that the conference has only failed to place an entrant in the season finale five times in the tournament’s 33-year history, what might be surprising is that this is the first time two ACC schools have met in the final since 1992. For FSU, Sunday will mark their second consecutive championship game appearance, and fourth College Cup in as many years, while the final round is Virginia’s first in program history.
Virginia were on the losing end of a gut-wrenching penalty-kick shootout in 2013, but return to this year’s College Cup flaunting the highest-scoring offense in the country. Last season’s Cavaliers had already broken numerous program scoring records but, with six senior starters graduating at the end of the season, it was questionable whether UVa had missed their best opportunity once the Bruins pulled the rug out from under them.
“The tough part about last year, and I think we felt it in January, was we walked into the locker room to start this year (and) we lost half of our team,” Cavalier head coach Steve Swanson said a day after the team beat SEC-side Texas A&M in the semifinal. “To lose in the College Cup and then to come back and now half your team is gone, I think it’s kind of a sobering reality: ‘Well, how good could we be?’… It’s inevitable that you compare teams, but, for us, it was about ‘How could we be better than last year?’”
The most marketable way to be better would be to put up fatter statistics and, as far as that’s concerned, they’ve accomplished that mission convincingly. This season the Cavs are averaging 3.52 goals per game via a total 88 goals in 2014, already breaking last season’s record-setting haul by ten and leading the second-best team this year by 15 goals.
“It was definitely devastating losing the semifinal last year to UCLA,” senior midfielder Danielle Colaprico said of the Cavaliers’ rejuvenation following the tough end to 2013. “At the time, it was awful — crying, tears everywhere. After the summer hit and then working all summer, then we realized that we had a new season ahead of us and then our focus changed to another national championship. We put last season behind and realized that we can still fight for another championship; it’s still ahead of us.”
Losing six senior starters and two from Virginia’s brilliant midfield diamond, coupled with the additional absence of Morgan Brian, who missed eight games this fall while fighting for her country, has left plenty of responsibility at Colaprico’s feet. The New Jersey native has been a quiet, but critical cog in Klöckner’s Clockwork Orange for years and Colaprico has seized the reigns this season with the might of ten. In a record-setting year that could have her still in the MAC Hermann conversation come January, Colaprico has established a new program standard for assists in a season (19) and in a career (44). Her 19 assists, second best in the nation, are particularly impressive in a season which has seen the senior rotate to all four points of the midfield diamond, primarily settling in as the holding midfielder down the postseason stretch.
Sometimes cast in a “Danny versus Goliath” mismatch by defending players such as 5-foot-11-inch Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Texas A&M’s towering 6-foot forward Annie Kunz, the 5-foot-3-inch Colaprico punches well above her weight, often making up an almost comical difference in height by out-jumping her opposites on headers — an ability she modestly attributes to better timing. Colaprico’s efforts were acknowledged by ACC coaches this year as the honor of the inaugural conference Midfielder of the Year award were bestowed upon her at the close of the season.
“The thing about where we are now,” Swanson says of his formation with Colaprico in the defensive-mid role, “is she’s such a good two-way player, so she’s not only a strong player with the ball and she can get forward, but she also defends very well…. Sometimes, you want to have Danny maybe a little further up the field because of her attacking abilities, but I think the most important thing is to get her in a position where she’s touching the ball a lot during the game.”
While Colaprico has grown into a nationally-recognized player this season, that attention has been on Brian before she even hung a poster on her wall in Charlottesville.
“Anyone that’s paying attention to women’s soccer in this country is familiar with Morgan and she’s an exceptional talent,” Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian said in praise of Brian. “Her ideas about the game are at an elite level. Her quality with the ball is exceptional. I don’t know how many more adjectives I can come up with… you gotta get someone smarter than I am to help me with this.”
Entering the program in 2011 as the Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year – an award which encompasses all high school sports – and a two-time Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year, Brian was shaping up as the kind of franchise player who could potentially take Virginia to the Promised Land.
Four years, 41 goals and 44 assists later, Brian is now so very nearly there.
While soccer is first and foremost about the team above the individual, it was a moment of sweet revenge last Friday when Brian’s sublime strike on the road in Westwood vanquished the No. 1 Bruins after the champions had left her for dead, an inconsolable heap in the middle of the field in Cary, N.C., a year before.
The driving force of Colaprico and Brian in the midfield can’t just be described by gaudy offensive metrics or creative metaphors, either. Swanson says the influence of this peerless pair in the Cavalier locker room helped give the team the belief they needed to exceed last season’s spectacular squad.
