For most women’s college soccer teams, playing two games in the span of five days against opponents ranked among the best in the country means it’s the middle of November and the NCAA tournament is moving toward a conclusion.
For No. 13 Boston College (7-0-2), it means summer is over.
The Eagles began their ACC schedule Sunday with a 2-0 win at home against Virginia, ranked No. 14 at the time. The first conference road trip was more dramatic. Trailing No. 11 Maryland by a goal with just over two minutes to play in regulation Thursday night in College Park, Boston College found itself tied and headed to overtime after an own goal from the Terrapins. And after Eagles junior Victoria DiMartino found herself with the ball at her feet and nothing more than six yards of green between her and the Maryland goalkeeper late in the first overtime period, Boston College had a 2-1 win that could define a season.
For the second year in a row and just the third time since joining the nation’s best women’s soccer conference, Boston College is 2-0-0 to start league play.
“ACC play, for me, it’s like a different game,” Boston College freshman Stephanie McCaffrey said after her first taste of conference play against Virginia. “Everyone is so fast, everyone is so skilled, you can’t get away with anything.”
Such a situation would seem to suggest a starting back line featuring a true freshman (Casey Morrison), a redshirt freshman (converted forward Rachel Davitt), a sophomore who played limited minutes last season (Zoe Lombard) and a lone, solitary senior (Alaina Beyar) would be a recipe for trouble. But as it has been all season, even without injured senior center back Alyssa Pember, Boston College’s defense was its best asset against Virginia and Maryland.
The Terrapins’ goal, while requiring speed and skill from Acton, Mass. native Haley Brock, was also a bit of bad luck for the visitors. Maryland keeper’s Yewande Balogun’s strong goal kick in the 10th minute took a high first bounce about 40 yards from the Boston College goal, skipping over Lomabrd and Morrison and allowing Brock to sprint in behind and finish at the far post. It’s worth describing if only because it was the first goal the Eagles had allowed in eight games, the only prior goal coming on a set piece from Boston University in the regular-season opener.
“We knew we were going to be young in the back; we knew we had to train a few people,” Boston College coach Alison Foley said after the Virginia game. “But it’s what we do best. We’re able to defend and be pretty organized. The upperclassmen kind of have that mentality, they teach it to the younger kids, sort of what we’re known for as a program. I knew we had good players, maybe I didn’t know they’d be that good collectively so early.”
It helps that the back line is playing in front of Jillian Mastroianni. The senior goalkeeper is just four shutouts shy of matching the NCAA career record held by former Rutgers keeper Erin Guthrie. She’s capable of brilliant plays -- a sprawling, full-extension save to protect the lead late in the game against Virginia and a deft touch on a dangerous header late in the game against Maryland stand out from her most recent work. But it’s her voice, louder and more constant than ever before, that is of special value for a team with plenty of skill but untested and unsettled leadership. Brock was a handful all night long for Maryland, but the Eagles never looked rattled after conceding an early goal.
“I think I talk more this year than I ever have, and I think that helps prevent the breakdowns that used to happen,” Mastroianni said last weekend. “Instead of having to make the save, I try to talk even more to prevent it and let my defense do more of the work.”
The goals took longer to come, but Boston College was more impressive offensively against Maryland than in the win against Virginia, when it ceded possession for much of the first half. The Eagles twice hit the crossbar against the Terrapins, Kristie Mewis’ rocket from the edge of the 18-yard box with 13 minutes to play seeming the most likely to haunt them until her cross in the final minutes set the stage for a Maryland defender to knock the ball into her own goal in an attempt to clear.
Considering the easiest portion of its schedule is behind it and it has just 18 goals in nine games, Boston College is going to struggle to reach 50 goals for a third consecutive season. It will help if Thursday’s winner sparks DiMartino, who led the team with 14 goals in each of the past two seasons but has been coming off the bench in recent games. But beyond Mewis and DiMartino, the two known commodities, there were signs in both wins of a team beginning to figure out its own personality, be it Gibby Wagner's work rate, Kate McCarthy's distribution or McCaffrey's speed and strength off the bench.
“I think the biggest difference is we have more possession-style players,” Foley said of this year's group compared to last year's juggernaut. “It appears that we’re not running at people as much. ... We have a lot of people that want to break down off of passes and combination. So I think it seems like the game is slower, but not necessarily. It’s a bit of a different style that we break down the final third in.”
Last season took on a magical feel from the moment conference play began, when Boston College went to Chapel Hill and recorded its first ever win against North Carolina. For the most part, the opening stretch this time around offered a reminder of the more familiar, grinding reality of a conference with seven teams currently ranked in the top 16 of the NSCAA poll. There was a lot of sweat, and not much magic.
But when DiMartino lofted the ball into the back of the net and raced to the sideline, finger to her lips as if to silence the crowd, the doubters or both, well, it at least makes you curious to see what other tricks the Eagles have up their sleeves.