As a surprisingly warm November afternoon gradually gives way to chilly dusk, Morgan Brian stands at midfield on the practice pitch near Klockner Stadium. The UVA women’s soccer team—ranked No. 4 in the nation as of November 9—is running through a full practice, its last before it hosted Long Island University in an opening-round NCAA tournament game.
ACC Freshman of the Year Morgan Brian drives traffic for the Lady Cavs from the center of midfield. Brian scored her ninth goal in the team’s opening round NCAA Tournament victory against Long Island University.
Even when Brian’s body is idle, her eyes never rest—she watches her teammates and watches the ball. It is fitting that she does this; the starting midfielder for the Cavaliers is literally at the center of every game she plays, responsible for distributing the ball, controlling the tempo of the game and, sometimes, for putting the ball in the net herself. It’s a tough job for anyone to handle, but this young woman, who has yet to take her first collegiate final exam, has done it well enough to be named the Freshman of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league that currently places six teams in the national Top 25.
Brian is the central point upon which UVA’s vaunted attack pivots, but to be honest, she doesn’t look the part. As she waits in line for her turn at a drill, she looks like the teenager she is, all knees and elbows.
“You look at her, and you’re like… can this kid stand up to it?” said Head Coach Steve Swanson, raising a mock-skeptical eyebrow. “She’s kind of skinny, lanky, tall; but once she gets on a soccer field, the impact that she makes for our team is extraordinary. You look at the four qualities of a soccer player: the technical, the tactical, the physical and the mental and she’s up there on every one, which is rare to see in such a young player.”
Swanson’s point is proven when the team splits up for a full-field scrimmage. Where Brian’s eyes go, her brain follows, and when she sees a play developing, she is off like a gazelle, those elbows and knees flashing in perfect rhythm as she anticipates where the ball will arrive. She is Virginia’s second-leading goal scorer, with nine goals, including three game winners, but she does her damage as often as not with a crisp pass to a teammate.
Brian, a slender 5’7", may not be physically imposing, but her resume speaks for itself. She is a veteran of the U.S. Under 20 national team, where she proved her mettle against European players that often stood 6’2" and outweighed her by 10 pounds. Swanson compares her to a basketball point guard with the full skill package. “Does that player have a short-range jumper, a mid-range jumper, can she hit the three-point shot? If you can’t hit the three-point shot, you shouldn’t be taking it. She can hit it with both feet, which is rare, so you want her pulling the trigger,” he said.
Once she has an opponent fearing her feet, the passing lanes open up. Defending teams have to pick their poison. Against Long Island, she scored the team’s second goal from a cross.
Brian grew up on St. Simon’s Island, a resort community off the southeastern coast of Georgia with around 14,000 year-round residents. As a senior at Frederica Academy, she scored an astonishing 71 goals and assisted on 30 more in a 20-game season, a performance that earned her the Gatorade Female Player of the Year award. She traveled to Los Angeles to accept the trophy at ESPN’s televised ESPY awards. She also played for the Ponte Vedra Soccer club in northern Florida, appeared in the FIFA youth soccer World Cup, and maintained a 3.81 high school grade point average.
If her accolades ended there, they’d be impressive, but Brian also lives up to Frederica Academy’s adopted motto “To whom much is given, much is expected.” She joined U-17 teammate Bryane Heaberlin in founding the Many Hearts One Goal foundation to aid former international opponents on the Haitian U-17 team in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the island community. She has also been an active volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, Relay for Life, and is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Morgan Brian is everything a top college coach like Steve Swanson could ask for, but he almost didn’t get her. She initially chose to stay near home and attend the University of Georgia. A few months after she committed, the head coach of the Bulldogs resigned. To Swanson’s delight, Brian picked up the phone and called him, and she’s been a ’Hoo ever since.
Brian says she’s glad about where she ended up. “This program has a history of playing really good soccer. That attracts me the most, the good soccer, but it’s a great education, too.”
The ’Hoos enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed, which means they start with home field advantage. Should they win their region, the semifinals and final will be played in Kennesaw, Georgia. “Yeah, back at home,” Morgan said. “It’s very motivating.”
Tournament foes may take that as a warning. Morgan Brian is watching. Where her eyes go, her brain goes, and her body follows at warp speed. You’re standing between her and three things she wants: the back of the net, her home, and a national championship.