“The fact that we have (Danielle and Morgan) gave the whole team hope for the future,” Swanson said, continuing his thought on Virginia’s drastic roster turnover. “The great thing about these two… is that they really changed our culture a little bit in the sense that, the first years, the new players, it’s getting them into the program and it’s making them believe that they can have an impact. I think that was the biggest thing we needed to do this year was integrate a whole new half of our team into the culture of UVa soccer and try to get them to play at a certain level.
“Over the course of the year, these two in particular have done that. If we’re successful, that’s the reason. You just can’t lose as many good players as we lost last year and expect to jump in and get back to this point, but I think these two deserve a lot of that credit… I think if you would’ve asked in the locker room or taken a straw poll back in January and asked ‘Hey, would we be in this game at this time?’ I don’t think a lot of them would have said that.”
Against Florida State on Sunday, Brian and Colaprico will be outmanned in the midfield as Virginia takes shape in a 4-4-2, sometimes transitioning into a 4-3-3 via versatile forward Brittany Ratcliffe, while the Seminoles can reliably be inked in at a 4-2-3-1. Brian and Colaprico recognize their responsibility to make up the difference in numbers can make or break the Cavaliers’ chances in the final.
“They’re very good in the midfield and I think it’s just important that we move the ball quickly,” Colaprico said of how they’ll approach the overload in the middle third on Sunday. “I think me and Morgan can handle pressure in the midfield very well and can move the ball quickly and I think that’s going to be key against them.”
Brian agrees that the challenge is one her and Colaprico can handle.
“Florida State is really good defensively,” she said. “I think everyone’s seen that and I think, for us, it’s going to be just about being patient, switching the field and keeping the ball better… It’s not going to be (an) ‘Everyone’s going at each other back and forth game’. It’s going to be very patient and there’s not going to be a lot of chances and I think that we can focus in on that and finish the ones we do get.”
Remarkably, they’ll be underdogs on Sunday.
If you can put aside the potential ecstasy of winning a national championship for a moment, the Cavaliers will be pre-visualizing a measure of revenge on the Seminoles as well: The final will mark the third time these two teams have met this season alone, with Florida State accounting for the only two blemishes on the Cavaliers’ record this season as FSU won both the regular season meeting in Tallahassee and the ACC Tournament Final in Greensboro, North Carolina by a 1-0 scoreline.
Last year, FSU had one of the best defenses in the country. Just like Virginia, graduation swept key players away from Krikorian with the loss of Kassey Kallman and Kelsey Wys at center back and goalkeeper. Questions and eyebrows were raised about this season’s Seminole fortress when the team barely survived a light preseason test against subpar Oklahoma State, winning 2-1 in double overtime, then were sent reeling from a devastating punch a week later when they lost 1-2 to much stiffer competition from in-state rival Florida. Since then, the Seminoles haven’t lost another game and have only allowed five goals in that stretch. Florida State have clamped down in the postseason, too, with their last goal allowed coming a month ago when Notre Dame scored a consolation goal to slip by with three seconds to go in the ACC Tournament semifinal. Just like Virginia, it’s possible they’ve gotten even better than last year.
Led by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Kristin Grubka at center back, FSU’s defense is ranked second nationally in Goals Against Average at 0.35. Replacing Wys, a goalkeeper that set new records in virtually every one of the Seminoles’ stats, is Cassie Miller, a redshirt freshman who has already broken Wys’s single-season records for shutouts, goals-against average and wins. Krikorian says the key to his team’s defensive success, is not just blocking the shots, but limiting the opponents’ meaningful looks on goal.
Vanderbilt convert Cheyna Williams takes point in the FSU attack and pairs with attacking midfielder Brynjarsdottir to form a potent speed and power combination. While Williams’ frightening pace is her most obvious attribute, her coach is quick to point out the other elements of her game that continue to progress and make her one of the deadliest strikers in the country:
“Cheyna is an exceptional athlete that just happens to be an exceptional player,” Krikorian said. “Some people get fooled into thinking that she is just a fast kid that runs around up front. There are so many more dimensions to her game than that. She’s become very, very good at holding the ball, connecting to her teammates, slipping balls through to her teammates. She’s become dangerous on different types of set pieces as well.”
Brynjarsdottir is the newly-minted ACC Offensive Player of the Year and might be making a final stop in Missouri before she embarks on her pro career next year. The pride of Hella, Iceland has put up some impressive numbers in her four years at FSU as her 111 points and 44 goals both rank second all-time in the Seminole record books. Her coach has been just as impressed with his captain’s off-field influence on the team.
