Virginia senior Meghan McCool advances toward the Washington State 18-yard-line as the Cougars’ Bridget Rieken looms alongside her. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Touring around Charlottesville nowadays, you can’t get far without being reminded that the University of Virginia won the NCAA men’s basketball championship back in April.

This fall, UVA’s women’s soccer team had a chance to make that same journey, and one of the driving forces for the Cavaliers was senior forward Meghan McCool, a 2016 graduate of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

An All-Atlantic Coast Conference First Team selection, McCool was one of the two leading scorers for Virginia and for the ACC as a whole. The Cavaliers had been undefeated this fall right up until the conference tournament finals, where they lost in overtime to archrival North Carolina.

When the NCAA tournament began, Virginia was one of the four regional number one seeds, and was ranked third in the national Division I poll at the time.

The Cavs began the tournament with a 3-0 victory over Radford University in Virginia on Nov. 16, but their season ended abruptly last Friday with a 3-2 loss to the Cougars of Washington State University. This was an unqualified upset; WSU came in ranked 27th in the nation and had finished 5-5-1 within the PAC-12 Conference. Unfortunately for Virginia, the West Coast squad was peaking at exactly the right time.

The Cavaliers (17-2-3) came from behind twice to tie the Cougars in the second-round contest, but they were unable to draw even a third time after Washington State scored again in the 82nd minute.

McCool did not go out quietly, assisting on UVA’s first marker and then scoring the second goal to level the score at 2-2 a little over a dozen minutes into the second half. She finished with 15 goals and three assists for the season, a close second on the team to freshman Diana Ordonez, who had one more assist.

McCool arrived at UVA in the fall of 2016 as part of a highly-regarded freshman recruiting class that included another Inter-Ac League alum. Defender Phoebe McClernon had played for the Academy of Notre Dame and was also a teammate of McCool’s on an elite Penn Fusion club team.

Back when she first started to play varsity soccer at SCH, there were no other players in the program close to McCool’s level. That began to change in her junior and senior seasons, but she would still find herself double-teamed or even triple-teamed in most games.

Even so, she finished out her career with the Blue Devils with 136 goals, earning Inter-Ac League MVP honors as a freshman and a senior.

At Virginia, the former SCH standout found herself in the mix with other top flight soccer athletes, and as much as she’d been expecting that, the reality still required some adjustment.

“At the high school level I got through with physical ability and speed, and at the college level you need to be a much more well-rounded player,” she explained. “This is a very competitive program, and I knew coming in that I wasn’t going to play right away. I had to commit to working hard, I had to improve technically.”

In the classroom, she was adjusting to a rigorous academic regime at Virginia. She noted that along with a dedication to challenging physical conditioning, a mental commitment was required as well.

“It was a big step academically,” she said.

After scoring Virginia’s second goal in last Friday’s NCAA tournament game, McCool celebrates as Washington State goalie Ella Dederick lies beneath her. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Coping with her course load and the time demands of the soccer program, she related, “I had to figure out how to balance my time and get my priorities in order. I’ve been successful at doing that, but there are a lot of long days.”

During her first two seasons with the Cavaliers, she saw action in most games but only started in two of them. Everything changed the following fall; as a junior, she became a full-time starter and emerged as Virginia’s second-leading scorer.

The summer before that season began, she’d been in Charlottesville training with the team, and McCool noticed that her play jumped a few levels. Along with becoming fully comfortable with the pace of top collegiate soccer, she rounded off some rough edges technically.

She said that she worked to improve her first touches on the ball, explaining, “I learned more control and where I wanted to go – just overall awareness of the field.”

In each of McCool’s first three seasons, Virginia won two NCAA tournament games before making an exit in the round of 16. Naturally, this year’s cadre of Cavaliers wanted to progress farther than that, but it was not to be.

Regular season preparation for the big show doesn’t get any better than playing within the ACC, a storied conference in the sport. As this year’s tournament began, PAC-12 champion Stanford was ranked first, but the next three spots belonged to ACC schools North Carolina, Virginia and defending NCAA champion Florida State.

“The competition doesn’t get better,” McCool noted. “In September, in the early matches, we get that really tough competition which makes us play our best even in the early stages.”

Unlike Virginia, Washington State did not boast a roster replete with soccer specialists bearing distinguished pedigrees. The Cougars were big, strong and athletic. One of the starting defenders for example, was a six-foot freshman who was an accomplished three-sport athlete in high school, playing basketball and running sprints in track in addition to her soccer activities.

Virginia controlled the ball for most of the time, but Washington State always posed a quick-strike threat, sending long balls out of the defensive half and aggressively chasing them down. The skillful Cavaliers usually moved up the field with shorter passes and kept the ball on the ground, but thanks to the sturdy Cougar club, the Cavs often found themselves on the ground as well.

Overall, Virginia found State’s style of play disruptive. The Cougars got on the board with 12:23 elapsed, and UVA fans were relieved when their squad answered six minutes later. In the right side of the box, McCool received a pass from farther out on the wing and got off a shot while being tackled by a defender. WSU keeper Ella Dederick stopped the ball near the middle of the goal line, but it rolled loose to the left and Virginia’s Ordonez tapped it into the right side of the cage.

The Cougars would be ahead 2-1 at halftime, though, after their leading scorer, senior Morgan Weaver, struck with a little over 14 minutes remaining in the opening period.

McCool tied the match at 2-2 with 37:26 remaining in the game. From a few yards inside the right sideline, sophomore Rebecca Jarrett ripped a pass between the legs of Cougar defender Mikiaa Minniss, finding McCool just a few yards away from the cage, right between the posts. The UVA senior was able to boot the ball solidly into the net before being taken down just a few feet from the goal line.

From a similar position, McCool had a chance to move the Cavaliers ahead about 10 minutes later, but this time, Washington State’s Dederick denied her.

The count was still 2-2 as the game progressed into the final 10 minutes of regulation. A goal at this stage might well prove decisive, and it was the Cougars who netted one with 8:31 to go. An initial shot was knocked down in front of the goal by UVA keeper Michaela Moran. Coming in alongside the goalie, Washington State’s MacKenzie Frimpong-Ellertson backed the loose ball over the line with her body.

Accustomed to sending long aerials out of its defensive end to begin with, Washington State fended off the Cavaliers the rest of the way. Two days later, playing once more in UVA’s Klöckner Stadium, the Cougars continued their tournament run. WSU convincingly ousted West Virginia, 3-0, to reach the Elite Eight.

There may or may not be more soccer ahead for McCool; that was not something to be determined in the immediate aftermath of Virginia’s departure from the NCAA tournament. Four years spent at the prestigious institution will provide her with a number of options.

The former SCH star is majoring in American Studies at Virginia, and recently she’s been increasingly drawn to the subject matter of her minor, Health and Well Being.

“I’ve become more interested in the health realm, things like global health,” she said. “I could see myself doing something on the administrative or sales side of medicine or health care.”

Even if she no longer chases the checkered ball around a soccer pitch, McCool can look back on an impressive career in the sport, going from being a star on a high school program just starting its upward climb to distinguishing herself at the highest levels of the college game.