If you love sports, your heart eventually gets broken. For those who play and those who coach, for those who watch, or opine, or merely howl at the moon, it’s embedded in the course description, a Beware To All Who Enter. You might not like it, but there it is, always lurking just beneath the surface, even if you fervently hope the heartbreak is not going to occur that day or night, but at some undefined later.
From August 22, as the lone spectator at a sweltering practice the day before they opened their season against VCU, to the balmy Friday night of December 6 in Cary, North Carolina, I watched the University of Virginia women’s soccer team evolve over the course of the season; a season in which they proclaimed, even branded, themselves ALL IN, fully committed to not only repeat their winning of the ACC Championship but, ultimately, to doing something they had never done before—win the national crown, the College Cup. If there had been drama and issues in seasons past (and there had), a trip to England in the spring had, along with their own intangible determination, helped to ensure that sort of stuff would be checked at the door.
* * *
Unless you had been living under a clam shell during this period of time, you slowly became aware of this superorganism (defined as “many individuals working together as a single functional or social unit”), this group of “sistas,” as they thought of themselves, and how the team was thrilling an entire community, a sweet counterpoint to the agita and increasingly dark mood that the University’s football team was contributing to on a weekly basis.
Throughout nearly all of the regular season, they were ranked #1 in the country: sublimely spectacular—or, if you prefer, spectacularly sublime—undefeated, untied and playing in the country’s toughest conference, the ACC (which eventually had all four of the #1 seeds in the NCAA tournament). But on a Friday evening in early November, on this same Wake Med Soccer Park field in Cary in the semifinals of the conference tournament, they faltered, losing 4-2 to their in-state rival, Virginia Tech, a team they had beaten just eight nights earlier at home.
No one was particularly worried—at least on the surface. As long as it is not your last game of the season, defeat can even be good; it puts things in perspective, keeps you from complacency, sharpens your edge. Even Morgan Brian—a junior who already has three “caps” and one goal for the U.S. Women’s National Team; a first-team All-American and finalist for the Hermann Trophy and Honda Award; a center midfielder who plays as if she has had her lunch money stolen, leaps high into the air for every possible header and scores on many of them, and distributes the ball with great, maestro-like aplomb—even she wondered, at a press conference, if the loss, though deeply painful, somehow contained a proverbial silver lining.
The mastermind behind this group, who scoured the country and put all these human chess pieces together in the first place from the laboratory in his mind, is the guy who lives next door, the guy who cut your yard years ago (and probably still would, given his particular work ethic, if he had the time): his name is Steve Swanson, the coach at Virginia since the year 2000, who won the Women’s World Cup in 2012 as the coach of the U-20 national team and was this season’s ACC Coach of the Year. (On December 17, he was also named NSCAA National Coach of the Year.) He makes himself so available to the players that some teasingly call him Dad, and nearly all of them think of him that way. On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, the entire team gathered at his parents’ home for a meal. The sad truth is this: when the team isn’t with the Swansons for Thanksgiving, it means that Thanksgiving isn’t such a happy occasion; it means the team has already lost in the NCAA tournament. The cruel reality of life with a coach. But not this year, a year that had been magical up to that point.
* * *
They came from all over, these twenty-five women, nearly all of whom have been playing at an elite level all their lives. Swanson and his staff have known of some since they were thirteen and fourteen, partly because they have attended his camps. Brian, from St. Simons Island, Georgia, was the Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year in high school and was a guest at the ESPYs before she even got to Virginia as the top recruit in the country. What few people know is that she almost never came at all. She had committed to the University of Georgia, but Swanson sensed that the decision perhaps had more to do with her mother wanting her to stay close to home. Next thing he knew, the coach had decided to leave and Brian was on the phone, wanting to know if there was still room for her. As intense as he is, Swanson also has a light, wry side, the side that would essentially hem and haw, hesitate for a second before saying, Yeah, I think we could still make room for you, even though he had been keeping a spot for her all along. Recruiting is an agonizing, grueling process— Swanson is often seen on the Grounds shepherding a prospective player and her parents around the Rotunda and the Lawn, extolling all the reasons that UVA would be the best place for her to spend the next four years.
