If Florida has a fighting chance to make it back to the College Cup for the first time since 2001, it has something to do with a freshman who played her first organized soccer game only after giving up competitive combat.
The Gators return to the power rankings this week as they prepare for a conference road swing that includes games Friday against surprising Mississippi and Sunday against Missouri (ESPNU, 2 p.m. ET). That they remain in the discussion at the top of the sport is an accomplishment. Gone from last year's Sweet 16 team are Erika Tymrak, whose sensational professional debut earned her a recent start for the senior national team, as well as Jo Dragotta, Adriana Leon and Kathryn Williamson, all of whom found homes this summer in National Women's Soccer League.
Coach Becky Burleigh long ago proved capable of replacing important players, but losing 33 goals and 23 assists makes for a tricky overhaul.
Savannah Jordan has helped speed the transition. The freshman forward scored twice in Florida's most recent win against Alabama to open SEC competition and has 10 goals on the season. Entering the weekend, she is one of nine players in the nation who has scored double-digit goals and is the leading scorer among freshmen in major conferences.
That part isn't the surprise, at least not to Burleigh based on what she saw from Jordan in the recruiting process.
"For us, it's really important that our player that plays the highest forward position for us can hold the ball up, and we thought she did a very good job with that," Burleigh said. "But she was also a threat getting behind back lines, so she could turn and spin and run at a back line, as well as hold the ball up because she's strong with her back to goal under pressure."
The part where Jordan didn't play an organized soccer game until she was 13 years old because she spent five days a week putting in the hours necessary to become a second-degree black belt in taekwondo?
"That was a little bit of a surprise," Burleigh conceded. "Especially for somebody with her instincts and skill level."
Jordan didn't just take the odd taekwondo lesson here and there after school. She competed in national and international competitions and fared well. Her favorite part of the discipline was the sparring -- what most of us see every four years in the Olympics. But at 13 years old, she decided to try soccer to have some fun.
The first team she joined put her in goal. That didn't do it for her, so she joined another that put her up top. Within a year, she was invited to a training camp with the Under-14 national team. She has been all soccer ever since.
"I think it's a good thing that I started later because I know some girls might get burned out or maybe reach their full potential [at an early age]," Jordan said. "I feel like I'm still growing as a player every time I play in practice or a game. I feel like that really helps me and that benefits my game and I keep building off of that."
As for the soccer sophistication beyond her years, the body control, discipline and strength from her former athletic life make for a nice foundation. But it doesn't hurt that she consumes soccer in a way few of her peers do. Any chance she gets to watch Barcelona is an opportunity to study the master -- and not just what Lionel Messi does with the ball.
"Just his movement off the ball," Jordan said of Messi's influence. "I think that's one of the biggest things for me. Playing up top I need to get in gaps and away from defenders, almost get lost from the defenders. I try to incorporate a lot of his movements and watch him as much as I can."
Messi with a black belt. It's a scary thought for the SEC.
Now on to this week's rankings.
1. Virginia (9-0-0, last week's ranking: 1)
Virginia finally scored fewer than three goals in a game, and it was still a banner day. It's just that kind of season. A 2-1 win at Boston College marked the lowest-scoring output of the season for the Cavaliers, but it came in a place where any goal is a good goal for the team from Charlottesville. Before Thursday, Virginia had no wins at Boston College. In fact, BC is one of just two ACC schools (along with that one in Chapel Hill) against which Virginia has an overall losing record. Makenzy Doniak scored three goals in two wins on the week. This week brings another road test, albeit against a Duke team struggling to find its form at the moment.
2. UCLA (8-1-0, last week's ranking: 3)
It's difficult not to look ahead to a trip to Stanford on Oct. 10, but UCLA keeps efficiently taking care of business. This past weekend brought a 2-0 win at Pepperdine and a 3-0 win at Loyola Marymount. That's three consecutive clean sheets for the Bruins, a streak that would be four if not for a penalty kick with four seconds remaining in a 2-1 win at Duke earlier this month. Freshman Darian Jenkins scored early in both wins, which should be no surprise. Five of her eight goals this season have come in the first 16 minutes of games, including three inside the first 10 minutes.
3. Stanford (7-0-1, last week's ranking: 4)
It's tough to know how to feel about Stanford's win against Santa Clara. Well, it's not tough if you're Courtney Verloo, the redshirt senior whose hat trick propelled the Cardinal to a 3-2 double-overtime win on the road. But if ever a team deserved a point in a rivalry that hasn't been particularly competitive in recent seasons, it was Santa Clara. The Broncos fell behind after 80 seconds, then rallied back to take a 2-1 lead with seven minutes to play, only to see the win vanish on a 90th-minute penalty kick and Verloo's well-struck free kick with two minutes left in the second overtime. Well done by the Cardinal, but painfully tough luck for the Broncos.
