As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock on another frigid night at Klöckner Stadium, fans stood and cheered and stomped their feet, celebrating a feat that had been 22 years coming for the University of Virginia women’s soccer team.
On to the College Cup.
“It’s awesome,” senior defender Molly Menchel said after Virginia’s 2-1 victory over the University of Michigan in the NCAA quarterfinals on Friday. “It’s huge for our team. It was one of our goals from the very start, so this is great.”
The Cavaliers played 14 games at Klöckner this season, and after each one they walked away victorious.
The first was on Aug. 23, and U.Va. defeated VCU 4-2 on a night when the temperature at Klöckner was 71 degrees when the game began.
The 14th was Friday night, and it was 36 degrees when the game between Virginia and Michigan started. It was below freezing by game’s end, but the wintry conditions did not deter the Wahoos, who are headed to the NCAA semifinals for the first time since 1991.
“It’s really rewarding,” junior midfielder Morgan Brian said. “Every single moment you worked hard, even in the spring, lifting or running, it just comes back to these moments right here, and that’s what we do it for.”
This is Steve Swanson’s 14th season as Virginia’s head coach. In 2001, 2005 and again in 2011, he guided the Cavaliers to the NCAA quarterfinals, but until Friday night the breakthrough eluded him.
“At the end of the day, the great thing about winning is you get to stay together as a team,” Swanson said. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do professionally in my life than be with my team as much as we can.”
However, Swanson added, it’s “one thing to get to this last stage, but it’s another thing to win it, and our goal is to win it. I know our team, and if our goal was to get to this last four, to the semis, that would be one thing. But our goal is to win it, and we’re going to be very focused on that this week.”
At WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., U.Va. (24-1) will meet the University of California-Los Angeles in the semifinals Friday night. The other semifinal will match Virginia Tech and Florida State University. The latter two schools are members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, as is U.Va.
“I think that just shows how good this conference is and the caliber of players that we have in it,” Brian said.
Of the 64 teams that began this NCAA tournament, U.Va. was the No. 1 overall seed, and Michigan was one of the four No. 3 seeds.
The Wolverines’ trademark this season was an almost impregnable defense. Until Friday night, Michigan (18-4-1) had not allowed more than one goal in a game all season.
Virginia outshot the Wolverines 22-4, but “it certainly was not a one-sided game,” Swanson said. “I thought they played very well, they played very hard. That was a difficult team to beat. It’s hard enough scoring one goal against them, but to get two was saying a lot.”
The ’Hoos struck the first blow. In the 24th minute, sophomore forward Makenzy Doniak slipped a pass through to Brian, who one-timed the ball past goalkeeper Taylor Bucklin from outside the 6-yard box.
The goal was the eighth of Brian’s career in NCAA Tournament play, a U.Va. record.
Michigan pulled even in the 28th minute, and the score was 1-1 at halftime. Virginia continued to dominate the run of play in the second half. In the 68th minute, Michigan finally succumbed to the Cavaliers’ pressure.
From outside the 18-yard box, junior midfielder Danielle Colaprico sent a ball toward the back post. Menchel was unable to collect it cleanly, but the ball bounced off the post and back toward her. By that point, Menchel was no longer on her feet, but from the ground she managed to knock the ball in the goal.
“It kind of hit me in my stomach,” Menchel said. “Then it hit the post. I saw the goalie dive for it. And I’m not sure if it hit my toe or not again, but I saw it cross the line.”
And that was enough for a team whose only loss was to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
“Virginia showed their quality,” Michigan coach Greg Ryan said. “They’re an outstanding team. We played our hearts out.”
In 2012, the Cavaliers won the ACC tournament, but their postseason run ended with a third-round loss to Duke in the NCAAs.
“This is a completely different team than last year,” Brian said. “I think it’s a totally different mentality. It’s different players, we have a lot better team chemistry than last year, I think, and for us right now it’s been so special because we love each other like sisters, and [the College Cup] is definitely one of our goals.”
Conflicts with the under-20 World Cup in Japan – Swanson was the United States team’s head coach and Brian one of his players – forced them to miss part of Virginia’s 2012 season, as well as significant amounts of training last year.
“I thought the players and the staff did remarkably well, given the circumstances,” Swanson said.
Still, he said, his latest team at U.Va. is unique. For Swanson and his assistants, this has been “coaching heaven,” he said.
“There’s not one player on the team that’s not completely committed to what the team’s all about, to the goals,” Swanson said. “Whether they play a minute or every minute, that’s not what’s important. What’s important is how can we get better as a team, how can they get better individually.
“A lot of the things that come up during the year – quote ‘drama things’ – we just haven’t dealt with. We haven’t wasted one ounce of energy on that, and I think it’s really helped us. I wish everybody had a chance to coach a team like this one, because it would make you [want to stay] in coaching for the rest of your life.”
The official attendance for U.Va.’s home opener was 1,768. The finale drew 1,882 on a night when layers and layers of clothing were the norm for spectators at Klöckner.
Along the way the ’Hoos smashed attendance records for women’s soccer at Klöckner, drawing 3,894 on Oct. 27, 2,838 on Oct. 10, 2,540 on Sept. 29, 2,349 on Nov. 3, and 2,252 on Oct. 31.
Swanson opened his postgame press conference Friday night by saluting the fans.
“I think I speak for the whole team in saying that they were the difference tonight,” he said. “They were superb. It was a great atmosphere out there, and I think we could feel them with us the whole time.
“It was fitting for them that we could end the year the way we started it: by winning.”