Virginia women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson understands why there might have been some bellyaching from programs outside the Atlantic Coast Conference when the league was awarded all four top seeds in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Yet, as a conference insider, he’s seen firsthand how his team, along with Virginia Tech (16-4-2), Florida State (18-1-3) and North Carolina (17-4-0), was able to help the ACC become the first conference in tournament history to earn all four No. 1 seeds in the 64-team field. The conference was nothing short of a meat grinder this season.
“I think on the outside, yes, that’s very unusual and very difficult to do when you think about 323 or so Division I teams around the country,” Swanson said. “I have that as sort of the backdrop, but having gone through the conference and having seen the strength of the conference, it was just so challenging game in and game out. From that perspective, it doesn’t surprise me.”
U.Va. (20-1-0), which won 20 consecutive games this season and won the ACC regular-season title for the first time, begins its 20th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament at 7 p.m. Friday as the overall favorite when it hosts St. Francis (Pa.) (13-7-1).
Tech, which handed U.Va. its only loss this season, 4-2 in an ACC tournament semifinal, makes its sixth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament at 5 p.m. Friday when it hosts Maryland Baltimore County (13-5-2). Tech lost 1-0 last Sunday to No. 3 FSU in the ACC tournament championship game, but the Hokies’ résumé still was strong enough to give them their first No. 1 seed.
“It is a little mind-boggling,” Tech coach Charles “Chugger” Adair said of the ACC dominating the top seeds. “You figure the committee is going to mix it up a little bit. If I’m being realistic, I’m looking at it going into (the ACC championship game). If we win that game, I would’ve thought we would get a No. 1 (seed). If we lost, I didn’t know what would happen.
“I think it shows the quality of our conference. If it’s going to happen in any sport, I think the ACC is so dominant with women’s soccer that it would have to have been in women’s soccer.”
Notre Dame (11-7-1), Wake Forest (10-6-2), Boston College (10-9-1) and Duke (8-8-4) will join U.Va., Tech, FSU and UNC as ACC representatives in the NCAA tournament. U.Va., which features junior midfielder Morgan Brian (38 points; 12 goals, 14 assists), still managed to roll through the conference.
Half of No. 1 U.Va.’s victories have come by three or more goals. U.Va. had five first-, second- or third-team All-ACC players, including sophomore forward Makenzy Doniak (31 points; 13 goals, five assists) and an ACC All-Freshman team goalkeeper in Morgan Stearns (0.74 goals-against average).
“Every year we go into the NCAA tournament, there’s pressure on us,” said Swanson, whose team lost to Duke 3-1 last season in the Sweet 16. “It’s how you handle that pressure, how you cope with that.
“All I can say is this team has been very good about handling themselves in a year where everybody is looking at them, everybody is gunning for them. When you get a streak going like we did, you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We’ve had that all through the year. It doesn’t guarantee success, but you can take away some confidence.”
While U.Va. has long been part of the NCAA women’s soccer establishment, Tech is working its way toward that elite level. The Hokies’ 16 victories are tied for the most in a season in school history.
They’re 5-4-0 this season against ranked opponents, but they haven’t played any ranked opponents outside the ACC. Tech, led by senior forward Jazmine Reeves (25 points; 10 goals, five assists) and freshman forward Murielle Tiernan (23 points; nine goals, five assists), is just 1-4-0 against U.Va., FSU and UNC, including a 2-0 loss to the Cavaliers to end the regular season.
Last season, Tech learned home-field advantage in the early NCAA rounds doesn’t guarantee passage into the later rounds. The Hokies lost 3-2 in Blacksburg to Georgetown in the first round.
Sophomore forward Nicolette Young, a Jamestown High graduate who has played in 18 games this season and started seven, believes the experience of bowing out of the tournament early last season has made the team hungrier this season.
“This year, I think we’re really a different team,” Young said. “We’re all more motivated. We work even harder this year. We’re starting to get the national respect that, I think, we all deserve. We just don’t want it to end. I think that’s motivation, and we want to keep playing at home. We have a huge fan base this year.”
If Tech's players still haven’t gotten the message about being tournament-ready after the Georgetown loss, Adair won’t let them forget.
“They’ve heard me remind them about that all year,” Adair said. “I think we learned from that.”
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.