Nineteen games, 19 victories. Just what Annie Steinlage expected when she transferred this year from Michigan State University to the University of Virginia, right?
“Only in my wildest dreams,” Steinlage said with a smile Thursday night at Klöckner Stadium. “I knew the program I was coming to was great, had great players and great coaches. But an undefeated season, obviously it’s the best you can hope for. So, yes, it’s been amazing.”
A few minutes earlier, top-ranked Virginia had capped the regular season with a 2-0 victory over fifth-ranked Virginia Tech. A Halloween night crowd of 2,252 – the fourth-largest ever for a women’s soccer game at Klöckner – saw the Cavaliers (19-0 overall, 13-0 ACC) become the first team since Stanford in 2009 to finish the regular season with a perfect record.
Not since North Carolina in 2003 had an ACC team done so.
“It’s truly an amazing accomplishment,” said Steve Swanson, who’s in his 14th season as the Wahoos’ coach.
Consider this: In the latest Soccer America rankings, four of the top five teams are from the ACC: Virginia, No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 UNC and No. 5 Virginia Tech. Four other teams Virginia played during the regular season – No. 10 Notre Dame, No. 11 Santa Clara, No. 19 Wake Forest and No. 25 Duke – are also in the top 25.
The 19 wins are a single-season record for U.Va., a lock to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I’m proud of the players,” Swanson said. “We still haven’t accomplished all our goals, but this was one tough game tonight. Virginia Tech, they’re a very good team. They fought very hard and they’re just a solid, well-organized, competitive team that has a good chance of going far in the postseason.”
For the ‘Hoos, that begins Sunday with a first-round game in the ACC tournament. At 1 p.m., top-seeded Virginia hosts No. 8 seed Maryland (10-9, 6-7) at Klöckner. When they met there during the regular season, the Cavaliers edged the Terrapins 1-0.
Virginia Tech, the No. 4 seed in the ACC tourney, finished the regular season 14-3-2, 9-3-1. The Hokies’ losses were to UNC, FSU and U.Va..
“They put up a really good fight,” Virginia defender Morgan Stith said. “We knew that they would come out hard, but we also knew we needed to come out hard as well and win tonight.”
In a pregame ceremony Thursday night, U.Va. recognized its nine seniors: goalkeepers Danielle DeLisle and Churchill O’Connell, defenders Molly Menchel, Shasta Fisher and Stith, midfielders Kate Norbo and Steinlage, and forwards Gloria Douglas and Amber Fry.
“They’re just an amazing group,” Swanson said. “What’s special about that group is, it’s never been about them. It’s always been about the team.
“The only thing they care about is the team and getting better and improving. It’s never been about them individually. … I’ve been in sports 40 years, and I haven’t had quite a team like this one in terms of the way they come together and the way the chemistry is and the way they fight for one another on the team. It’s just rare. You don’t have anybody pouting here if they’re not playing.”
Six seniors – Menchel, Fisher, Stith, Norbo, Steinlage and Douglas – are fixtures in the starting lineup. On Senior Night, Swanson also started DeLisle and Fry, and each played a key role in the victory.
In the ninth minute, Steinlage, whose golden goal had lifted Virginia to an overtime victory over Florida State on Sunday afternoon, unleashed a shot from near the top of the box. Virginia Tech goalie Dayle Colpitts blocked the shot, but the ball popped out of her hands, and Fry hammered in the rebound for her third goal of the season.
“I always rebound, I always follow up shots, and rarely does the keeper bobble it,” Fry said. “But our coach said in the beginning, ‘This keeper tends to bobble the ball and not catch it,’ so I just followed up and I just rocketed it in the net. I don’t even really remember what happened, I was so excited.”
In her fifth start of the season – freshman Morgan Stearns has started 14 games in goal -- DeLisle played the full 90 minutes. On a night when the ‘Hoos outshot the Hokies 15-9, she didn’t have to make a save.
“Kudos to the defense,” DeLisle said.
She learned Wednesday that she would start against the Hokies, but DeLisle said she wasn’t nervous.
“I’ve been working hard in practice every day,” she said, “and I feel comfortable with the ball in my hands, and I’ve felt comfortable all week, so I was confident coming into tonight, to be able to step up and do what I could for the team.”
The Hokies, desperately searching for the equalizer, applied constant pressure in the second half, and not until the 90th minute, when sophomore forward Makenzy Doniak scored on a breakaway, could the Cavaliers relax.
“The second goal was so important, because it kind of took the steam off of everything and slowed the game down,” said Stith, a fifth-year senior. Even though it came with only 41 seconds left, she added, “It was so important, because they were really coming down hard on us.”
As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock, U.Va. fans raised a joyous chant: “Un-de-feated! Un-de-feated! Un-de-feated!” And so ended a game the Cavaliers’ seniors may never forget.
“This is just a special night,” said Stith, who missed the 2011 season with an injury, “because I’ve been so happy to be a part of this Virginia family for so long and be part of this amazing program, with an amazing staff, and I’ve played with so many great players over the years. To win on Senior Night, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Nor could the Cavaliers’ fans, who have embraced this team. The four largest crowds for women’s soccer games at Klöckner have all come this season.
“It’s just incredible, on Halloween night, to get the kind of crowd support we get,” Swanson said. “It makes a big, big difference for us.”