Dec. 15, 2009
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With an NCAA championship about to be decided by penalty kicks, the tension was palpable Sunday afternoon in Cary, N.C.
Into that pressure-packed situation at WakeMed Soccer Park, UVa coach George Gelnovatch sent out No. 16, Sean Hiller, for his team’s third kick.
In the shootout that followed 110 scoreless minutes between NCAA finalists Virginia and Akron, Gelnovatch went first with Tony Tchani and then with Ari Dimas, and each converted.
Both were starters.
Hiller, a redshirt freshman from Colts Neck, N.J., was a virtual unknown. He did not play Friday night against Wake Forest in the semifinals, and he hadn’t played against Akron.
The 5-11, 170-pound midfielder/defender had appeared in only 12 games all season, in fact.
“Most of the kids you see out there [for penalty kicks] are like Tony and Ari, kids that were starting and playing every minute,” Hiller said Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody not really have a part in the game and then just go out for penalty kicks.”
Gelnovatch gave Hiller that distinction.
For more than a month, the Cavaliers had been taking penalty kicks at the end of each practice, and in these sessions the left-footed Hiller had been “almost 100 percent — just banging ’em in, banging ’em in, banging ’em in,” Gelnovatch said Tuesday afternoon.
And so Gelnovatch turned to Hiller on Sunday, “with the understanding that he’s not on the field, he’s not loose, he’s potentially nervous because he wasn’t playing. But we just felt like the percentage was so high.”
Had Hiller missed, the college soccer world might still be second-guessing Gelnovatch’s gamble. But Hiller put his shot on target, inside the right post, to give the ‘Hoos a 3-1 lead.
“Even in my high school years, that’s the way I would always go,” Hiller said. “I would always go on the inside of the right post, unless I’d see the goalie moving that way immediately, and then I’d go down the middle or to the left. But basically 99 percent of the time I usually go to the right.”
Hiller’s teammmates and coaches knew that. The Zips didn’t, and why would they?
Akron had no videotape of Hiller’s high school and club games to study. In UVa’s only other shootout this season, against Wake in the ACC tournament, Tchani, Dimas, Greg Monaco, T.J. Cyrus, Jonathan Villanueva and Neil Barlow had taken the penalty kicks.
“There’s an important part of how you approach your PK, your run-up, and Sean’s approach is so unpredictable,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s a fast, straight-on approach, and a goalkeeper just doesn’t know what the hell to expect.”
In the fourth of five rounds, the Zips pulled to 3-2. But neither Monaco nor Akron’s Blair Gavin converted in round No. 5, and the Cavaliers were champions.
History will show, then, that Hiller’s penalty kick was the one that secured Virginia’s first NCAA men’s soccer title in 15 years.
“There was a lot more pressure on Sunday,” Hiller said, “but things were just happening so fast, I guess I didn’t have time to think, ‘This is the national championship, and I’m coming off the bench.’ It didn’t really sink in till afterward.”