By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CARY, N.C. — The local forecast calls for rain Sunday, seemingly less-than-ideal conditions in which to determine an NCAA men’s soccer champion.
UVa coach George Gelnovatch isn’t complaining. His second-seeded Cavaliers (18-3-3) play top-seeded Akron (23-0-1) at 1 p.m., and he won’t mind if it pours from start to finish during ESPN2’s broadcast.
“We’ve been money in the rain, man, with the exception of Clemson,” Gelnovatch said Saturday afternoon at WakeMed Soccer Park.
On a soggy Saturday night in late September, the Wahoos fell to the unheralded Tigers, 1-0, at Klöckner Stadium. It was a game UVa “absolutely should not have lost at home,” Gelnovatch recalled, but the defeat taught him much about his team’s character.
“We were all really disappointed,” he said, “but nobody was looking at each other funny, nobody was pointing the finger, and we just showed up for business on Monday and just kept staying the course.”
That loss came during a stretch of the season when the Wahoos struggled to score. Their defense has been superb all year — they’ve allowed only eight goals — but goals proved elusive early.
“It was discouraging at first, and we definitely got down on ourselves, but we saw little sparks every now and then, little pieces of what we were capable of,” senior Neil Barlow said.
“So Coach kept telling us that if we could put those pieces together throughout a whole game, we could put something special together this year.”
That’s exactly what has happened. Virginia is unbeaten in its past 16 games, a streak that began five days after a double-overtime loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“I don’t think we ever got too low,” Gelnovatch said. “That’s the great thing about this team. But I don’t think there was any particular game where all of the sudden the switch went on. It was a gradual process for us. Certainly the Virginia Tech game on the road was one of the things I can reflect back on where the ship started to turn around a little.”
In Blacksburg, the ‘Hoos surrendered the game’s first goal Oct. 17, then rallied to hammer the Hokies 3-1. After that, UVa started to convert shots into goals more often, and the victories began to pile up.
UVa won three games in Cary last month to capture the ACC tournament. In the NCAAs, the ‘Hoos have outscored their four opponents 11-1.
And now, with one more triumph in 2009, they can add to the school’s storied tradition in this sport. Under Bruce Arena, UVa won NCAA titles in 1989, ’91, ’92, ’93 and ’94.
Gelnovatch succeeded Arena in January 1996. In Gelnovatch’s second season as coach, the Cavaliers reached the NCAA championship game, where they lost to UCLA.
He would not have believed then that 12 years would pass before UVa made it back to the NCAA final. The ‘Hoos also advanced to the College Cup in 2006, but they lost to UCLA in the semifinals.
“It’s just a reminder that winning’s a tough business,” Gelnovatch said. “You know, it’s tough as heck to get to the College Cup, and once you get to the College Cup, it’s tough as heck to get to the final. We’re happy to be in that position right now.”
T.J. Cyrus, a junior defender from Virginia Beach, said: “When you first commit to Virginia, you dream of going to the College Cup every year. And then you actually start playing college soccer, and you realize that it’s tougher than it looks.
“Just by wearing the crest of Virginia, you’re not going to get there every year … So you enjoy it as a player, you relish it, but you also want to take advantage of it.”
In 1994, UVa beat Indiana in the NCAA championship game. The Hoosiers’ freshmen that season included one Caleb Porter, now Akron’s head coach.
“Being at Indiana, certainly we didn’t like the fact that [the Cavaliers] were winning [multiple] championships in a row,” Porter said Saturday, “but we always respected them.”
The Zips are seeking their first NCAA title. In 1986, they advanced to the championship game before losing to Duke.
When the College Cup opened Friday, Akron had an opportunity to become the first Division I men’s soccer team in 35 years to finish with a flawless record. (NCAA champion Howard went 19-0 that year.)
The Akron-North Carolina semifinal, however, officially counts as a tie as for each squad. After 110 scoreless minutes Friday night, the teams went to penalty kicks, and the Zips prevailed 5-4.
UVa ousted defending champion Maryland in the quarterfinals and then eliminated Wake Forest in the semifinals. Had UNC advanced Friday night, then, Virginia would be preparing to meet an ACC foe for the third straight game.
Putting together a scouting report on the Zips on short notice is “a little more work, for sure,” Gelnovatch said. “On other hand it’s refreshing to play a new face, a new team, of the same caliber of our ACC [rivals].”
These schools haven’t met in men’s soccer since 1997. UVa’s goalkeeper, though, has some knowledge of Akron’s program.
In 2007, when Diego Restrepo played for the University of South Florida, he shut out the Zips in a double-overtime victory in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
“The game before that, I had a shocker against Colgate,” Restrepo recalled Saturday, “and one of [Akron’s] coaches was there watching, and in the pregame he mentioned that I wasn’t very good and stuff, and I actually came back and had the game of my life.
“So it was a good feeling. We played them in Akron, and it was an unbelievable environment. They were very good. I’ll never forget that game, because it was a tough game.”
Gelnovatch, 1987 graduate of UVa, was an assistant under Arena on the five teams that won NCAA titles.
Asked Saturday what it would mean for him to break through as head coach, Gelnovatch said, “To be perfectly honest with you, it’s less on a personal level. I was a player in this program, I went to school here, I have a lot of pride in the University, in our athletic department and in the program. So winning championships — ACC championships, national championships — and just doing well and representing the University well, it means a lot to me.
“Winning a national championship would be the ultimate in pride for our school.”