Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
Tonight, the 16th ranked Virginia Tech women's soccer team faces No. 1 Virginia in Charlottesville. After an impressive 9-0 start to the season, team morale is high and the Hokies are prepared.
"We haven't played great in all nine matches, so it's continually been building," head coach Chugger Adair said. "The one thing that's been consistent is we've been able to grind out results. It's going to take that same kind of effort moving forward... I try to remind them to be better each day and not focus on our record and what we've done."
The Cavaliers, who enter Thursday's matchup with a record of 8-0-1, have scored 36 goals on the season, allowing just four. On the other end of the pitch, Tech has scored 18, allowing just 2 - one of which came from a penalty. To put it mildly, it will be a defensive showdown in Charlottesville.
Tech is 3-0 since transitioning to a 3-5-2 formation, which Adair switched to prior to their match against UNC Wilmington. Olivia Odle filled the role at center back for Kelsey Irwin in her absence against Yale. Overall, the switch to a 3-5-2 has seemed to give Tech more opportunities in the attack, especially down the wing. The Hokies will rely on their experienced defense against the Cavaliers on Thursday, though.
Jaylyn Thompson leads Tech in the experience category - the senior has started the Hokies' last 59 matches. She's joined by sophomore Kiersten Hening (8 starts this season, 18 last season) and redshirt sophomore Kara Henderson (6 starts) in Adair's back three. In the three games that they have played together, there did not appear to be many rough patches.
Mandy McGlynn, Tech's senior goalkeeper, has recorded seven shutouts to open the season and owns a save percentage of .929. The preseason All-ACC First Team selection has started 65 games in her career in Blacksburg and holds a 38-0-2 record when Tech scores first in a match. The Hokies have done that in eight of their nine games this season, and they'll look to do it again on Thursday.
Two young attacking stars have had a large contribution to Tech's strong start - Emily Gray and Nicole Kozlova.
Gray, the sophomore from Sewell, New Jersey, recorded nine shots and two assists in the first six games of the season, though she could not find a way onto the score sheet. Over the last three games, Gray has found her form, scoring all four of Tech's goals.
"I think Emily has taken it to the next level as far as her finishing," Adair said. "Prior to those [three] games, she hadn't scored yet, but she had created so much for us. She does a lot of other things than score for us... her playmaking capacity, her defending, her work rate and movement have been tremendous. Once it [goalscoring] comes, it adds another level to her game."
The Hokies will need her to get off to a quick start against the Cavaliers and make the most of their set pieces, where two of Gray's goals have originated. Against both UNC Wilmington and Miami, Gray scored on free kicks from less than 30-yards out with her left foot. Tech will look to capitalize off their set pieces with Gray in Charlottesville.
Tech's other leading scorer, Kozlova, has been quiet since Gray heated up, recording just one shot in each of the last three games. The redshirt freshman from Toronto has combined well with Gray so far this season, bringing a chemistry that the Hokies will look to utilize versus UVa. She and Gray have scored four goals apiece, so look for one of them to be the main goalscoring threats for the Hokies against the Cavaliers.
Look for Grace Sklopan, Jordan Hemmen and Emily Gray to try to control the center of the pitch and spray the ball wide to their outside midfielders. Emmalee McCarter, Lilly Weber and Emma Steigerwald will give Tech their best chances off crosses into the box, which will aim to find the feet of Nicole Kozlova and Molly Feighan. Those two will have their hands full with a stingy UVa defense and a solid goalkeeper in Laurel Ivory.
Overall, Virginia Tech and Adair know one goal can mean the difference in this game; the Hokies defeated UVa 1-0 in Blacksburg last season, and some of those keys sound very familiar this time around.
"Last year was a tremendous team effort," Adair said. "Mandy made a handful of very good saves to keep us in the match and we ended up getting a goal halfway through the second half... Mandy's going to be called up once again... We're going to have to keep the ball ourselves. We can't get stuck defending all game so we have to get numbers forward and create chances."
The time has come as Adair and Virginia Tech will travel to face No. 1 Virginia on Thursday in Charlottesville, a place they have not won since 2009 - the only time in program history. The Cavaliers lead the all-time series 15-4-1.
A win for the Hokies would give them a 2-0 record to start ACC play and give them the second 10-0 start in program history. Like the morale, the expectations are high - will the Hokies pick up a result in Charlottesville?