The role she’s likely to play this fall isn’t unfamiliar to Haley Hopkins, but the Virginia forward might be better suited for it now in her second season with the Cavaliers.
Hopkins is preparing for a return to the 9 — the center-striker spot.
“I’m excited to be back in that position. That’s where I played the majority of my time at Vanderbilt,” she said on a humid, sun-soaked morning after a practice last week, “so I’m definitely looking forward to it. But I also learned so much last season and I have a completely different appreciation for playing outside.”
The Newport Beach, Calif. native is entering her fifth year in college soccer, having spent three with the Commodores ahead of transferring to UVa before last season. And at Vanderbilt, Hopkins was a goal-scoring specialist and racked up 34, the second most all-time in the history of the SEC school.
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This year, the Cavaliers, who enter ranked No. 4 nationally by the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll, need at least one goal-scorer to emerge to make up for the production former star Diana Ordoñez accounted for last fall. She led the Hoos and the Atlantic Coast Conference with 18 goals while helping UVa in its run to the ACC Tournament championship, a spot in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and an 18-3-2 finish. Ordoñez was the sixth pick in the NWSL Draft this past December and opted to start her professional career.
Hopkins was the club’s second-leading goal-scorer in 2021 with eight, but also tallied nine assists, which were the most in her career while playing on the outside and figuring out how to best feed the forward — usually Ordoñez — in front of the net.
“It just gave me the chance to take a step back and realize that it’s so satisfying,” Hopkins said, “and there’s so much gratification with it, too, you know, and it’s a different side of the game I never got to see before. I’m so appreciative and thankful.”
She said she’s more prepared to handle the rigors of the ACC better this year since she has more knowledge of the league. UVa starts its regular season on Aug. 18 against George Mason at Klöckner Stadium and will play eight nonconference contests prior to its Sept. 17 ACC opener against North Carolina.
“The ACC is really beautiful soccer compared to the Powerhouse SEC team that is just very physical,” Hopkins said, “so I’ve definitely had to develop my personal game and become more of a soccer player than just an athlete. I would say that I feel like I’ve developed a lot, which is everything I could’ve wanted out of my transfer.”
Said longtime UVa Coach Steve Swanson: “She’s a remarkable athlete, but for her, it was working on controlling the ball better, playing faster, getting her head up more and those are things I’ve seen the change in and those are things in the conference and the games we play, that are required because there’s not as much space.
“You can still do things with your athleticism,” Swanson continued, “but to make an impact, you have to have both. You have to have a good technical side and good Athletic side, and I’ve been really impressed, because her technical side has really grown tremendously.”
Swanson said in addition to Hopkins’ return, he’s happy fifth-year forward Alexa Spaanstra decided to play another year at UVa as well. Spaanstra netted seven goals and had nine assists last year, and according to Swanson, will be needed to help the Hoos score enough this season.
“I’d love to take on more of a scoring role,” Spaanstra said, “but it’s whatever the team needs whether it’s creating chances on assists or scoring goals or being a connector in the middle somewhere.”
She spent her summer with the Under-23 US national team and said she benefited from training with some of the top professionals and Collegiate Talent the country has to offer.
“And [Ordoñez] was such a unique player because she has that special quality of being able to put the ball in the back of the net and you can see that she’s still doing it at the higher levels,” Swanson said. “We have all the capabilities to do that, but that’s our challenge this year. Can we figure out ways to score goals without [Ordoñez]? And you look at our personnel. Alexa has been a heck of a player for us for a long time and to have her back is a blessing. And to have Haley back, we’re really fortunate.”
Swanson said UVa should be boosted by fifth-year senior forward Rebecca Jarrett’s return to action as well. She suffered a season-ending injury four games into last year and flashed the potential to be a regular scorer when she played. Jarrett had three goals in those matches, and has 16 career goals.
Those three — Hopkins, Spaanstra and Jarrett — plus senior Defenders Talia Staude and Claire Constant are part of the Veteran core Swanson said has blended nicely with a strong group of excellent Younger players.
Junior Alexis Theoret played in all 23 contests last year, but logged her first career start during the opening round of the postseason and scored a goal against High Point. Swanson said freshman forward-midfielder Maggie Cagel, who enrolled in January, has fit in well as well. Other less experienced players, particularly on defense, will have to fill roles early this season, too.
Swanson said for the first month the Hoos will be without Defenders Laney Rouse and Samar Guidry, who are playing for Team USA at the Under-20 World Cup in Costa Rica.
“We will have to handle that first month without them and that’s one challenge,” they said. “The schedule is another challenge and then trying to integrate as a team since we lost some good players from last year — several to the pros — that’s going to be another challenge. How can we integrate our team and be a good unit by the first game?”
Swanson said figuring out how to handle those potential issues is one of the reasons he enjoys the job, and so far, he’s encouraged by his team’s effort and work ethic to be as prepared as possible for the new campaign.
UVa is spending this week of the preseason training in Michigan, and the Hoos were scheduled for an exhibition against Illinois on Wednesday and will play another one against Michigan on Saturday.
“There are a lot of really good signs,” they said. “They’re really focused. I’d say that’s the first thing after the first couple of days of training. They’re very engaged.”
Added Hopkins: “The expectations are to be the best team we can and then in every game, whether we’re playing top-ranked teams or unranked teams, to go out there and leave everything out on the field and go as far as we can with it. The national championship is always the goal.”