Powerhouse ACC plays on as many NCAA women's soccer teams sit on sidelines

Taryn Torres and her Virginia teammates are tested for COVID-19 three times a week now that the soccer season has started. Courtesy of Virginia Athletics

As most of the NCAA women's soccer world waits for a potential return to competition next spring, the ACC, college soccer's signature conference, plays on. It always stood apart. Now it stands almost alone.

Women's soccer in the ACC is challenging enough under normal circumstances. While SEC football gets more attention, there may not be a more competitive league in any sport than a league responsible for 24 NCAA titles since 1982. Even without North Carolina's singular dominance accounting for 21 of those titles and 29 College Cup appearances, the rest of the ACC has piled up almost as many College Cup trips (22) as any other conference in total.

Home over the years to everyone from Mia Hamm to Becky Sauerbrunn to Crystal Dunn, the league is known in soccer circles for testing teams every time they step onto the field. Yet the challenge this year is getting onto the field in the first place. Not to mention staying there.

"I'm in no position to judge someone who wants to move forward with it or someone who doesn't feel it's smart to do it," Louisville coach Karen Ferguson said. "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the end of the day, I have a job to do. It is to keep our kids safe and healthy, first and foremost, and then win soccer games. If we don't feel like it's safe or we're healthy, and we haven't put forth the right protocols, then we won't play. We flat out won't play."

For much of the spring and summer, the ACC traveled the same uncertain path toward fall as every other conference. By the time the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down college and pro sports in March, only a few women's soccer teams had played even a game in what the NCAA labels the sport's non-championship segment, encompassing a handful of spring exhibition games. Virginia midfielder Taryn Torres expected to go home to Texas for a week when the school's spring break began on March 7, then return to Charlottesville for the first of the Cavaliers' spring games. She went home, but it would be four months before she returned.

"When we went home in the spring, I was still really optimistic for the fall -- like I thought things would just be back to normal in the fall," Torres recalled. "Shortly after, I realized there was definitely a high chance we wouldn't have sports at all in the fall."

With the NCAA largely ceding control of the decision-making process to the conferences through late spring and summer, sports like soccer were left to wait and figure out where they fit in the picture. Across the country, from UCLA to Wake Forest, athletes returned to campuses in July and began adjusting to the protocols put in place by conferences for coronavirus testing and day-to-day activities. Only a handful of leagues immediately followed the Ivy League's lead in canceling all fall sports, as those eight schools did on July 9. Most other leagues, including the ACC on July 29, determined they would proceed with conference-only schedules.

It wasn't until Aug. 5 that the NCAA board of governors announced requirements that included a stipulation for the cancellation of fall championships if at least 50 percent of the programs in a given sport did not compete in the fall season. Women's soccer reached that threshold early the following week, two days before the NCAA officially canceled fall championships.

By that time, Duke had already worked out a 13-game schedule, a mix of official ACC games and other games against conference teams that wouldn't count toward league standings. Duke coach Robbie Church said at the time that he and players had already discussed that if the NCAA was going to shift those championships to spring, as the organization indicated was possible, the Blue Devils wanted to be part of that competition more than some faux fall competition. And there was little immediate clarity as to what the NCAA's Aug. 13 decision on championships meant for those who pushed ahead with fall games.

"It's just the uncertainty of what is happening," Church said of the frustration at the time. "It's just the chatter that is all over social media, all over everything. Everybody has comments, everybody is speculating on what is happening and nobody is really making decisions. That has taken a huge toll on players and coaches."

When NCAA president Mark Emmert expressed support for at least exploring the idea of holding spring championships for displaced fall sports, some conferences that were still committed to proceeding with FBS football shelved other fall sports. Conference USA, for example, said in a statement that it was postponing other sports so that athletes had the "opportunity to play for a spot in the NCAA championships" in the spring. Only the ACC, Big 12, SEC and Sun Belt continued with fall sports other than football, but only on the premise that playing in the fall wouldn't preclude competing for any national championship made available in the spring.

The NCAA Division I Council approved recommendations from the Competition Oversight Committee on Sept. 16 to reduce championship fields for displaced sports by 25% if held in the spring. That means a 48-team tournament in women's soccer, with 31 automatic qualifiers and 17 at-large bids (last year the ACC alone received eight at-large bids). Fall results for the ACC, Big 12, SEC and Sun Belt can be taken into consideration, even though some of the players responsible likely will have left college and entered the NWSL by spring.

Spring games can begin Feb. 3, and the College Cup would be held May 13-17.

So at least in theory, Wake Forest can play the nine fall games against ACC opponents, plus any additional games in the conference tournament, and still schedule 11 more championship-segment games next spring to vie for a place in any NCAA tournament.

Still, everything set out by the Division I Council is a framework, not a guarantee that a spring season and championship will happen. And leading up to the decision, many of those involved in the ACC remained skeptical that a spring season will ever materialize.

"Personally I don't think it's viable," Wake Forest women's soccer coach Tony Da Luz said earlier this month. "Just because we're technically not an in-season sport. Most of the winter and spring sports that were canceled last spring, they're going to be the priority for any reschedule. I think we're pretty far down the list when it comes to trying to get reinstated.

"I think there's going to be a lot of schools that are disappointed when the spring doesn't materialize."

Even assuming the best-case scenarios with the virus receding or a vaccine coming, schools still will face large budget challenges next spring, not to mention the logistical challenges posed by trying to play more sports in existing facilities and with existing, if not reduced, staffing across universities.

"I think there's going to be some sort of playing, I just don't know if it's going to be as elaborate as a season with an NCAA tournament and all that," NC State coach Tim Santoro said. "I would be shocked if we saw an NCAA tournament in the spring."

