Dec. 13, 2009

By Jeff White

CARY, N.C. — As they gathered for a team photo on the sodden turf at WakeMed Soccer Park, brand-new championship caps atop their heads, players and coaches each joyously held up six fingers.

The symbolism was clear: one finger for each of UVa’s six NCAA titles in men’s soccer.

At long last, the Wahoos collected No. 6 on Sunday afternoon, but the crown was not easily won.

After 110 scoreless minutes, UVa and unbeaten Akron went to a shootout. After the third of five possible rounds of penalty kicks, Virginia led 3-1, and Jonathan Villanueva had an opportunity to clinch the victory.

Zips goalie David Meves saved Villanueva’s shot, however, and then Scott Caldwell beat Virginia keeper Diego Restrepo to make it 3-2.

Then it was sophomore defender Greg Monaco’s chance to win it for the ‘Hoos. Meves stopped his shot, too. And so it came down to the final kick: Akron midfielder Blair Gavin against Restrepo.

The Zips needed to convert to extend the game. Gavin had made the game-winning penalty kick Friday night against North Carolina. This time, though, his shot sailed over the crossbar, and the Cavaliers’ celebration began.

It may still be going on.

“What can you say?” senior Neil Barlow said. “It feels incredible. We got our picture [on the NCAA champions’ wall at University Hall] and we took that monkey off George’s back. It’s been 15 years — 15 long years — but we finally did it.”

Under Bruce Arena, UVa ruled men’s college soccer, winning NCAA titles in 1989, ’91, ’92, ’93 and ’94.

George Gelnovatch was an assistant on those championship teams. He succeeded Arena as head coach in January 1996 and had consistently turned out successful teams — Virginia reached the NCAA final in 1997 and the semifinals in 2006 — but the college game’s ultimate prize eluded Gelnovatch.

Until Sunday.

“I knew it would come,” Gelnovatch, a UVa alumnus, said emphatically.

“I’ve told my athletic director that, I told our associate athletic director that. It’s not a matter of if. It was going to be when. I was hell-bent on making sure.”

At his Saturday press conference, Gelnovatch was asked what an NCAA title would mean to him. He downplayed that storyline then, saying championships were more about the University and the program.

After Sunday’s game, however, Gelnovatch acknowledged that winning a championship as a head coach was “a lot more powerful” than what he’d experienced as an assistant.

His players could tell.

“I’m sure it means the world to him,” Barlow said. “If you could have seen the smile on his face in the locker room. He feels incredible, and we’re so thankful that we could give it to him … He’s been a great coach all season and kept us together.”

When the game ended, UVa players sprinted over to the section of the stands where their fellow students — the Wahooligans — and other supporters had yelled themselves hoarse in the rain and cold for nearly three hours.

Players and fans alike jumped and shouted and chanted.

On the field watching the raucous scene unfold were Gelnovatch’s parents, Walt and Dorit. Their proud smiles told the story.

“Fifteen years I’ve waited for this,” Dorit said. “Now he’s got one of his own.”

The national championship was the 19th by a UVa athletics team. It was the first since 2006, when the ‘Hoos went unbeaten in men’s lacrosse.

Gelnovatch’s team closed the season with a 16-game unbeaten streak. For the year, the Cavaliers (19-3-3) allowed only eight goals, and their defense carried them again in the NCAA championship game.

“That was the best defensive team we’ve played all year long,” Zips coach Caleb Porter said.

The Zips (23-1-1) came in averaging 2.4 goals, and they dominated possession for much of the game Sunday. But the Cavaliers never cracked.

Gelnovatch singled out Restrepo, who began his college career at the University of South Florida, and center backs Monaco and Mike Volk.

“This is what I’ve said all along as a coach: If you have a goalkeeper and two center backs, between those three guys, if you have one guy that’s a real organizer, really sharp, really does a good job with that kind of stuff, that’s great,” Gelnovatch said.”If you got two guys out of those three, that’s really good.

“We have three, which is fantastic. I’ve got two center backs and a goalkeeper who not only like each other but read the game well, understand the game. That’s been the key.”

Also stellar on defense, as usual, were outside backs Hunter Jumper and Shawn Barry and midfielder Ross LaBauex.

“Their back five, especially, are tough to break down,” Porter said. “They’re organized, they’re athletic and they’re tough.”

UVa’s best scoring chances — before PKs — came in the fifth and 27th minutes, respectively. On the first, freshman forward Will Bates’ header bounced off the post. On the second, All-America midfielder Tony Tchani headed a cross over the bar.

“What makes this one even more tough is that we didn’t give up a goal in the entire NCAA tournament,” Porter said. “And yet we don’t take home any hardware.”

In the second semifinal Friday, neither Akron nor North Carolina scored for 90 minutes of regulation and then for two 10-minute overtime periods.

On that night, though, the Zips were 5 for 5 on penalty kicks. They weren’t nearly so efficient Sunday.

After Tchani converted the first penalty kick — “Tony’s never going to miss,” said Barlow — Zarek Valentin stepped up for Akron.

“Obviously Akron took PKs the other night, and we paid attention to that,” Gelnovatch said. “And we wanted to make sure we had the right signals going in to Diego with regards to who was taking it, which way he was going, and Mike was like a traffic cop.”

On the sideline, UVa’s goalie coach, Mike McGinty, motioned to Restrepo, reminding him that Valentin had gone right on his penalty kick against UNC.

“And I just had a feeling [Valentin] might switch it up,” Restrepo said. “Maybe he was going to get nervous and switch it up, and that’s what happened. I just went with my instincts.”

Those instincts were flawless. Valentin went left, and Restrep dived to make the save.

“It set the tone for our team and for their team,” Restrepo said. “After that, our confidence went up so much.”

Redshirt freshman Ari Dimas, who joined the team as a walk-on this year, put Virginia up 2-0. The Zips pulled to 2-1, but Sean Hiller, who hadn’t played in the game, blasted a shot into the right corner to make it 3-1.

With the pressure mounting, Akron’s Kofi Sarkodie’s shot hit the left post and bounced away, and victory appeared imminent for UVa. The ending need not have been so dramatic for the Cavaliers, but their legacy was finally secured when Gavin’s shot went high.

“Virginia does have such a rich tradition, and for us to add another star to the crest, that’ll be there forever,” said Villanueva, who had an assist and a goal in the 2-1 semifinal win over Wake Forest and was named the College Cup’s most outstanding player.

Restrepo, naturally, was the most outstanding defensive player. Three other Wahoos joined Villanueva and Restrepo on the all-tournament team: Tchani, Volk and sophomore forward Brian Ownby, who scored the game-winner in OT against Wake.

Leave it to Volk to put the Cavaliers’ achievement in perspective.

“There’s a great tradition at UVa,” he said. “We have the stars on our jersey, we have the pillars [at Klöckner Stadium], we have pictures of all the teams that won national championships in our locker room, and we walk by every single day seeing those guys and how happy they were in their pictures on the wall.

“We told ourselves as a team that we wanted to be there one day, and it finally came.”

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