2016 review: A time to reflect

BLACKSBURG – Sometimes, distance can make all the difference, and reality has finally set in here in Blacksburg.

The Virginia Tech women’s soccer team maneuvered its way through a challenging Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) schedule for the 11th straight year, but like a sucker punch one never sees coming, the Hokies missed out on the 2016 NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.

Almost two months removed from the sudden end to the 2016 season, six-year head coach Charles “Chugger” Adair still looks back on the year with a smile and an appreciation for what was accomplished.

“Games are tough when you are playing in the ACC,” Adair said. “Every game is a difficult game. Looking back, we had one of the most difficult conference schedules in the league since we don’t play every team.

“A couple of those games were a matter of inches … little mistakes here and there. A lot of them could’ve went either way. I really thought this team was finding its groove and was rolling at the right time. It is unfortunate that we didn’t get into the ACC or NCAA tournament this year. I think we were in a position to make a run, and the girls were getting better throughout the season.”

Following a year which saw the Hokies’ offense run through three key components – senior Murielle Tiernan and juniors Alani Johnson and Laila Gray – Tech did not have to work very hard to find its goals this season. Tiernan paced the team once again with 10 goals and 20 points and tallied a team-high five game-winning goals, as the Hokies scored 30 times in 19 matches for a 1.58 per-game average.

Tech started the year off in Charleston, South Carolina, at the College of Charleston Tournament held Aug. 19-21. Big wins over two Southeastern Conference (SEC) opponents in LSU and Mississippi State put the Hokies at 2-0 on the young season. The highlight of the tournament came from the MSU match, as senior midfielder Candace Cephers tallied two goals in the final 87 seconds to secure a come-from-behind victory over the Bulldogs.

“It was our first two-game weekend of the season,” Adair said. “We were very rusty, and we showed a little bit of challenges with our fitness. The heat and some other factors got to us. We were fortunate to come out of there with the result, but it was a big win for us to come back and show good character.”

Ranked No. 18 at the time, the Hokies returned to Blacksburg and opened their home slate with a bang, as they claimed a 5-1 decision over East Carolina (Aug. 26). With the win, the Hokies moved to 12-0-2 in home openers since Thompson Field opened in 2003.

Two days later, the Hokies defeated in-state foe James Madison (Aug. 28) on the road, but suffered their first setback of the season in a 2015 NCAA Tournament second-round rematch vs. Ohio State at Thompson Field (Sept. 1). Tiernan gave the Hokies a fighting chance late in the second half, but it was not enough, as the Buckeyes walked away with a 2-1 victory.

“Ohio State was a very challenging game for us,” Adair said. “They are a good team, but we made a couple mistakes that they punished us on, and we weren’t able to recover. We outshot them. Statistically, we are better, but we didn’t translate that to the result of the game.”

The Hokies did not flinch, though, as the team rallied to win its last four non-conference matches of the season.

“I think when we look at our other non-conference games, we did a good job controlling most of them,” Adair said. “We made a couple mistakes here and there where we chased games, but we fought through most of those.”

ACC action opened Sept. 16, as Tech embarked on a two-game road test against a pair of top-20 opponents. In a well-played chess match between two in-state rival competitors, then-No. 5 Virginia got the best of the Hokies on two corner kick opportunities and claimed a 2-0 decision to open ACC play. The squad looked to rebound, as it took a swing through North Carolina, but Tech suffered a 3-0 loss at then-No. 19 North Carolina (Sept. 22).

“It’s always a challenging start when you go on the road for your first two games against perennial, strong ACC opponents,” Adair said. “Going on the road at UVA was a big one for us. We defended fairly well, and then we gave up two set piece goals, one in each half.

“Then at UNC, very rarely do you go to UNC, outshoot them and lose. We made a couple of little mistakes in the penalty box, and they capitalized on that. They are good at that. Those mistakes once again hurt us against a good team, and it hurt us in the end.”

Tech returned to Blacksburg on Sept. 25 for a two-game homestand, dropping a 4-0 match against eventual NCAA Tournament quarterfinalist Duke. A week later, the Hokies welcomed top-ranked Clemson to Thompson Field (Oct. 1). Tech fought to the wire and grinded out a 2-2 double overtime draw vs. the Tigers to remain in ACC Tournament contention. Cephers added to the Hokies’ point total first, but it was senior defender Marie Johnston who tied the match on a corner kick in the final minutes.

“Following the Duke game at home, we had a couple of knee injuries,” Adair added. “The girls did a good job against Clemson. We made a couple of changes. We were really in that match and controlling it with some adjustments we made.

“Clemson is a really good team. They were very senior heavy with 12 seniors, so it was kind of their year. We played well. It was a crazy ending, but there were some calls that could’ve went either way.”

Following the double-overtime draw against Clemson, the Hokies went on to play four of their next five matches in double overtime – winning one, tying two and losing one.

The team went on a Northeast road trip to Syracuse (Oct. 6) and Boston College (Oct. 9), as the Hokies won back-to-back ACC matches for the first time this season. Tiernan was the hero of the BC victory, as it only took one shot from her in the second overtime period to give the Hokies the advantage and confidence they needed.

“The character of a team is made when they are on the road,” Adair said. “I think the girls did a tremendous job at getting the results. The matches were a little bit hectic, but all ACC conference games can be.