“Dagny took the initiative to put together a video,” Krikorian said, smiling proudly as he cited a recent example of Brynjarsdottir’s leadership. “It was a clip or two of everyone on the team, as well as a baby picture of each kid, with a lot of different motivational quotes and excerpts throughout the video. I thought it was exceptional. She showed that Thursday. I think that she’s attentive to detail and she has taken the responsibility of being a captain to the ultimate level. It has been a while since I have had an international player be the captain of our team. You know, our team, we only have one captain — we’re don’t have three or four or whatever — that is the voice of the team and the leadership of the team. I think she has done a very good job. She also leads by example. She is usually the one that is out on the field before training, staying after training, most apt to spend time on her body to make sure that it is properly recovered and so on. So I think that the examples on the field are clear, the examples off the field are fairly clear. She has a big personality and that helps, too.”
Attention to detail and professionalism like Brynjarsdottir’s are keystones of Krikorian’s program. Williams said it was Brynjarsdottir’s leadership by example of those principles of Krikorian’s that were influential on her early assimilation into the program and one of the most profound differences she noticed when coming over from Vanderbilt in the offseason:
“The biggest difference is attention to detail. Details as far as knowing exactly what we are going to do for pretty much the whole season, having a set calendar, the level of professionalism within the team off the field and definitely on the field, everyone with pretty much higher aspirations to play after school.”
Sandwiched between this season’s meaty, more dangerous attack and the bread-and-butter defense that has been the calling card of a generation of successful Seminoles is an oft-unheralded layer in defensive midfield pair Michaela Hahn and German import Isabella Schmid. While there aren’t many meaningful stats to measure the influence of their partnership, both players were critical in disconnecting Colaprico and Brian from their forward targets in the ACC Tournament last month. Schmid lauded the on-field communication and intuitive bond the two have formed, saying “I think we are a perfect team. Michaela is more in the offense and I am more in the defense and I think there’s a great balance between the two of us.”
Schmid also said the tandem will be acutely aware of the threat Brian and the UVa midfield will pose on Sunday:
“They’re very organized and very talented, especially in the midfield, and we can’t give them enough space or enough time because we know they will make something great out of it so we just need to keep our concentration high, and we need to be disciplined and we need to be physical with them.”
“In the previous games that we’ve played against FSU, I think we’ve played not to the best of our ability,” Brian said of how she’ll approach the battle of the midfields in the final, “and I think that’s something that’s within our control. Danielle and I, that’s our job is to find the spaces on the field.”
Of preparations for Sunday’s game, Krikorian said “We are going about our business as we always do: Giving the opponents the respect that they deserve in our preparation and making sure that we are as thorough as can be.”
He also said that he’s not sure whether the familiarity between the two teams will be much of an advantage for either team on Sunday. The head-to-head matchup between players such as UVa center back Emily Sonnett and FSU forward Williams will be particularly interesting beyond what could be the most intense on-field battle of speed and athleticism as the two have also played against each other since their early teens when they both played club soccer in metro Atlanta. Virginia left back Tina Iordanou is also well-acquainted with Williams as they each played for the Commodores last season.
The history between the two coaches stretches back even further, to the early 90’s, when Krikorian coached at Franklin Pierce and Swanson helmed the ship at Dartmouth. Although playing in separate divisions, the two schools’ close proximity allowed the coaches to organize unofficial scrimmages between their teams. They crossed paths again when Krikorian came to FSU in 2005, with Swanson having arrived in Charlottesville five years earlier. Up to 2005, Virginia had never lost to the Seminoles, tying only once in 12 games. Since the beginning of the Krikorian era, though, the Cavaliers are 7-5-3 against FSU. The two coaches have also accounted for the last three ACC Coach of the Year awards, Krikorian in 2012 and 2014 with Swanson claiming it in 2013.
Both coaches acknowledge nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for each other’s programs and players, but, while comparisons can be made top to bottom and at each position, the overall edge this year seems to lean toward Florida State. While the Seminoles in the past few years have sometimes been sparse on offense and heavy on the backfield muscle, the addition of Williams to this squad combined with the maturation of Brynjarsdottir might be the missing link in offense Krikorian’s teams have been needing to put them over the top.
“I think that we are more balanced than we have ever been,” the coach said of the difference in his Seminole team this year. “Whether it is in the attack, defending transition, it doesn’t seem to matter. We are solid everywhere and I think we showed that last night (in the semifinal win over Stanford) in our defending and obviously Cheyna’s quality attack. Her scoring two goals was very important to us but we also created a few other chances in some different ways. That is what has made us a little bit hard to play this year.”
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