So as Morgan Brian made the journey north from Georgia in the fall of 2011, coming in the opposite direction—from Springsteen Country (Freehold, N.J.)—was the diminutive, curly-headed Danielle Colaprico, who plays with such a sure-footed efficiency and high soccer IQ that you almost take her and her brilliant game for granted. If “Moe” is the star, “Danny,” a third-team All-American, is the stealth weapon—so smooth, so under the radar. When she told the hometown crowd on the Jumbotron that she had never been given flowers (in one of those casual, get-to-know-me snippets that plays at halftime), it made you want to deliver a bouquet to the bench, in gratitude for the marvel and ju-ju her game provides.
In the autumn of 2012, Makenzy Doniak came east from the hills of California and, this year, scored twenty goals (tying Caroline Miller’s UVA record for most ever in a season) and became a first-team All-American. Forwards come in all varieties—greedy opportunists and scam artists and glory hounds, to name a few—but when they do what they are supposed to do—score the ball—you love them despite all that. “Mak” plies her trade by almost seeming disinterested, lulling her opponents into complacency with a sulking Rope-a-Dope style, then shooting past them the very minute she sees the slightest of openings.
Her roommate is perhaps the fiercest player on the team—Emily Sonnett, a wily central defender from outside Atlanta. Quietly religious, Sonnett—who gestures at times like a preacher and sashays around the field as if she were on a skateboard--made first-team all-ACC and backs down from no one (off the field, she shares her food with no one as well). Brittany Ratcliffe, the Super Sub, is like a can of Red Bull, one of the fastest players on the team. She wears the same bright orange ribbon in her hair for each game and is a terrier forever chewing on the other team’s legs, a scorer of an astounding twelve goals in relation to her minutes played. Molly Menchel, the scrappy left outside defender, screeched for four years without anyone knowing for sure what it was “Mench” was saying, but she leaves an indelible memory of scoring while on the ground in the frigid quarterfinal against Michigan.
* * *
In the end, memories are what you are left with, are all that you are left with, when a season comes to a close. For me, it will be Brian scoring a “golden goal” against Notre Dame in overtime on an October night of cold, freezing rain—a night when no one in their right mind should have been out—and then darting across the field, sliding into the wet grass like the kid she in so many ways still is, and celebrating deliriously with the crowd and her beloved teammates. And it will be Annie Steinlage, the rangy holding midfielder—who came here for one season from Michigan State in order to have a chance to play for a championship—hopping and skipping across the pitch after scoring her golden goal to beat Florida State on a perfect autumn Sunday in late October before nearly 4000 people, the largest crowd ever to see a women’s soccer game at Klöckner Stadium. And, finally, the most poignant moment of all—Steve Swanson and Morgan Brian walking off the field together on December 6 in Cary, his left hand curled around her left shoulder and holding her right hand, doing his level best to console her when he clearly needed consoling himself. After 110 minutes of a game that some already consider a classic, UVA suffered a crushing penalty-kick defeat to the Bruins of UCLA, the eventual national champion.
All year they radiated class and grace. They scored more goals per game than any team in the country and played a team-first, Barcelona brand of possession soccer that Greg Ryan, the coach of Michigan, witnessed with his own eyes and insisted, to all who would listen, had set them apart. Beyond that, they had brought a community, and anyone who saw them play, an inestimable amount of joy.
That may not be as conventionally rewarding as the ultimate prize, but it adds up to more, a lot more really, than the much of little consequence that surrounds us in the world we live in.
Jonathan Coleman (Col ’73) is the author of four critically acclaimed books of nonfiction (three of which were New York Times bestsellers). His most recent is West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life (which he coauthored with NBA logo Jerry West). He taught creative nonfiction writing at the University for a number of years.