“Going to BC in the torrential downpour, the girls did a great job. We were up 1-0 and gave up two penalties on the turf in the rain. Then we fought back to tie and get the result. I think that was a huge win for us. It was a signature win and showed the character of the group.”

As most soccer enthusiasts know, goals don’t guarantee victories. The Hokie defense did its part to ensure the squad stacked wins, but the team also faced some adversity mid-October, as injury was not the only cause for lineup absences. Freshman goalkeeper Mandy McGlynn was called up by the United States U-18 National Team for a trio of friendlies in Northern Ireland, forcing the Hokies to play a key ACC homestand against Louisville and Notre Dame short-handed, along with their final road game against Miami.

“I thought it was tremendous for Mandy,” Adair said. “She is a proven goalkeeper. She did a great job for us this year, and she was able to have experience as a younger freshman and playing 90-minute games. She proved herself in that aspect, as well as the quality of discipline training. It comes through, and I think the national team noticed that.”

Adair was not only happy for his starting goalie, but he also celebrated his seniors – Tiernan, Cephers, Johnston, Jordyn Brock, Sydney Curtis, Bria Dixon and Blayne Fink – with a match against Louisville on Oct. 16. The seniors once again led the way, as Fink rose to the occasion and stepped in for McGlynn at the net, while Tiernan earned the equalizer late in the second frame to pull out a 1-1 double-overtime draw over the Cardinals.

“Blayne’s personality and character has been tremendous while she has been at Virginia Tech,” Adair said. “It’s not easy to be a backup goalkeeper throughout the season, and she stepped up and proved that she can do the job. She was always positive, and she was always someone who was impacting the team in a positive way whether she was competing or not. We were always pleased with Blayne, and I think she did a great job at stepping into those games.”

Four days later, Tech fans donned maroon for its match against Notre Dame on Oct. 20. The Hokies extended their unbeaten streak to five and played the Fighting Irish to a 0-0 double overtime draw prior to Tech football kicking off against Miami on a Thursday night in Blacksburg.

Tech then traveled south for its last road trip of the regular season, as the Hokies faced Miami on Oct. 23. Tech played its fourth straight double overtime match, but it did not fall in the Hokies favor, as the Hurricanes came out on top with a 2-1 victory in the final minutes of play.

McGlynn returned to the lineup on Oct. 27, as the Hokies closed out the 2016 campaign at home against Wake Forest. The seniors earned a 1-0 victory in their final career regular-season game, as Tiernan scored the game winner to help the Hokies defeat the Demon Deacons at Thompson Field for the first time since 2013. McGlynn also finished her freshman campaign with six shutouts, recording an 11-4-1 overall mark.

While the Hokies walked away from Thompson Field in October with a bitter taste in their mouths, the squad has much to look forward to in 2017. Only seven seniors depart, with Tiernan, Cephers and Sydney Curtis the lone starters, and five juniors return, with the goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m proud of our seniors,” Adair said. “We have seen them grow. They have definitely been impactful on the field for us, but it’s always nice to see their overall growth and development throughout the course of four years.”

Additionally, without a doubt, Tiernan will leave Tech as one of the most decorated players in women’s soccer history. A three-time All-ACC first-team nominee, Tiernan completed her Hokie career with 49 goals and 112 points, both atop the all-time lists at Virginia Tech. She also leads the all-time lists in game-winning goals (23) and multiple-goal games (9) and is tied for seventh in assists (14). Tiernan helped build the program, as well as helped solidify its place in the ACC, finishing her senior campaign with a 11-5-3 winning record.

“She’s been great for us,” Adair said. “Murielle is a quiet, humble person who does her job. She is here to play for her teammates, and she has been a tremendous person for the program. I am glad to see the accolades that she deserves. Some of the goals that she has scored throughout her career have been tremendous. As we kind of look through some of the videos and talk about what she has done, she has been a huge part of the success of our program.”

Of note, Tiernan and Cephers chose to forgo the 2017 NWSL College Draft held Jan. 12. Adair believes that the senior duo would’ve been drafted if that’s what they chose to do, but they both have their minds set on something else. Cephers wants to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, while Tiernan talks about exploring her options for playing overseas.

“Both of them have been really important to the program in different ways since they’ve been here,” Adair said. “They are both very deserving of everything they receive in life, and I can’t wait to watch them continue their journey.”

With the dynamic duo departing Tech in just a couple months, Adair has to look toward the future, and he can’t wait to see what 2017 has in store for this young squad.

“Moving forward, we have some more experienced kids,” Adair said. “We had a large group of freshmen this past year, so I only see us growing. We are going to continue to work hard and move forward. Obviously, we are going to miss our seniors. We are going to try and replace them come the spring, but we will continue to work with that. I think there is a great commitment from the younger kids to learn and push themselves to be ready for next season.”

2016 Accolades

College of Charleston All-Tournament Team

· Murielle Tiernan

· Madi Conyers

· Kelsey Irwin

· Candace Cephers

ACC Player of the Week

· Murielle Tiernan (Sept. 6)

· Alani Johnson (Aug. 29)

Murielle Teirnan

· CoSIDA Academic All-District 3 First Team

· All-ACC First Team

· NSCAA All-Southeast Region Third Team

· NSCAA Scholar All-East Region Second Team

· VaSID All-State First Team

Candace Cephers

· All-ACC Third Team

· NSCAA All-Southeast Region Second Team

· NSCAA Scholar All-East Region Second Team

· VaSID All-State Second Team

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