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Va. Tech women’s soccer building on success

For Virginia Tech Coach Kelly Cagle, life has recently been a whirlwind.

Last weekend, Cagle led to Hokies’ women’s soccer team to first- and second-round wins in the program’s first NCAA tournament victories. Since then, she has been too busy to unpack the suitcase from that trip to Dayton, Ohio. And on Tuesday, her 15-month-old daughter, Nancy, played with puzzle pieces in her office as she prepared for the next step in Virginia Tech’s historic journey.

“It’s really cool,” Cagle said. “And I think the coolest part is that our team is really excited about, but they’re not over the moon. They’re excited, but they’re just not satisfied.”

On Friday, the third-seeded Hokies (16-7) will play at second-seeded Portland (20-1) in the round of 16. The winner will meet either top-seeded UCLA or Virginia.

Virginia Tech’s wins last weekend represented a milepost for a program that has never stood out in the ultra-competitive ACC. It was a tangible step in the reinvention of the Hokies’ program under Cagle, who is in her seventh season.

“The thing for me that’s really cool is we’ve been here seven years and the winning mentality was far from here when I took this job,” Cagle said. “Our goal is to try to build something that’s going to stick around.”

Cagle said Virginia Tech did not have high standards in women’s soccer, everything from the players’ fitness to the way they carried themselves. She has tried to change the culture since she arrived in Blacksburg in 2003, taking over after Jerry Cheynet’s one-year coaching stint.

Cagle has tried to instill core values in the players: competing, accountability, responsibility. They participate in a decathlon in the offseason. They know that showing up on time to practice means they are actually late. They are told to carry themselves with positive body language (but smiles are also mandated before playing).

“There’s a standard here that all of us have to adhere to,” Cagle said. “Those small things help you with the outcome goals, but it’s the process along the way that’s important to me as a mentor, and to our program.”

Although her philosophy at Virginia Tech might have been influenced by her past playing or coaching experience, she said she did not base the Hokies’ formula for success after another college program’s model.

But as a player, Cagle also helped lead a change at Duke from 1992 to 1995. The Blue Devils reached the national championship game in 1992 (and lost to North Carolina) and made four straight NCAA tournament appearances, one for every season she played there.

“That’s what attracted me here,” Cagle said of her experience building Duke. “I wanted to be apart of the building here, too. And a lot of the girls want to be apart of that.

Virginia Tech has been led in scoring by junior Marika Gray (10 goals), freshman Kelly Conheeney (nine goals) and junior Jennifer Harvey (nine goals).

With the Hokies’ success in recent seasons, Cagle said there has been a heightened interest in Virginia Tech from recruits.

But although the program has developed over the years, the results are perhaps the most obvious. On Oct. 4, Virginia Tech knocked off No. 1 North Carolina for its first win over a top-ranked team. It was the Tar Heels’ first conference loss since 2007.

“There’s not one person on this team that does not buy in to what we’re doing,” Cagle said. “This group has just decided to be a really unified, powerful machine.”

Cagle said the intensity of conference play has helped Hokies in the NCAA tournament. Of the 16 teams remaining in the NCAA tournament, seven are from the ACC.

But the Hokies will have a test on Friday. Portland, which won NCAA titles in 2002 and 2005, is ranked second in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll. The Pilots are a possession-oriented team, but have talented athletes and are a tournament favorite, along with No. 1 Stanford, No. 3 UCLA and No. 4 North Carolina.

“We are far from having arrived,” Cagle said. “We want to sustain it.”

But in Virginia Tech's first trip deep into the NCAA tournament, it has been a wild ride for Cagle and the Hokies.

By Mark Viera  |  November 18, 2009; 9:45 AM ET
 
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