4. Florida State (8-0-2, last week's ranking: 6)
Identical scores, disparate results. Florida State closed the weekend with a somewhat frustrating 1-0 win against NC State, but the big result was a 1-0 win against North Carolina. A late goal from Jamia Fields gave the Seminoles their third win in a row against the Tar Heels, something only Santa Clara and Maryland had previously managed. As much as there is a lull in an ACC schedule, Florida State has hit it. Its next five games are against Miami, Clemson, Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. There should be opportunities to find the back of the net against those teams. The Seminoles were without Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Megan Campbell on Sunday because of international duty.
5. Notre Dame (7-1-0, last week's ranking: 5)
Describing something as a last-second goal is usually a misnomer in soccer. That's true of Notre Dame's 1-0 win against Syracuse in its lone game this past weekend -- but not by much. Sammy Scofield's header with three seconds remaining saved the Fighting Irish from overtime and a potential letdown draw against their old Big East foe. The last three times the Irish finished September with no more than one loss, they played for a national championship. Home games against Maryland and Pitt this weekend stand in the way of that mark.
6. North Carolina (8-2-0, last week's ranking: 2)
When you average a little more than a loss per season for more than three decades, you're going to accumulate some streaks. Another one came to an end this past week when North Carolina suffered its defeat at Florida State. Combined with the loss the previous week against Notre Dame, it marked the program's first back-to-back losses in regulation since 1982. How long ago was that? The teams that beat them back then were Missouri-St. Louis and Cortland State, both long since gone from the top competitive rung of women's college soccer. The Tar Heels did bounce back with a 4-0 win at Miami on Sunday behind a hat trick from, who else, Crystal Dunn.
7. Penn State (7-1-1, last week's ranking: 8)
At least Penn State makes it interesting. For the second game in a row, the Nittany Lions ceded their opponent a two-goal lead. And for the second game in a row, Erica Walsh's team rallied to win, this time a 3-2 overtime victory against Northwestern to open Big Ten play. Throw in a 3-2 win against Tulsa before those back-to-back comebacks, a game in which they needed a 90th-minute goal to escape with full points, and the Nittany Lions are both allowing far too many goals but also showing some remarkable mettle and offensive firepower to make up the difference.
8. Wake Forest (7-1-1, last week's ranking: 7)
This is the ACC. Wake Forest opened the week with a 3-1 win at home against Duke. It was the first win by more than a goal against the Blue Devils since 1998, gave the Demon Deacons a two-game winning streak in the series for the first time since 1996 and saw Katie Stengel extend her school record with her 50th career goal. And the good vibes lasted all of about 60 hours. Haley Brock's goal in the fourth minute gave Maryland all the margin it needed in a 1-0 win against Wake Forest, its third straight win in that series. Road games at Boston College and Syracuse await.
9. Portland (6-1-1, last week's ranking: 9)
The Pilots are coming off a 2-1 win at San Diego State, their first win in three seasons against the Aztecs, and the upshot is a chance to wrap up nonconference play with just one loss for the first time since 2010. They aren't scoring goals at quite the pace of years gone by, but the win in San Diego was the fourth consecutive game in which they scored multiple times, something they did during just one stretch last season. Limited by injuries to seven games a season ago, Ellen Parker had a goal and an assist in the win to move to three goals and three assists on the year.
10. Florida (7-1-1, last week's ranking: NR)
Jordan isn't the only striker with a lot of goals entering Friday's game. Mississippi senior Rafaelle Souza, a native of Brazil, is tied for the national lead with 11 goals, including four in two games this past week.
Next five: Baylor, Kentucky, Santa Clara, Georgetown, Denver
Ten games to watch this week (rankings from NSCAA Top 25)
• No. 21 Maryland at No. 1 Virginia
• No. 1 Virginia at Duke
• No. 21 Maryland at No. 5 Notre Dame
• No. 7 Florida at No. 24 Mississippi
• Indiana at No. 8 Penn State
• No. 23 West Virginia at No. 12 Baylor
• No. 18 Wisconsin at No. 13 Michigan
• No. 14 Portland at Washington
• No. 19 Denver at No. 17 BYU
• Georgia at No. 25 Kentucky