By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the raucous bus ride home from Cary, N.C., on Sunday evening, the subject of 2010 came up among the newly crowned champions.
“We wanted to enjoy the victory, but we were also looking into the future and talking about doing it again,” freshman forward Will Bates said Wednesday.
For Neil Barlow, Ross LaBauex, Jonathan Villanueva, Jordan Evans and, perhaps, Tony Tchani, their college soccer careers ended with UVa’s shootout victory over previously unbeaten Akron in the NCAA title game in Cary.
The rest of the UVa team has an opportunity to add another national championship.
“We’re going to be dangerous again next year, and we have a chance to repeat,” said Bates, who led the Cavaliers with 12 goals in 2009.
“I don’t know if it’s easier, but I think all the guys that participated have that experience now and know what it takes to get there.”
Virginia’s roster this season included four seniors: Barlow, LaBauex and Villanueva, who were starters, and Evans, a key reserve.
Tchani, a sophomore midfielder who made the All-America team, is the only underclassman who might turn pro before next season, according to UVa coach George Gelnovatch.
“Over the course of the next week or so, we’ll figure out what’s going to happen with him,” Gelnovatch said Tuesday afternoon. “But [forward Brian] Ownby is going to be around, and Bates is going to be around. It’s really just Tony.”
In 25 games, the ‘Hoos (19-3-3) allowed only eight goals. Only one opponent scored on UVa after Oct. 17: Wake Forest.
The Demon Deacons broke through in the second half of the first NCAA semifinal in Cary, but the Cavaliers steadied themselves and won 2-1 in overtime on Ownby’s golden goal.
Back in 2010 will be the heart of that nearly impregnable defense: goalkeeper Diego Restrepo and defenders Mike Volk, Greg Monaco, Shawn Barry and Hunter Jumper.
“We have a good starting point with our goalkeeper and our back four. If you can keep that intact over the course of a couple years, you’re doing the right thing,” Gelnovatch said.
“For me, that’s where you have to start. That’s your central nervous system. Having those guys is like having your security blanket.”
In Ownby, who’ll be a junior next year, Virginia has one of the college game’s most gifted players, but his impact was muted this season. Ownby missed six games early in the season while playing for the United States at the under-20 World Cup, and a double sports hernia limited his minutes after he returned.
Ownby is scheduled to have surgery Friday, and he should be recovered by the start of practice in February.
For much of the season, Gelnovatch went with a lineup that included only one forward, usually Bates. That wasn’t the plan heading into the fall.
In the spring, Gelnovatch said, Virginia had played a “traditional 4-4-2 — four in the back, a diamond in the midfield of four, and then two forwards. And to be honest with you, that’s what I thought the fall would look like, with Bates and Ownby being potentially those two guys.
“But between Brian being hurt and Bates taking a little longer [than expected] to come around a little bit, one way or another it didn’t pan out.”
It’s too early to say which formation UVa will use in 2010, but Gelnovatch is excited about the prospect of pairing Bates with Ownby.
“Whether Brian is one of two forwards up front,” Gelnovatch said, “or Bates stays as that solo forward and Brian goes wide left or right, either way it’s going to be really dangerous.”
Before they were reunited at UVa, Bates and Owny were teammates in the Richmond Strikers program.
“I think now that we both are used to the college game, and pretty developed, if we play together, it’s going to be pretty dangerous,” Bates said by phone from San Diego, where he’s training with the U.S. under-20 team.
Starting midfielder Ari Dimas also returns in 2010, as does forward Chris Agorsor, whose college career has been marred by injuries.
As a senior at McDonogh High near Baltimore, Agorsor was the Gatorade national high school player of the year. As a UVa freshman in 2008, he played in seven games and scored four goals before tearing the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee.
Agorsor rehabbed his knee diligently and was cleared to play this season, only to encounter more obstacles. His coach still believes Agorsor can play a valuable role on the team.
“Absolutely,” Gelnovatch said. “He had the catastrophic injury, which he made a pretty good recovery from, but he got hurt again at the end of October.
“It was a high-ankle sprain that literally put him out for four or five weeks. And what happened during those four or five weeks was, we hit our stride. We had guys playing really well. Not only the guys that were starting, but the one or two guys off the bench in those positions were doing really well. As Chris got healthier and healthier, the team was in form and the guys coming off the bench in those positions were in form, and that’s sometimes the way it works in athletics.
“He kept a good attitude and worked hard and did his thing, and he’s got some ability and got talent, and we’ll continue to work with him.”
UVa’s biggest losses are in the midfield. Gelnovatch’s “spring projects,” as he put it, will include finding a replacement for LaBauex, whose range on the field was extraordinary.
“Ross was a forward, so we converted him to that defensive midfield position,” Gelnovatch said. “And so whoever’s the defensive midfielder for us next year, I think he’s going to potentially be a converted guy.”
Don’t be surprised if at least one member of the recruiting class that will sign with UVa in Feburary earns a starting job in 2010. And Gelnovatch said there are several players already in the program whom he expects to contribute more in 2010 than they did in ’09.
This group includes Ahkeel Rodney, Sean Murnane, Sean Hiller and Jimmy Simpson.
A groin injury sidelined Rodney, a freshman forward, late in the season. Murnane is a versatile freshman from Westfield High in Northern Virginia. Hiller, a redshirt freshman, converted a penalty kick against Akron after not playing in the 110 minutes that preceded the shootout.
Simpson, as a redshirt freshman in 2008, started 12 games for the ‘Hoos and had six goals and three assists.
Last spring, Gelnovatch said, Simpson “was one of the top two or three players in our whole team, that’s how good he was. He was the leading goal-scorer for us in the spring. Played up front, played wide midfield, he was just a stud. The kid’s 6-3, 6-4, one of the fittest guys, strongest guys on the team, technical.
“I thought this year was going to be his breakout year for us. But he had a bad back, then he hurt his knee, then he had a sports hernia, and it was just one thing after another.”
Had the season lasted another month, Gelnovatch said, fans would “be seeing a heck of a lot more of [Simpson], because he’s just starting to come around a little bit. So we expect great things next year from a guy that people kind of forgot about.”
The NCAA title was the sixth for the Wahoos in men’s soccer, but their first since 1994.
“Even without having won a national championship, we always got our foot in the door with all the top recruits,” said Gelnovatch, a former UVa assistant who succeeded Bruce Arena as head coach in January 1996.
“But when you win a national championship, it puts you in a little bit of a different light. You’re competing with the Wakes and the Marylands, and now you win a championship, all of the sudden [prospects are] looking at you a little bit better than they’re looking at [rival schools].”
The team got back to Grounds long after nightfall Sunday, but Gelnovatch was in his office before 9 a.m. Monday. He accepted congratulations from colleagues, friends and other coaches all day.
In between, he did more interviews than he could count. On Tony Bennett’s radio show Monday night, Gelnovatch spent most of the final half-hour fielding questions from UVa’s new men’s basketball coach.
“So it was cool,” Gelnovatch said. “It was tiring, it was exhausting, but I’ll take it any day.”