Dec. 11, 2009

By Jeff White

CARY, N.C. — Pain is Brian Ownby’s constant companion on the soccer field. The UVa sophomore will have surgery Dec. 19 to repair a double sports hernia, and he’s limited to about 25 minutes per game.

Ownby needed only a fraction of that Friday night to send Virginia into the NCAA final.

He checked into UVa’s semifinal against Wake Forest with 4:12 left in the second half and the score 1-1. Two minutes and 44 seconds into the first overtime, Ownby ended the suspense on a frigid night.

With a sellout crowd at WakeMed Soccer Park looking on, Ownby ran down a long pass from senior Jonathan Villaneuva and lifted the ball over keeper Akira Fitzgerald, who was charging at him, and into the net.

“I think we underestimated a little of Ownby’s speed, and he kind of got a head jump on it,” Wake defender Anthony Arena said.

Ownby’s goal, his first since Oct. 25, gave the Cavaliers a 2-1 victory and earned them a spot on the college game’s biggest stage. UVa (18-3-3) will meet Akron (23-0-1) for the NCAA title at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“I saw that there was a big gap between the defense and the goalie,” Ownby said, “so I told [Villanueva] to hit one over the top, and he hit it perfectly, and I just took a touch and lobbed it over the keeper.”

Villanueva was also credited with an assist on UVa’s first goal, but that was actually a shot that was stopped and then rebounded out to sophomore Tony Tchani.

This time, Villanueva said, he saw Ownby ahead and “basically just kicked it as hard as I could and as far as I could. I knew that he’s faster than anyone else I know, so I figured he’d catch up to it wherever it went.”

So, how fast is the 6-0, 160-pound Ownby, a member of the U.S. under-20 team?

“He’s ridiculous,” UVa coach George Gelnovatch said.

“He’s unbelievable,” Virginia goalkeeper Diego Restrepo said.

Ownby’s gem moved UVa to the brink of its sixth NCAA title in men’s soccer. The Cavaliers are back in the championship game for the first time since 1997, Gelnovatch’s second season as head coach.

“This is what I came to Virginia for,” said Restrepo, a transfer from the University of South Florida. “I’m just grateful [Gelnovatch] gave me an opportunity to come here.”

Wake closed with a 17-4-3 record. The Demon Deacons played UVa thrice, and they went home unhappy each time.

Virginia beat Wake 1-0 during the regular season. Their second meeting, in the ACC tournament semifinals, was officially a tie, but the Wahoos advanced on penalty kicks.

The Deacons dominated the first 25 minutes Friday night but, despite several good chances, failed to convert against a UVa team that had shut out its previous 11 opponents.

“The first two times we played them, it did not look like that,” Gelnovatch said. “I think they put us on our heels [Friday night].”

In the 17th minute, Wake’s Andy Lubahn blasted a shot that the hit the crossbar and bounced back into the field. Teammate Zack Schilawski was there for a header, but it sailed over the goal, allowing the ‘Hoos to exhale.

“I think they were sharp to start the game, very sharp, as sharp as I have seen them,” Gelnovatch said. “But I do think as the half went on, later in the half, we kind of found ourselves a little bit. They really came after us, and in the previous two games they didn’t come after us like that. It caught us off guard a little bit. I think their mentality was to try to get a goal, a quick goal, and thankfully it didn’t happen.”

After a scoreless first half, Virginia broke through in the 55th minute. Tchani, who earlier in the day had been named a first-team All-American, one-timed the rebound from about 10 yards out after Fitzgerald blocked Villenueva’s shot.

UVa hadn’t allowed a goal since Oct. 17, so that 1-0 lead looked commanding.

Alas, the Cavaliers showed they’re not impenetrable. In the 70th minute, Corben Bone’s shot from along the end line bounced off UVa defender Mike Volk and past Restrepo. And so UVa’s — and Restrepo’s — scoreless streak ended at 1,176 minutes and 51 seconds.

“For one second I thought I was in the middle of the desert,” Restrepo said. “I was lost for one second, because I couldn’t remember the last time I got scored on. But we just came together as a team and told each other to relax and start playing offense again.”

Villanueva said: “It’s kind of a new feeling for us, obviously, but the team definitely rallied around it, and we knew eventually we were going to get another chance.”

Gelnovatch didn’t have a chance to address his team after Wake’s goal, but he’d discussed different scenarios with his players last weekend following Virginia’s 3-0 win over defending NCAA champion Maryland 3-0 in the quarterfinals.

“I said, ‘What are we going to do if we’re winning 2-0 and they score? What are we going to do if it’s 0-0 and they score?'” Gelnovatch recalled.

He got an answer from senior Neil Barlow, who’d been a reserve on the UVa team that lost to UCLA in the NCAA semifinals in 2006.

“The first thing he said was, ‘We’re going to get the ball out of the net, we’re going to put it at the center circle, and we’re going to get on with it,'” Gelnovatch said. “And that’s what they did tonight.”

After the second half ended, the teams had five minutes to ready themselves for overtime. Gelnovatch liked his players’ demeanor and the resolve he saw in them.

“Right from the start, even though it didn’t last long, right from the kickoff, it felt like we believed we were going to win that game,” Gelnovatch said. “Whether it was overtime or it was PKs, it didn’t matter, and that’s who we’ve been all season.”

Ownby, who missed six games early in the season while competing in the under-20 World Cup, was diagnosed with a sports hernia after returning from Egypt.

“I have it supposedly on both sides,” he said. “I feel it more on my left. It starts from a groin injury, and after you keep playing, it eventually [leads to] tendons rubbing up against your pelvis.”

Ownby was ready to enter the game with about 12 minutes left in the second half Friday night. Eight minutes passed, however, before there was a break for substitutions.

Against Maryland, UVa had the game in hand midway through the second half, so Gelnovatch kept Ownby on the bench as a precaution.

“Didn’t need him,” Gelnovatch said.

The Cavaliers needed Ownby against Wake, and they’re likely to need him Sunday against the Zips. After 110 scoreless minutes, Akron beat North Carolina on penalty kicks, 5-4, in the second semifinal Friday night.

“He’s got another 30 minutes in him for the championship game,” Gelnovatch said of Ownby. “I think we’ve managed him as well as you can manage [a player with that injury]. Our sports medicine people, our doctors, our coaching staff. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

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