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Unsung McNabb Provides Calming Presence

Kristen McNabb

Nov. 11, 2015

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- She has started 45 straight games at left center back for the University of Virginia women's soccer team, whose record during that span is 39-4-2.

To UVA head coach Steve Swanson, there's no question that Kristen McNabb ranks among the nation's best defenders. Outside the Cavaliers' program, though, McNabb often seems to get overlooked.

"I think it depends on what you value," Swanson said. "We've always put a value on the fundamentals. We've always put a value on being a team player. We've always put a value on having the intellectual side to make good decisions on both sides of the ball.

"Some of those things just aren't All-ACC kind of things you vote on."

Indeed, when the All-ACC first, second and third teams were announced last week on the eve of the conference tournament, McNabb's name was conspicuously absent.

"I try not to pay attention to all that stuff," said McNabb, a 5-5 redshirt junior from Montville, N.J. "As long as the team does well, I don't really care."

In the ACC tournament, McNabb's value to the team could not have been more evident. In the semifinals Friday, she scored a career-high two goals to help Virginia crush Clemson 5-0.

 

 

Two days later, in the ACC title game, after two overtime periods ended with UVA and Florida State tied 2-2, the teams went to a shootout. McNabb took -- and made -- the first penalty kick for the Cavaliers, but the Seminoles responded in kind, and after five rounds the teams remained deadlocked.

FSU ultimately prevailed, but McNabb was one of four Cavaliers named to the all-tournament team, along with forward Makenzy Doniak, midfielder Alexis Shaffer and fellow defender Emily Sonnett.

"I don't really win a lot of awards," McNabb said, "so I guess that was the only positive that came out of this weekend."

In 2014, the Seminoles went 3-0 against the Wahoos, each time by a score of 1-0, their final meeting coming in the NCAA championship game.

The `Hoos snapped their losing streak in the series Oct. 25, when they edged the `Noles 1-0 at Klöckner Stadium. Each is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which starts this weekend, and they could meet for the national championship again this year. For now, though, Virginia (16-1-2) is focused on Howard (13-7-2), its first-round opponent Friday at 6 p.m. at Klöckner.

That will be the first of what could be four straight home games for the Cavaliers, who are seeking a third consecutive appearance at the College Cup.

"The fact that if we keep winning, we're at home, is good motivation and good incentive," Swanson said.

McNabb said: "It's huge. Home-field advantage definitely helps a lot."

From its 2014 team, UVA returned many of its top players. But the `Hoos had to learn to play without All-America midfielders Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico, among other challenges this season.

"I just feel this year hasn't been maybe as easy [as last year]," McNabb said. "We've done as well, but I think maybe we've faced more adversity, we've had more injuries, and we don't have Danny and Morgan any more. But despite all that, we've find a way to come together and improve, and I think that might help us a bit in the long run."

McNabb has faced more than her share of adversity at Virginia. In the spring of 2012, as a senior at Montville Township High, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and had to redshirt that fall at UVA.

In 2013, she appeared in 19 games and was a key reserve for the Cavaliers before tearing her right ACL on Halloween night against Virginia Tech. That ended McNabb's season prematurely, and the `Hoos ended up bowing out in the NCAA semifinals.

By the start of the 2014 season, though, McNabb was back and ready to contribute.

"She's got a real strong character about her," Swanson said. "It was like she'd never been injured.

"We feel fortunate in that regard, and I don't think it's changed the kind of player she is. She's very brave. She's not scared of the physical side of the game. That's another quality you have to have to play at the next level. She competes on every play."

McNabb has played a team-high 1,644 minutes this season. She's contributed five goals and an assist and, with 11 points, is seventh on the team in scoring. Not bad for a defender.

"The great thing about her is, she's such a versatile player," Swanson said. "She's a very smart and skillful soccer player, and so you can put her in a number of different positions and she can be very effective."

Alongside McNabb, at right center back, is Sonnett, an All-American who last month earned her first cap with the U.S. national team. Sonnett was honored last week as the ACC's defensive player of the year and was named ESPNW's national player of the year Wednesday.

"I think Kristen balances Emily in a lot of different ways, and not just soccer-wise," Swanson said. "Obviously she's got a good left foot, and Emily's right-footed, so we take advantage of Kristen's good left foot. But she's got a good soccer brain, tpoo. She covers really well, which allows Emily to have the comfort to get forward more.

"But I also think Emily leads by emotion. Kristen's a lot more reserved, so they're a good balance, and obviously I think Emily has a lot of respect for Kristen. If there's calming to be done, Kristen is usually the one that does it."

When apprised of Swanson's comments about her bond with the fiery Sonnett, McNabb laughed.

"It probably helps that we're good friends off the field," McNabb said. "I think I'm a good calming presence when everything's kind of going crazy [on the field]. I'm like, `All right, guys, just chill out. We're fine.' But I think she can tell me to shut up, and I can tell her. We have a good relationship that way.

"Emily's just intense all the time, which is awesome. But sometimes you've just got to reel her in. I don't scream at her, but if she's going off at the ref or something, I'll say, `Emily, it's fine. Just let it go.' "

Swanson was an assistant coach on the United States team that in July 2015 won the FIFA Women's World Cup. The U.S. team included two former UVA stars -- Brian and defender Becky Sauerbrunn -- and Swanson sees similarities between McNabb and Sauerbrunn.

Sauerbrunn might be the best center back in the world, Swanson said, but "I still don't think people can appreciate all she does, unless you're with her all the time. Unless you're in the camp, unless you're in training, unless you see those things on a daily basis."

Swanson sees McNabb every day, "and I know what she's capable of," he said. "Her level of consistency is very high, almost all the time. And that's rare."

A sociology major, McNabb is on track to graduate in May. She enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2012 along with such teammates as Sonnett, Doniak and Brittany Ratcliffe. All will be out of eligibility in 2016 when McNabb returns for her final season at Virginia.

"It's going to be definitely different," McNabb said. "It's going to be a little sad, because a good chunk of my friends that I came in with are leaving, but I'm just excited that I have another year to play. So I guess I'm thankful for that, but I'm definitely going to miss them."

However the `Hoos fare in this tournament, they figure to be strong again next year, in no small part because of McNabb's presence on defense.

"She solidifies any backline," Swanson said. "She's put in a lot of work and time, and I think she has the ability to play at the next level. I can't say that about many players, but I can say that about Kristen very confidently. She's got some special qualities. She's special in the air and has a special left foot. You can build out of the back with her, and that's something that we value on our team a lot."

TICKET/PARKING INFORMATION: Tickets for the UVA-Howard game are $9 for reserved seats, $7 for adult general admission and $5 for youth/UVA student/senior citizen general admission. Fans can order online at VirginiaSports.com/tickets and by phone (through the Virginia Athletics Ticket Office) at 800-542-8821 or 434-924-8821. Tickets also will be available at the gate Friday, starting at 5 p.m.

Free public parking will be available in the Emmet/Ivy Garage. The Virginia men's basketball team hosts Morgan State at 7 p.m. on Friday, so the John Paul Jones Arena and University Hall parking lots are reserved for men's basketball permit holders.

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Jeff White

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jwhite@virginia.edu

A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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