A Return to Glory
By Steve Kirkland
Fifteen Years. It was a theme for the Virginia men’s soccer team as the 2009 season progressed. It was a reminder of how long it had been since the Cavaliers stood atop the collegiate soccer world.
From 1989 to 1994, Virginia dominated the sport, winning five national championships in a six-year span. Since then, the Cavaliers have had talented teams come close to bringing home the trophy, but kept coming up short. That all changed on a cold, rainy December afternoon in Cary, N.C., when Virginia topped Akron in a penalty kick shootout to win the 2009 NCAA Championship.
A group of players who were toddlers when Virginia last won a national title rode an impressive 16-game unbeaten streak to close out the season and gave head coach George Gelnovatch his first NCAA title.
“When you look at the history, the teams and the individual players that have come through here, they laid the groundwork for this program,” said senior midfielder Jonathan Villanueva. “Coach Gelnovatch has done tremendous things for us in this program. That is why we are so proud that we were able to give him the championship that he has worked so hard for.”
If the 2009 season was going to be the year that Virginia would break through and return the NCAA trophy to Charlottesville, it wasn’t something the experts saw coming early on. The Cavaliers weren’t ranked in the preseason NSCAA coaches’ poll. They didn’t crack the top 10 of the national rankings until the final week of October. But the players knew that this team was capable of success.
“When I got here last spring, I had a good feeling about this group,” said junior goalkeeper Diego Restrepo, who transferred to Virginia from South Florida. “The talent on this team is unbelievable. As the year went along, the chemistry kept getting better and better and the results followed.”
Yet in the middle of October, the Cavaliers were 7-3-1 overall and sat in next-to-last place in the ACC with a 1-3-0 record. Coming off a disappointing 1-1 tie with Liberty, the team traveled to Blacksburg to take on rival Virginia Tech. The Hokies took an early 1-0 lead, but the ‘Hoos rallied for a 3-1 win. It was a victory that Gelnovatch claims started Virginia on its championship run.
“We grinded for the first half of the season,” said Gelnovatch. “The turning point, one of the games I look back at, was on the road at Virginia Tech. We won that game 3-1, and that was when we started to head down the right path.”
The formula for success over the final half of the season for the Cavaliers was timely goal scoring and a stingy defense. The team began to string results together, climbing up the ACC standings and national rankings.
“At the beginning of the season, we weren’t scoring a ton of goals,” said Villanueva. “But we stayed the course. Coach told us, ‘we are the team we are at the moment, but we are going to get better going forward.’ Sure enough, as the season went on, we started scoring some goals, the defense stayed the same, and we were playing at a high level.”
The defense had been strong all season long, but the group took their game to another level as the season progressed. Restrepo, and his four defenders, center backs Mike Volk and Greg Monaco and outside backs Hunter Jumper and Shawn Barry, embarked on a historic run. That goal by the Hokies would be last time an opponent would find the back of the Cavaliers’ net for a long time.
A shutout streak of epic proportion fueled the Cavaliers’ title run. Any way you compute it, the streak was mind-boggling. Eleven consecutive shutouts – a school record. A shutout streak of 1,176 minutes and 51 seconds – the second longest streak in NCAA history. It was 55 days between goals allowed.
“Momentum is certainly a big part of it,” said Gelnovatch. “But if you don’t have character, talent and desire, you will never be able to get it started and get that momentum going. Once you build that foundation, and you can get a few wins, all of a sudden you have it going.”
The Cavaliers were rolling as the regular season ended. The defense had posted five consecutive shutouts and the team headed to Cary for the ACC Tournament on an eight-game unbeaten streak. But the slow start in conference play meant that Virginia was the No. 5 seed in a wide-open conference championship that featured seven ranked teams.
In the quarterfinals, Virginia had a top-10 showdown with Maryland. Despite playing most of the second half a man down, the Cavaliers posted a 1-0 win as Tony Tchani scored in the 88th minute. In the semifinals, Virginia and Wake Forest played to a scoreless draw before the Cavaliers advanced on penalty kicks 5-4. Two days later, an early goal by Will Bates carried Virginia to a 1-0 win over NC State in the ACC final for the Cavaliers’ 10th conference crown.
“When we won the ACC Championship, that when I thought that team could be very special,” said Gelnovatch. “As tough as the ACC is, to win that tournament was good preparation for what the NCAA Tournament would be like.”
With its conference title and 11-game unbeaten streak, the Cavaliers received the No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament. That seed enabled the team to play at Klöckner all the way to the College Cup. Three more shutout wins, over Bucknell (5-0), Portland (1-0) and Maryland (3-0) sent Virginia back to Cary for the semifinals.
“I knew it was only a matter of time before we won another championship,” said Gelnovatch. “In 1997, I thought we had a real good chance and lost in the finals. In 2006, we were in the College Cup and things didn’t work out our way. I kept telling people, it was not a matter of if, it was a matter of when.”
Virginia faced a familiar foe in Wake Forest in the national semifinal. The Cavaliers took a 1ead early in the second half but the Deacons rallied to tie the game, scoring the first goal the UVa defense had allowed in months. But early in overtime, Brian Ownby’s clinical finish of a long Villanueva pass sent Virginia into the final against top-seeded and undefeated Akron.
In the final, the top two seeds battled for 110 minutes in a classic defensive struggle. The nation’s top two defenses showed their strength and the scoreless game went to penalty kicks to decide the title. Virginia took an early 3-1 lead in the shootout, only to see the Zips fight back. On the final shot, Akron could have forced extra kicks with a make. The ball sailed over the crossbar. Virginia was the national champion.
“There is a great tradition at UVa,” said Volk. “We have the stars on our jerseys and the pillars at Klöckner. We have pictures of all the teams that won national championships in our locker room. Walking past those photos every single day and seeing how happy those guys were in those pictures, we told ourselves as a team that we wanted to be there one day. It finally came.”