Val Prochaska of Hoos Place joins us to answer our questions about the Virginia Cavaliers.
Virginia had a great season last year earning a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year seems like a bit of a transition season since nine seniors were lost to graduation from last year’s team. What are some keys that are important for UVA to remain in the mix at the top of the ACC?
We only lost four seniors to the NWSL, but they were ¾ of our back line and our leading goal scorer over the past two years. This was always going to be a bit of a transition year, so maybe the pandemic that is wrecking everyone’s seasons will actually work to our benefit. Every team’s rhythms have been disrupted, and I am a firm believer in the sport is a rhythmic, repetitive endeavor.
Since we lost four quality starters, the biggest key would be the play of our newcomers who were going to step into the fray, pandemic or no pandemic. The player getting the most attention is freshman attacker Lia Godfrey, who is exceedingly fast with the ball at her feet, has already displayed remarkable range, and is a surprisingly good on-ball defender. She is the youngest player ever to play for the U17s – she was 14 – and it would not surprise me if she were to leave for the pros before her four years at UVa are over. The second freshman we have who is starting is left back Samar Guidry. Guidry has pace, is a fine dribbler and she runs right at defenders. But probably my favorite newcomer is Sarah Clark who transferred to UVa after two years at Purdue where she started every game in her two years there. She was named a team captain as a junior before an injury caused her to redshirt. She is a great defender and she crosses the ball almost as well as the now-departed Courtney Peterson.
Even with the loss of the seniors to graduation Virginia has a very talented roster remaining. Alexa Spaanstra is certainly a player to watch. She returned from injury in the last game against Louisville and looked better than ever scoring a brace. What makes her so hard to handle?
Spaanstra is quick – almost equally as quick when she has the ball – and she has great vision. Her greatest strength is that she often makes the pass a full beat before you, or the defense, would expect to her to. The biggest challenge for Coach Swanson has been to find the right position for her as she’s better than just a left wing, but she’s not strong enough to play the 10 role. And that’s a pity because that is what her skill set cries out for. Last year teams played Hack-a-Shaq on her, and unfortunately, it was effective.
As noted above, the Hoos bring more to the table than Spaanstra. Who are a couple more players to keep an eye on?
Freshman keeper Kayla White springs to mind. She has apparently leapfrogged last year’s #2 keeper and she has started 3 of Virginia’s 7 games thus far. I expect her first start against Virginia Tech was simply squad rotation – Swanson typically gives his backup keeper one start each year – but she has now started two of the last three games. I don’t know if Laurel Ivory is quarantining (though she was at the Miami game) or if she got injured in practice, but her absence is a mystery. White has played very well. Like your keepers, Virginia keepers are not called upon to make too many saves, but White already has a half dozen fine saves to go with her three clean sheets.
Red-shirt senior defender Lizzie Sieracki will never get the ink, but she has filled in very well for last year’s super freshman, Talia Staude, who has now missed four games. She is good in the air – and if there has been a weakness of the most recent iterations of Swanson’s defense, it’s that we’re not great aerially – and her distribution from the back has been phenomenal. Virginia typically does not try to go over the defense but Sieracki can hit a 50 yard pass that will drop behind your back line. And even a team as fine as Florida State does not want Rebecca Jarrett or Spaanstra getting the ball behind the line.
Virginia is a talented team but they have been ravaged by injuries. A total of nine players missed the Louisville game. Do you have any concerns about how the roster will hold up against FSU with so many players missing?
Seriously. the injuries alone are staggering. Taryn Torres, the player I feel very comfortable charging with shutting down Yujie Zhao, has not played at all. I would bet anything that Sydney Zandi tore her ACL and we won’t see her again this season. We’ve had three players miss games, seemingly uninjured, and the game announcers haven’t even mentioned their absences. It’s gotta be coronavirus quarantine protocols and everyone wants to ensure the medical privacy of our student-athletes, but for the past 4 games, someone new has been absent. I’ve never waited as anxiously for a team to post the starting lineup as I have the past three games. I literally have no idea who is going to be able to play against you.
It’s not much, but I do take minimal solace from the impending absence of Jaelin Howell. I am fan #1 of hers outside of Tallahassee, and I hope she gets another national team call up the next time we play you.
Finally, what makes you feel good about UVA’s chances in this game and what makes you concerned heading into the game?
Well, I am very happy that we’re hosting this game and that you’re the ones who have to travel. Travel in the pandemic is a real burden, and it may yield an even more disproportionate homefield advantage. The deal the ACC made to play in the pandemic was to minimize contact when away from home, so your team is going to arrive as late as possible and everyone is going to fret about maintaining as much of a bubble as you can. And that’s going to take away from the focus of playing Virginia. I don’t think we are as good as we were last year, but we are still the best team you’ve played thus far and we can punish you.
My primary concern is our lack of continuity. We’ve used 7 lineups in our seven games. We’ve been horribly profligate in front of goal, largely because no one knows exactly where their teammates are going to be. And I don’t know if we’ll be starting a freshman keeper with three career starts.
But maybe an overarching concern is that Virginia needs this game more than FSU. As it stands now, the spring NCAA tournament will only feature 48 teams, and since there are 31 conferences with automatic qualifiers, that leaves just 17 at-large bids. That’s not a lot of wiggle room for the ACC teams that don’t win the tournament and we failed to get results vs Duke and Clemson. Not knowing how the spring season is going to shake out, I think Virginia needs to finish top 3 in the regular season. And I think that means we have to beat you. As I say, a lot of pressure, but that’s why we watch the games, right?
Thanks so much Val for your in depth and informative answers. I answered a few of Val’s questions on Florida State and you can find my answers to his questions here on the HoosPlace site.
This critical matchup kicks off today at 3:30pm in Charlottesville, VA. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.