Diana Ordonez wasn't sure she was ready to trade home for the University of Virginia last winter, months earlier than most of her high school peers. With each game she plays these days, it increasingly appears that the rest of the college soccer world still isn't ready for her.
Ordonez isn't just the most influential freshman in the country; she's one of the most influential players, full stop. Among Power-5 players, only Stanford's Catarina Macario, the two-time reigning national player of the year, began the week with more than her 12 goals.
With its imposing 5-foot-11 freshman so often supplying the end product, Virginia is No. 1 for the first time since 2015. The best program never to win a national championship may yet be able to shed that label. Not because Ordonez can or seeks to carry the Cavaliers on her back, but because she's comfortable enough in her surroundings to know she doesn't need to.
"She's a perfect fit because having a No. 9 (striker) who can score is very important, first of all, but also she keeps the ball for us and we're a very possession-oriented team," teammate Taryn Torres said. "Defensively, she has a good soccer IQ, so she knows where to be, and she's there at the right time. Also having someone as tall as her is a very good weapon for us on service."
"I think goals shouldn't be a measure of performance necessarily. I could play a terrible game and score two goals. That's just how it is sometimes in soccer. But your level of effort is really important ..." Virginia freshman Diana Ordonez
Torres is the right person to ask. A veteran of youth national teams herself, the junior holding midfielder uses the ball as a baton to conduct the Cavaliers. If anyone can appreciate the nuances a forward like Ordonez brings to Virginia's attack, it's her. But more than that, she had at least a hand in Ordonez coming to Charlottesville in the first place.
Both grew up in the Dallas area and played for FC Dallas in club soccer. Torres is two years older, but her younger sister played on the same team as Ordonez. Their families grew close enough that on a recruiting visit last year, Ordonez's mom was in tears as she said goodbye to Torres -- as if saying goodbye to her own daughter. When Ordonez, who initially verbally committed to Texas A&M as a sophomore, decided she rushed her decision and reopened her recruiting, it was only natural she reached out to a friend about Virginia.
Beyond assurances about the people and place, she heard the magic words about the soccer experience. Along with Florida State and Stanford, few programs have a better reputation for playing possession-oriented, sophisticated soccer. It's why coach Steve Swanson, who coached the U.S. to a U-20 World Cup title and assisted with the senior team that won the World Cup this past summer, is so well regarded in the international game.
"In Texas, it's very common for teams to be direct," Ordonez said. "You can even see that from club through college in Texas. But the team that I played for ... in terms of valuing possession, we always kept the ball and we never were just looking to kick and chase."
The catch was Virginia was a long way from her Prosper, Texas, home. Ordonez had long planned to complete her high school studies on an accelerated schedule and enroll a semester early at Texas A&M, a common enough practice for soccer players in advance of the fall college season. But going to College Station, still close enough to maintain connection with family and with friends going through their senior spring, was far different than trekking to Charlottesville.
Ordonez was adamant she didn't want to enroll early. Her dad overruled her, with Swanson's support.
"From the academic standpoint, I think it made sense that she could come in in January," Swanson said. "One of the things we thought about was if there was going to be a transitional period away from her family, rather than put it all in the fall when the season's starting and she's just getting used to school, can we ease that transition a little bit by bringing her in in January? We thought maybe it would give her the ability to transition a little more smoothly."
It still meant that barely three months removed from her 17th birthday, Ordonez arrived in Virginia as a college student. Making the move that much more challenging, she was the only one of 10 freshman players to enroll early. She and transfer Lauren Hinton were the only newcomers for the team that was eliminated by Baylor in last year's regional semifinal.
"At first I was just scared to be far away from home," Ordonez said. "I had built it up to be a lot worse than it turned out to be. I'm such a homebody, and I get homesick really easily, so I was worried about coming here."
It took some time, but she found her footing on campus. The adjustment progressed more rapidly on the field. Flash forward to this fall and Ordonez needed less than 90 minutes to score her first goal. It took her two games to record her first hat trick. She scored two goals in a little more than the opening 15 minutes in her first game against a ranked opponent. So when she cops to being nervous and a little out of sorts for the first drill of her first practice last spring, it is a notable admission. It doesn't happen often.
"The first training session, I would say she was up to speed, but I would say there was a little bit of nervousness," Torres said. "But the second session in with us, she was right up to speed and there was no sign of nervousness."
Soccer has been like that for as long as she can remember. She's played everywhere from Argentina to China with the U-17 national team. Big games don't make her nervous. Soccer doesn't make her nervous. When she talks about the sport, she doesn't sound like a typical college freshman.
Looking back at his own playing days, Swanson wonders if his personal identity was too caught up in his identity as an athlete. He suggests he was fortunate to have successes that, in turn, brought validation, though he admits maybe it wasn't all that healthy. It's a line a lot of athletes walk. And to him, it's a line Ordonez is not in any danger of nearing. Her connection to her family and faith keep her grounded and give her an identity beyond the goals she scores.
"I wouldn't say I questioned how much I love the game," Ordonez said of the effort required along the way. "I just always kept the long run in mind. Seeing where I am now, starting for the best team in the country, is far more worth it, worth the sacrifice."
Perhaps it's instructive how little stock she puts in the goals she scores. That number could offer validation. But she could score goals chasing down long balls for a team playing pragmatic direct soccer. She chose Virginia because it offered complete soccer.
"I think goals shouldn't be a measure of performance necessarily," Ordonez said. "I could play a terrible game and score two goals. That's just how it is sometimes in soccer. But your level of effort is really important, especially when you may not be having the best day technically or whatever it might be. I look up to players that you know are trying their very best no matter what.
"That's something that I've been working on more is making sure I'm giving my best effort even when things aren't going my way in the game."
It's just that so far she hasn't had many of those opportunities.