If you still needed convincing that Virginia Tech's move to the ACC was a good thing, look no further than the Women's Soccer team. After the program was founded in 1993, the team never posted a winning record until their first season in the ACC, going 11-9 in 2004. Since then, the program has grown leaps and bounds, which culminated in a stellar 2013 season that included an appearance in the ACC Tournament championship game, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and coming within minutes an appearance in the national championship game. Along the way, they set school records for goals scored, wins, shutouts, conference wins and finished a sixth straight season with ten or more wins, a statistic I think we can all appreciate around here.
While UCLA ultimately walked away with the national title, the other three teams in the semifinals were all ACC squads. Four of the top five preseason teams are from the ACC. There's no question the best women's soccer in the country is being played in the ACC. Much as we saw (temporarily, at least, in the mid 2000s) with the men's basketball team, given the right investment and coaching, that level of competition can raise your game. Iron sharpens iron. The question now is, with the program at an all-time high and the path forward passing directly through the cauldron of the ACC, can 2013 be a launching point to something greater?
2013 in Review
Quite simply, last year was the pinnacle of over a decade of program building. An attack led by Jazmine Reeves eviscerated opponents to the tune of 56 goals. Meanwhile, Dayle Colpitts, while not vying with Josh Stanford for the Favorite Canadian Hokie Award, posted 12 shutouts and backed up a stingy defense that completely shut down most offenses. The Hokies linked these two units through a (still) mostly unheralded midfield group to post 19 wins, 9 in the ACC alone. Their postseason adventure, highlighted by handing UVa their first loss OF THE SEASON in a 4-2 smackdown in the ACC semifinals, stretched to the ACC championship game and then on to the College Cup (soccer's Final Four), losing out both times to Florida State. The cherry on top is that most of that squad returns in 2014.
The Hokies will lose three starters and five players overall from 2013's record setting squad.
Jazmine Reeves: Of course, those returnees don't include career goal leader and All-American Reeves, who is now banging in goals professionally for the Boston Breakers. She recorded a hat trick in her second professional game. Her 11 goals and 5 assists will certainly be missed as a threat moving forward but luckily the Hokies will return 35 of the 56 goals scored last year.
Dayle Colpitts: Also departing the program is brick wall Colpitts, the career leader in shutouts and wins. It's unclear who will step into replace her. There are a couple of very talented freshmen on the roster in Blayne Fink and Kaylyn Smith, as well as junior Caroline Kelly who started five games in 2012 (posting four shutouts) while Colpitts was at the U-20 World Cup with Canada.
Taylor Antolino: Antolino clocked the third highest number of minutes for outfield players last year, and will be missed from a strong backline that will be hoping to provide more of a blanket for whoever will be stepping into the goal. She also chipped in a goal last year as well as six assists, good for second highest on the team, an impressive stat for a defender.
Meet the Coach
I'm not sure there's anything important to say beyond the fact that his name is Chugger, but here goes. His college career at the University of San Diego included All-American recognition, before a professional career throughout the US professional levels (including a stint with the LA Galaxy) as well as some time overseas in Belgium. He arrived in Blacksburg in 2006 as an assistant, joining a program struggling to find their feet in the ACC. The Hokies consistently improved over the next few years and Chugger was promoted to Head Coach after the 2010 season to replace the extremely successful Kelly Cagle. He's never missed the NCAA tournament in his tenure as head coach and has consistently improved the program during that time. Finally, as anyone would expect from a Hokie, his wife is also a part of the athletic department, assistant volleyball coach Shelbylynn.
Players You Should Be Excited About
So with all that talent leaving, where does that leave the Hokies? In good hands.
Ashley Meier: The highlight of a strong midfield, junior Meier was named a preseason Third-Team All-American as well as preseason All-ACC player and is looking to kick on from her nine goal campaign last year.
Candace Cephers: Cephers was an integral part of Virginia Tech's defensive stoutness. The defensive midfielder was a destroyer sitting in front of the backline defusing attacks. She seems to prescribe to the Kyshoen Jarrett theory of defending which is "The Best Defense Is a Heavy Shoulder." She was also only a freshman last year, so if she's spent any time getting Gentry-fied, she's going to be unstoppable this season.
Murielle Tiernan: The now sophomore earned ACC All-Freshman honors last year, and jointly led the Hokies (along with Reeves) with 11 goals. She scored five game winners, including the only game winner UVa gave up all season (note: their loss to UCLA in the College Cup came after penalty kicks).
Madi Conyers, Laila Gray and Alani Johnson: This may come as a shock, but coverage of women's soccer recruiting is not quite as extensive as college football. That being said, Freshman Conyers, Gray and Johnson come in with the highest expectations of contributing early. Johnson in particular could be leaned upon as the Hokies look for someone to replace Reeves' offensive contributions. This past Friday, the Hokies played their only preseason scrimmage of the year, a 4-0 win over the Marshall Thundering Herd. The potential of these freshman was on evidence as Conyers chipped in an assist and Johnson had an assist and a goal.
The Hokies host VCU the night of August 22nd to begin the season. They have a stern out of conference test against No. 20 Georgetown and their conference schedule will feature six ranked teams, including preseason top-five North Carolina, UVa and Florida State, the teams that gave Virginia Tech all five of their losses last year. Those three October games—at UNC on 10/3, at FSU on 10/12, UVa on 10/26—are the critical matchups on the schedule to gage how good this team really is.
ACC Tournament (11/7, 11/9): Last year featured quarterfinal matches on campus locations, and semifinals and finals in a central location (Cary, NC). This year, only the top four teams will participate in the tournament, significantly increasing the challenge of vying for an ACC Tournament title in a deep conference.
If you can't make it Thompson Field in person, and I encourage you to do so, there will be at least two matches on ESPN3 (as well as the ACC Tournament), and at least one game on the ACC Regional Network, in addition to any games that HokiesXtra elects to show. For those traveling in for football games, the Hokies take on Buffalo at home the Friday evening before East Carolina (9/12) and Clemson at home the Friday evening before Georgia Tech (9/19).
While my first consistent exposure to the Women's Soccer Team was this past year, I'm looking forward to watching them, particularly now that coverage of "Olympic Sports" has expanded through ESPNU as well as online streaming on ESPN3, the ACC Digital Network and Virginia Tech's HokiesXtra. The Men's team made a run to the 2007 College Cup, but when the fleet feet of Patrick Nyarko went pro and coach Oliver Weiss left, the program never really recovered. The women's team loses a similar talent in Jazmine Reeves from last season, but the assembled talent on the squad, the recruits coming in the next class and Coach Adair give me nothing but confidence that the women's team will continue to operate among the elite of the ACC for the foreseeable future. The soccer world appears to agree with me, as the Hokies are ranked fifth nationally in the NSCAA preseason poll and have been picked fourth in the ACC.
That being said, here are the things I'll be watching this upcoming season:
- The returning forwards and Alani Johnson being able to replace Reeves' productivity in front of goal and compliment Tiernan as credible goal threats.
- I'm expecting to see great things out of the midfield, particularly Cephers, Meier and senior Katie Yenson.
- Colpitts' successor's ability to gel with the defense and quickly adapt before getting into a high powered ACC schedule.
- The stretch of games highlighted above against UNC, FSU and UVa, which are going to determine how successful the regular season is.