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December 8, 2009

Unforgettable - Looking back on the women's soccer team's banner season

By: Matt Kovatch

The Virginia Tech women's soccer team had the best season in school history.

Partly because of the timing of postseason play in women’s soccer, and partly because of the publication schedule of this monthly magazine, we here at Inside Hokie Sports weren’t quite able to give the in-depth coverage of the Hokies’ postseason run that it deserved. By the first of November, the ACC tournament had yet to begin, but by the time this issue hits mailboxes, Tech will be several weeks removed from its first appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Though the Hokies lost that contest on Nov. 20 at second-ranked Portland, it did nothing to diminish what was easily one of the best seasons any Tech team in any sport has ever had.

The Hokies accomplished a seemingly uncountable amount of program firsts and all-time highs throughout the fall. That list included, but was not limited to, 16 wins overall, six ACC wins and a fourth-place finish, a seven-game winning streak, a victory over No. 1 North Carolina, a win on the road at Virginia, a national ranking of No. 12 in two polls and No. 6 in another, and two wins in the NCAA Tournament.

Julian Johnson (left) and Marika Gray (right) embrace after the season-ending loss to No. 2 Portland in the NCAA Tournament on November 20.

All along, this Tech women’s soccer team wanted to become the first team in program history to reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and it did so, earning a No. 3 seed in the UCLA bracket after reaching the semifinals of the ACC tournament. The Hokies had never won an NCAA Tournament game before that, but after a 2-0 shutout of Murray State on Nov. 13 and a 3-1 win over unbeaten Dayton on Nov. 15, they found themselves in uncharted territory and on their way to Portland.

Though the Portland loss was tough to swallow and the cross-country trip back to Blacksburg seemed extra long, two of Tech’s stars throughout the season – senior Julian Johnson (team-high seven assists) and junior Marika Gray (team-high 10 goals) – were gracious enough to share their thoughts on the season that they will always remember.

Senior Julian Johnson

IHS: How did it feel to get all the way to the Sweet 16 in your senior year?

JJ: It was an amazing feeling to get to the Sweet 16 mainly because we had never gotten past the first round of the NCAA Tournament in our program's history. It really expressed the transition of our program from being average to being a powerful and ranked program.

IHS: What were your emotions after the Portland loss? Were you proud of how far you had gotten, upset that you lost, or sad that your career was over?

JJ: I was proud to reach our goals that we had made as a team, but I was indeed sad that we lost and that it would end my career at Tech. We approached the NCAA Tournament focusing on one game at a time, and even though we made history, I was not completely satisfied with only making the Sweet 16. I have always been one to push a little further and want more.

IHS: Of all the big wins you guys had this season, which was the most satisfying for you and why?

JJ: All of those wins were satisfying and will resound in my memory for a long time, but particularly the UNC and the UVa wins. Beating UNC really demonstrated that, when we were on the same page and had the collective will to win, we could beat anyone. UNC's stunned faces were priceless. UVa was also extremely satisfying because, last year, we beat them at our house, but their team still registered that as a fluke. So to beat them at their own house proved that it was no fluke and that there is now a full-fledged competitive rivalry.

IHS: How much did this season mean to the future of the program?

JJ: This season created a giant springboard for the future of our program. We will be able to recruit more talented players and continue to make history. I hope this year demonstrates that anything is possible and that future players can continue to build on what we have accomplished.

Junior Marika Gray

IHS: Your knee probably isn't what it used to be, but how did it feel to get back to playing this year?

MG: It felt great. I have been blessed to still have been able to play another season after my injury [an ACL tear in the middle of last season] and happy to have been able to contribute to our successful season.

IHS: You guys were able to defeat five nationally ranked teams this year, but does any one of those stand out above the others?

MG: Beating UNC was the best out of all of the wins we had. Very few teams can say that they beat UNC during the course of their four or five years as a college athlete, so I am very happy that my teammates and I were able to experience it and to see all of our hard work pay off.

IHS: How much can the team build off of this season heading into next year?

MG: Confidence in our abilities as a team will be a huge factor that we can build off of. We have raised our standards even more, so we will have to fight even harder next year to try and regain the success that we have achieved this year.

IHS: How big of a role did the seniors play in the team's success and how much will they be missed?

MG: The seniors did so much for the team, not only this year, but in years before. They were the ones who took me and the other juniors in as freshmen and showed us the ropes. They are going to be missed so much both on and off the field. There is no other class like them.