By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He arrived at UVa as one of the nation’s most heralded recruits and, as if it were scripted, scored a goal in his college debut.
Then, for nine games, nothing. Not a single goal. Not even an assist.
Those who followed George Gelnovatch’s soccer team started to wonder what all the fuss about Will Bates had been about. Bates, a graduate of Thomas Dale High School in Chesterfield County, had questions, too.
“I measure the success of myself in two ways: team success and if I feel like I’m contributing to that. And then also as a forward, I’m obviously going to measure myself in goals,” Bates said. “So I got a bit frustrated. But Coach kept telling me, ‘Keep working hard, they’re going to come. And once you get the first one and get a little rhythm, then they’re going to start coming more freely.'”
And that’s exactly what happened. Bates has had a sensational first season for UVa (16-3-3), which hosts defending national champion Maryland (15-5-2) in the NCAA quarterfinals Friday night at Klöckner Stadium.
Of the Wahoos’ 32 goals, Bates has scored 11 of them. Three came Nov. 22 in second-seeded UVa’s 5-0 rout of Bucknell in the NCAA tournament’s second round. With 23 points, Bates leads Virginia in scoring, well ahead of No. 2 Tony Tchani (17 points).
Bates was named to the all-ACC second team as well as the conference’s all-freshman team.
“The goals are obviously a great thing,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s good in front of the goal, he’s very fit, and he’s a tireless worker.”
It’s not uncommon, Gelnovatch said, for a first-year player, especially a forward who’s used to scoring regularly, to struggle to adjust to the college game.
Still, Gelnovatch said, “I don’t know exactly which game it was, but I remember specifically thinking to myself, ‘We gotta get Will going. We gotta keep staying with him, keep getting him in there, keep going with it.'”
On Oct. 2, UVa fell 1-0 to then-No. 5 North Carolina in double overtime. The Cavaliers haven’t lost since, in part because of a critical lineup change.
Bates has been playing out wide. After the loss in Chapel Hill, Gelnovatch recalled, “I decided that he had to be our center forward. We had Chris Agorsor up there, and he wasn’t the answer. And it became clear after that game, the move was to make Bates that center forward guy. And to stay with it … to give him a chance to get himself going.”
About five weeks after his first goal, Bates scored his second. He hasn’t cooled off, and now he and the Wahoos are a victory from the NCAA tournament’s final four.
“Coming in, it’s definitely a goal to get to the College Cup,” Bates said. “But realistically, how many teams do it? Only four. So to be one of the eight left is just a great accomplishment in itself. But I think for us, we’re more hungry than that. We want to be in the final four and then the final two.”
At 6-0, 185 pounds, Bates is “a big body,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s big, he’s strong, which you kind of need if you’re playing with one center forward. He’s got to be able to play with his back to the goal, and to play with your back to the goal, you need some size, you need to be able to hold people off.
“His biggest development to me has been that aspect of the game: playing with his back to the goal … He keeps [the ball] for us, allows our team to move out of the back and connects with our team, and we’re able to move forward.”
Bates, whose father, Richard, played football at Virginia Military Institute, was born in April 1991. That December, UVa won its second NCAA soccer title in three seasons. The Cavaliers also added national championships in ’92, ’93 and ’94.
None of that registered with Bates when he was a young boy. As he grew older, he learned about Virginia’s storied tradition in his favorite sport.
“UVa is known as a prestigious school for soccer as well as academics,” Bates said, “and so we would like to get back to that same state. It would be tough for any school to ever win four national championships in a row, because now [professional soccer] is taking lots of great players that are winning College Cups. But definitely, Coach has referred back to those times, where he just talks about what it will take to get to the next level and what it will take to win a national championship, which is inspiring itself.”
In high school, Bates helped Thomas Dale win two Group AAA titles. He also starred for the Richmond Strikers and for the under-15, under-17 and under-18 national teams.
“I think in the end — meaning the late spring, early summer of his senior year — he probably went from a top-10 recruit to a top-5 guy,” Gelnovatch said.
As the fall semester approached at UVa, there was Internet speculation that Bates might skip college and turn pro. It wasn’t coming from Bates.
“I never thought I would go pro straight out of high school,” he said. “Education’s a priority in my family, so UVa was always a great option because it had both: great soccer and great school.”
Gelnovatch said: “There was never any doubt in our mind that he’d be here.”
Bates was a terrific prospect coming out of high school, Gelnovatch said, but “I don’t think he was ready [for the pros]. Is he good enough? I think he will be. I think he needed all of this year, and he’s probably going to need one more year, to be ready to be as good as he can be, to be mature enough, all those things.”
For now, naturally, Bates’ focus is on the NCAA tournament. UVa is trying to reach the College Cup for the first time since 2006. To do so, the Cavaliers will have to defeat the Terrapins for the second time in less than a month. (In their first meeting, Oct. 31 in College Park, the teams tied 0-0.)
That the ‘Hoos get to play at Klöckner for a third consecutive game in the NCAAs is a huge advantage, according to Bates.
“We’re used to playing at our field, and you don’t have to travel, which is always nice,” he said. “We don’t have to sit on a bus or fly across the country. Also, we have our fans, who are great. We’ve been getting a great turnout for every game so far this year, especially in the NCAA tournament, so it’s just awesome playing in front of people that are constantly keeping your adrenaline going.”