College football isn't the only sport with some big conference showdowns looming. One of the biggest on the soccer field takes place in Charlottesville on Friday, when No. 8 Virginia hosts No. 2 North Carolina.
The Cavaliers are 320-140-43 all-time in women's soccer. They're officially 0-32-2 all-time against the Tar Heels (the Cavaliers won the ACC tournament in 2004 by beating the Tar Heels on penalty kicks after what went in the books as a 1-1 tie).
Virginia came close to getting its first win during the run of play last season, dropping a 1-0 decision in Chapel Hill during the regular season and losing in penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw in the ACC tournament. Now the game returns to Charlottesville, where coach Steve Swanson's team is 7-0-0 this season and 18-0-2 in the past two seasons.
With North Carolina back to its old ways on offense, averaging 3.63 goals per game this season compared to 2.33 last season, Virginia's defense is going to have its hands full. It's also going to have an opportunity to indisputably escape the shadow of last year's record-breaking defense. Led by a back line of Becky Sauerbrunn, Nikki Krzysik, Sarah Senty and Alex Singer and keeper Chantel Jones, the Cavaliers allowed just 10 goals in 23 games for a program-best 0.40 GAA in 2007. Krzysik, Senty and Singer are still back there this season, but Sauerbrunn is waiting for the start of the WPS as a member of the Washington Freedom, and Jones is sitting out the season to play with the Under-20 national team.
When I caught up with the Cavaliers earlier this season, Swanson talked about the changes.
"The tough thing about college soccer is you get players for four years, and just when you get them working together, they have to up and graduate," Swanson joked. "So it's tough in that sense. But that group had been together for three years, and that group was very similar to the 2004 group -- almost that whole back line was [seniors]. It makes a big difference. I think the way we play [defense] -- with a zonal system where you rely on each other and you have to be tuned into what's going on -- I think experience is a huge factor."
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, that road trip to Morgantown subsequently produced their worst defensive performance of the season in a 3-0 loss. But the team's performances both before and after -- allowing eight goals in 14 games -- makes that one performance look like a statistical outlier. Senior keeper Celeste Miles and classmate Alli Fries, a starter in midfield much of last season, have stepped up and performed.
But if they want their own piece of Cavaliers lore, Friday night is the proving ground.
A quick note from the Pac-10, where No. 4 UCLA makes the short trip to face No. 10 USC on Friday in the week's other colossal tilt. The rematch of last season's national semifinal will take place at the Coliseum, where the Women of Troy hope to break the NCAA's single-game attendance record for women's soccer of 14,410 (set in the 1999 championship match between North Carolina and Notre Dame in San Jose).
Given UCLA's dominance, the series against USC hasn't always been much of a rivalry. But that changed for good in the College Cup, when USC snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Bruins on the way to the title that continues to elude UCLA.
Check out this preview of the game by USC: No. 4 UCLA makes the short trip to face No. 10 USC
Of course, it's Stanford currently tied with UCLA atop the Pac-10, thanks in no small measure to an amazing freshman class. Stanford assistant sports information director Julie Ryder, making a strong debut herself with the Cardinal women's soccer team this season, fills us in on the newcomers.