By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the final morning of spring practice, UVa football coach Mike London summoned Michelle Quiroga during a break in the action.
To the players gathered around him, London proceeded to laud Quiroga’s contributions to the Cavaliers’ program. All the while, she stood uncomfortably at his side, having been thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight.
“It was interesting,” Quiroga recalled.
For London’s players, there would be other practices and workouts at Virginia. For Quiroga, the team’s head student-manager in 2009-10, this was it.
She graduated May 23 from UVa’s McIntire School of Commerce, in which she majored in finance and information technology. For many students, staying afloat at McIntire is challenge enough. Quiroga juggled her Comm School obligations with what during the season was essentially a full-time job.
“I’d hire her in a heartbeat,” London said. “I’d write a letter about her work ethic and dedication to anyone.”
That wasn’t necessary. Well before graduation, Quiroga had accepted a position as a business analyst with Accenture, a global consulting company whose Virginia office is in Reston.
In Charlottesville, her departure left a void in the football program.
“Michelle was the first manager I hired,” said Kyle Riley, UVa’s equipment manager for football, “so this is kind of bittersweet.”
Riley oversees the student-managers who assist the team throughout the year. They’re often the unsung heroes of a college program. That’s why London, after guiding the University of Richmond to the FCS national title in 2008, made sure his student-managers received championship rings.
“They’re part of the family,” London said. “What they do is huge, because it’s a thankless job, and they do it out of service for the school, for themselves and for the enjoyment they get out of the organization.”
Riley said: “Without them, we’d be dead in the water, really.”
In 2010-11, Brittany Kerr and Justin Stidham will share the job Quiroga held as a fourth-year. In all, Riley said, he hopes to have 10 full-time student-managers, a group that for the most part will govern itself.
Six student-managers return from 2009-10. Riley would have seven back if Jacob Hodges, who spent his first two years at UVa as a student-manager, hadn’t walked on to the football team in the spring.
Hodges is a candidate to be the holder on extra points and field goals this fall.
“He came out for the tryouts and said he could hold,” special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter said. “Lo and behold, he could hold.”
Riley sends a mailing out each year to high school guidance counselors and head coaches around the state, letting them know about UVa’s student-manager program. He’s looking for young men and women who will be reliable, hard-working, honest and loyal to the program.
Quiroga filled out an on-line application and was hired late in her senior year at Osbourn Park High in Manassas. As a student-manager at Virginia, she received a stipend for her work, which included helping with drills at practice, assisting with offseason workouts, maintaining helmets, setting up the locker room before games and doing laundry in the McCue Center equipment room.
There were other rewards.
“It’s one of the things that shaped my college experience and has shaped my skills,” Quiroga said. “I’m telling you, I go into [job] interviews and the first thing they notice is football, and that’s all they want to talk about.”
Having to balance football and schoolwork, Quiroga said, sharpened her time-management skills. She also learned to respond calmly to unexpected requests, such as when the coaches would suddenly depart from the practice schedule.
“They’d say, ‘We need this drill set up right now,’ ” Quiroga said, “and you just have to drop everything you’re doing, get the managers and set it up.”
In her first and second seasons at UVa, 2006 and ’07, London was the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator. Quiroga “was a hustler, she was a worker,” London recalls.
By the time he returned to UVa in December, after two seasons at UR, Quiroga’s responsibilities had grown.
“She’s kind of my right-hand person,” London said during spring practice, “and if something needs to be done, she’ll drop what she’s doing and come over and do it. Doesn’t matter if it’s her job or not.”
Quiroga played a leading role in one of the more memorable games of Al Groh’s tenure as UVa’s coach. On Sept. 15, 2007, at North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium, UVa’s Chris Gould attempted a 48-yard field goal.
It barely reached the goal posts, and back judge Virgil Valdez, after inexplicably ducking his head and turning away as the ball approached, motioned that the attempt was no good.
That stunned the three UVa managers, Quiroga among them, who were standing behind the goal posts to retrieve the ball. They knew Gould’s kick had cleared the crossbar.
“So I ran down the sideline screaming, ‘It was good! It was good!’ ” Quiroga recalled. “Chris had a feeling it was good, too, so he was like, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So he said, ‘Coach Groh, you need to listen to her.’ “
Groh listened. Then he challenged the ruling. After a video review of Gould’s kick, the Cavaliers were awarded the field goal, which stretched their lead over UNC to 19-7. The points proved decisive in UVa’s 22-20 victory, and Quiroga and Co. were mentioned in several stories in the days that followed.
In general, though, managers remain anonymous to those outside the program. That was fine with Quiroga, who treasures the friendships she formed with players, coaches, staffers and her fellow managers.
“You have a family base back here in football, and I think that’s one of the reasons I was so upset to leave it,” Quiroga said. “I didn’t think I’d be so upset, but it’s one of those things that grows on you, and you’re part of it.”
When she finds herself at Scott Stadium this fall, it will be as a spectator. And that, Quiroga admits, will be strange, at least at first.
“I don’t know how it’s going to feel,” she said. “I’ve been working the entire time, and I’ll be going from working the game and almost getting tackled on the sideline to being now a safe kind of person watching a game.”
“It’s kind of boring, but we’ll see,” she said. “I’ll have fun.”