The decision only tangentially related to the pandemic, NC State opted to withdraw from fall competition due to the small number of available players. The league's other 13 teams (Georgia Tech does not sponsor women's soccer) will each play eight conference games followed by a conference tournament expanded from four to eight teams. Teams will play two games every other week, with every team making one plane flight during the regular season.

Teams may also schedule additional games beyond ACC play, although Pitt is thus far the only team that has scheduled opponents from outside the league.

As with athletes in spring sports who had their seasons disrupted by the pandemic, the NCAA also ruled that athletes in fall sports will not lose a season of eligibility this year regardless of whether they or their school take the field. For someone like Torres, the uncertainty over that question was as worrisome throughout the spring as health and safety protocols on campus.

"I was scared for the longest time that they were going to try to have a season and then it would be canceled and I could get screwed without any eligibility," Torres said. "But now there is the eligibility piece. ... So I'm kind of looking at it as a free season and as an extra opportunity to win an ACC title or compete for an ACC title."

Her younger sister was among the first soccer players to see a fall season canceled. Hollyn Torres was preparing for her sophomore year at Harvard when the Ivy League pulled the plug on fall sports in July. Hollyn is now home in Texas, taking her classes online and training on her own.

"I think training has been a little rough because she's not back with her team and she's not training with anyone else," Taryn Torres said. "So she has to do things on her own, while I'm at school getting to train with my team and getting to play games. I think that I definitely have the better situation with that. I'm grateful for that."

That situation necessitates a new day-to-day existence. Tested twice per week in the preseason, Virginia players are tested three times per week now that games are underway. With the school holding most classes online, players are asked to limit close social interactions to only roommates -- even as much of the general student population returned to Charlottesville and Torres saw groups of students congregating while she drove to and from practice.

A bubble, at least in the sense of those associated with professional leagues like the WNBA and NWSL, is impossible on college campuses in the midst of active academic terms. What soccer programs are testing, as a prelude for what winter and even spring sports will soon encounter, is the degree to which it's possible for athletes to exist amid but apart from a community.

When players first returned to campus at Virginia, no one was allowed in the locker room. Now, after having their temperature taken and reporting any symptoms, they are given wristbands that allow them in the locker room in groups and while wearing masks. Initially required even during conditioning and running, masks are still required in most other settings.

"It's not that inconvenient," Torres said. "It's just different."

At Wake Forest, the soccer team was able to break with precedent and house its freshmen together in a dorm, the same with sophomores. Upperclassmen live together off campus.

"They know we don't want to be the team at Wake Forest that causes the outbreak," Da Luz said.

Louisville athletes had been back on that school's campus only a matter of days when 29 members of the men's and women's soccer, field hockey and volleyball teams tested positive. The outbreak was linked to an off-campus party and resulted in the suspension of all athletic activities for a week, including longer quarantines for those who tested positive or were connected to them through contact tracing.

Those involved at Louisville recovered and the outbreak passed. Ferguson hopes it drove home the point, noting that the team even set up separate study halls recently at the behest of players who came to her with concerns about non-athletes not wearing masks in libraries on campus. But all the protocols and all the reminders to be vigilant didn't matter when college students behaved like college students have forever.

"I'll be honest, I didn't avoid getting angry -- I got very angry," Ferguson said. "The good thing was because we were in a quarantine situation, I couldn't get angry in front of them. So the 14-day quarantine really allowed me to defuse myself. But they had to sit and stew in the wrong decision they made for 14 days, They were probably waiting for the wrath of me.

"When we were all back together, it's like a family, you're going to make mistakes. You're not going to disown your children when they make a mistake."

The pandemic has also created roster problems that go beyond positive tests and quarantines. College soccer is among the NCAA sports with the greatest number of international students. No program is better known for that than Florida State, which won national titles in 2014 behind Icelandic star Dagny Brynjarsdottir and again in 2018 behind Finnish captain Natalia Kuikka and Venezuelan star Deyna Castellanos, but international players abound across ACC rosters.

Many of those players weren't comfortable returning to the United States amid a summer in which infections spiked and the government initially attempted to limit entry for international students not taking in-person classes. The list of those not returning included North Carolina forward and England international Alessia Russo, one of college soccer's best players who signed with Manchester United instead of returning for her senior season. It also included six NC State players from Europe, four incoming freshmen and two returnees. Three of the incoming freshmen opted to sign professional contracts at home instead of coming to Raleigh, while the other three players remained at home with plans to travel stateside in the spring.

Mix in a few players who either suffered or were still returning from non-virus-related injuries in the preseason and NC State faced playing games with 13 or 14 available players.

"We were intending to play -- we would love to be playing right now," Santoro said recently. "This isn't a choice because we're making a political stand or we were worried about the virus. Our protocols have been great, our testing has gone great for our team and we wanted to play. We just simply ran into a numbers crunch."

Meanwhile the rest of the conference carries on.

Unlike in the Big 12 and SEC, ACC women's soccer teams returned to the field last week without postponing any games due to complications from positive tests and contact tracing. It is an unusual place to be for one of the most successful conferences in college sports, where success is measured less by results than merely playing the schedule without incident.

But this is at its core an unusual year.

"There's been a lot of mixed emotions," Torres said. "At times you feel like there's no hope of having a season. But we've come far, so that's a good sign. I don't know, it has been exhausting, I'd say. Just because of the question marks and the changes. Things change by the day, change by the week. It's exhausting to keep up with. Also there's things that you have to do differently, and that's kind of a lot to keep up with. But I'm still glad that we're able to do this."