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After US debut, Sonnett eyes NCAA title with UVA

Virginia's Emily Sonnett. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

Virginia’s Emily Sonnett. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

Emily Sonnett knew for months that she had a game on Oct. 25th — she just thought it would be against defending NCAA champions Florida State instead of Brazil and five-time world player of the year Marta and Brazil.

Even after the Virginia senior was named to the U.S. national team roster for a pair of October friendlies, the initial plan was for Sonnett to head back to Charlottesville, Va., for the Florida State match. In fact, her parents had already traveled up from Georgia for Sonnett’s senior day when the plan changed.

Sonnett was presented with the opportunity to earn her first cap with the full U.S. team and chose to stay in Orlando.

“Definitely pulls on my heart strings a little bit,” the center back said about missing senior day, “but the team was super supportive about the decision I made, so it made it that much better.”

[MORE: ACC claims seven of 16 seeds in NCAA tournament]

It was weird to see the Cavaliers play without Sonnett, who has played a crucial if sometimes unsung role, in Virginia’s back-to-back runs to the college cup as much of the attention was focused on the team’s high-powered offense. That’s the life of a defender sometimes. Last season, Sonnett was the only returning defensive starter from the 2013 College Cup team.

Recently, things have changed, as she received ACC Defender Player of the Year honors.

“She’s been a great leader for us,” Virginia head coach Steve Swanson said about his no-nonsense defender after that Oct. 25th match, which Virginia won, 1-0. “She’s usually our voice on the field, our organizer.”

Although Sonnett wasn’t in Charlottesville for the senior day activities, Virginia’s defensive leader was far from forgotten. As the public address announcer read the center back’s impressive list of accomplishments, her teammates held up a Fathead in her likeness. The poster of Sonnett’s face came from the Virginia locker room where first-years, as freshman are known at the school, decorate the locker room for the graduating class.

[GORDON: Florida State, Virginia have NCAA championship on minds]

There’s no denying that Brazil is a tough opponent to get a first cap against as a defender. The South American side is free-flowing and unpredictable on the attack. Drawing Brazil as a first assignment is more akin to being dropped in the rapids rather than the deep end.

“I kind of sat there and said, ‘you know, I’m going to take this challenge and do the best I can,'” Sonnett said about playing for the U.S. for the first time against Brazil. “ I don’t think I played bad or good. I think I held my own and hopefully they were happy with my performance.”

Sonnett played the full 90 minutes, and the U.S. won the match, 3-1.

Fittingly, Sonnett got her first start with the national team alongside the Cavaliers’ other great center back, three-time NWSL Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn. Sonnett admits she’s been watching the former Virginia great since she can remember.

“I’ve been watching her since I don’t even know when and knowing that she went to UVA, that’s a cool aspect to it because I knew she went to UVA, I go to UVA and (I’ve been) watching her for years and seeing what she does well,” Sonnett said of Sauerbrunn, a key piece of the U.S.’ World Cup-winning team. “I’m trying to copy I guess in a way and bring her abilities to my game.”

Unlike Sauerbrunn, who suffered a broken nose in her first appearance with the national team, Sonnett appeared to emerge from the Brazil game no worse for wear. That certainly wasn’t the case last month in an ACC match against Clemson. Sonnett ended up with a bloody forehead and a swollen eye after an aerial challenge with a Clemson player.

It was an unfortunate situation, but the senior didn’t miss the opportunity inject some humor. After the injury, Sonnett sent a picture of her face to her twin sister Emma, who just finished her playing career at Georgia. Emma, who obviously felt bad that her sister got injured, nonetheless, couldn’t help but see a comical resemblance between her twin and Disney’s Quasimodo. Emily posted a picture collage her sister sent her to Twitter, which Sonnett found “super clever.”

While going through the recruiting process, it was never a situation where the sisters had to end up at the same school. It would have been nice, but that’s not how things worked out. Sonnett admits adjusting to not seeing her sister every day was strange at first. Now they look forward to seeing each during breaks and train together when they’re home. Perhaps Emily can talk her sister into helping her train during winter break as she prepares for her rookie season in the NWSL. Sonnett is expected to be one of the top picks in the 2016 draft.

For now, Sonnett is focused on Virginia and the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers received a No. 1 seed and will look to make it back again to Cary, N.C., to play in the College Cup, after last Sunday’s heartbreaking loss there to Florida State in the ACC tournament final.

When asked about which accomplishment she was most proud of during her time at Virginia, Sonnett struggled for a moment. After thinking about for a second, she gave a somewhat surprising answer.

“One thing that I guess was a media favorite at the beginning of our year to kind of like ‘How can this team going forward recover from the loss of Morgan Brian and Danny Colaprico?’ Something I’m super proud of is that we haven’t really let that bother us…and being able, in the ACC, with this team kind of struggling in the beginning as we were, and to be able to win the (ACC) regular season. That’s a huge accomplishment.”

It’s hard to imagine a better answer to that preseason question than bringing home the school’s first national championship. That’s what Sonnett and the Cavaliers will aim to do starting this Friday as they begin their NCAA tournament run against Howard.

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