By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — One of the first hints that 2009-10 might be a special year for University of Virginia athletics came in November, when the field hockey team advanced to the NCAA semifinals for the first time in 11 years.
A month later, UVa was crowned NCAA men’s soccer champion for the first time in 15 years, and momentum continued to build.
The calendar flipped to 2010, and more memorable moments followed for the Wahoos. Many more. By the end of the academic year, Virginia’s haul included two NCAA championships — the second came in rowing — and a school-record seven ACC titles.
And don’t forget the NCAA championships won in indoor track by 800-meter phenom Robby Andrews and in men’s doubles by tennis players Michael Shabaz and Drew Courtney.
Or the ITA national indoor championship won by the men’s tennis team.
Or the ACC scholar-athlete-of-the-year awards won in their respective sports by Mei Christensen (women’s swimming) and Jerome Meyinsse (men’s basketball), or the ACC athlete-of-the-year honors claimed in their sports by Christensen, Andrews (men’s outdoor track), Ben Kohles (men’s golf) and Monica Wright (women’s basketball).
Or the softball team’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Or the record-setting crowds that packed Davenport Field for baseball games.
Or the period this spring when the men’s tennis, men’s lacrosse and baseball teams were simultaneously ranked No. 1 nationally.
“It’s been fun. A lot of fun,” said Craig Littlepage, UVa’s athletics director since August 2001.
Thursday brought the release of the final standings for the 2009-10 Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup competition, and UVa, as expected, finished third.
“All the things that have been done in terms of the sacrifice and generosity of our donors, and the hard work on the part of the coaches and student-athletes, are paying dividends,” Littlepage said.
“We think that the progression we’ve made over an eight-, nine-year period of time has been tied to having talented coaches and to fully funding scholarships, enhancing operational budgets, transforming existing facilities and building some new facilities.”
Since the start of the 2004-05 academic year, each of UVa’s 25 varsity teams has been able to award the maximum number of scholarships allowed by the NCAA in that sport. Contributions to the Virginia Athletics Foundation — from nearly 10,000 donors, said Jon Oliver — have allowed UVa to support its teams in a manner many schools cannot. Donors also have helped UVa pay for upgrades to facilities, including Davenport Field and the McCue Center, as well as construction of John Paul Jones Arena.
“When you talk about fully funding, the donors had to step up for us to be able to do that,” Oliver, UVa’s executive associate director of athletics, said recently on WINA’s Best Seat in the House radio show.
“It’s incredible that 9,500 people have been that loyal to us and they’ve made that happen. We could not have been in this place with the Directors’ Cup without that happening.”
UVa’s previous best finish in the Directors’ Cup race was eighth, in 1998-99 and again in 2008-09. The Directors’ Cup reflects performances in NCAA championships, and a school is allowed to count points from 10 men’s teams and 10 women’s teams.
In all, 10 teams from UVa finished among the top 10 nationally in 2009-10.
“I would tell you it’s been absolutely an inspiring year to be in the department and see the other people at work,” men’s lacrosse coach Dom Starsia said.
“It’s both inspiring and motivating at the same time. You have to be in the middle of it, I think, to fully appreciate the amount of work that goes into being able to put your team in position to compete for championships. … It was a very unusual circumstance. What you hope is that no one takes any of these things for granted.”
Littlepage, for one, does not.
“To make the kind of the progress that we’ve made — and more importantly to have a chance to win it all, if you will, in terms of the Directors’ Cup — everything has to come together in the same year,” Littlepage said.
This marks the third time that UVa has finished in the top 10 of the Directors’ Cup competition.
“The challenge now is to be able to do this on a year-after-year basis,” Littlepage said. “The improvement might be very incremental, but nonetheless, our goal is to win it all. Our goal is to be performing at championship levels in all of our sports, and I think, given all of the people that lead our programs, that we have a better chance of doing that than we ever had in the history of [UVa athletics].”
In 2009-10, Virginia won ACC titles in men’s soccer, men’s swimming and diving, women’s swimming and diving, wrestling, men’s lacrosse, rowing and men’s tennis.
In seven sports, the ACC coach of the year was from UVa: men’s swimming (Mark Bernardino), women’s swimming (Bernardino), wrestling (Steve Garland), men’s tennis (Brian Boland), baseball (Brian O’Connor), men’s golf (Bowen Sargent) and rowing (Kevin Sauer).
Moreover, George Gelnovatch was named national coach of the year in men’s soccer after guiding the Cavaliers to the NCAA championship. Michele Madison received a national-coach-of-the-year award in field hockey, Sauer in rowing.
“It’s really something to be surrounded by people and programs of this caliber,” said Starsia, who has won three NCAA titles at UVa.
As a group, Littlepage said, UVa’s coaches are so good that “sometimes they make it look easy, but it’s far from being easy. Recruiting in a competitive academic environment isn’t easy, and developing the student-athletes in a very, very competive academic environment is not the easiest thing to do.
“We’re just fortunate to have these kinds of people leading our programs. These are people that are at the University of Virginia for the right reasons. These are people that are not here today and gone tomorrow, and it’s my hope the kind of success that they have been able to achieve collectively will, in fact, be one more reason for them to continue the outstanding work that they’ve done for the University of Virginia. Hopefully the grass is not greener somewhere else.”
In a school year marked by countless highlights for UVa sports, the tragic death of women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love in early May shook the athletics department and the University community. Police charged George Huguely, a member of the men’s lacrosse team, with her murder.
During the week that followed the discovery of Miss Love’s body, her family asked that UVa’s lacrosse teams continue their seasons. Starsia’s men advanced to the NCAA semifinals; Julie Myers’ women, to the quarterfinals.
“Through this, we’ve always had Yeardley in our hearts,” teammate and classmate Kaitlin Duff said after the season-ending loss at North Carolina. “She wouldn’t have wanted us to sit around and be sad. She was such a positive person, and I think we ourselves are trying to be positive and think of the good things that we can do from now on for her.”
Noticeably absent from the list of teams that contributed to UVa’s historic Directors’ Cup finish are the two responsible for producing much of the department’s revenue: men’s basketball and football.
In their first hoops season under Tony Bennett, the ‘Hoos went 15-16 in 2009-10. That followed a football season in which UVa finished 3-9, after which Mike London replaced Al Groh as coach.
Littlepage believes both programs now have the right men leading them.
In Bennett, Littlepage said, UVa has “somebody whose values and whose abilities as a coach, a leader and an educator line up with what will be successful here at the University of Virginia.”
The same is true, Littlepage said, with London, who had two stints as a Virginia assistant before becoming head coach at the University of Richmond. London went 24-5 with the Spiders, who in 2008 won the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision title.
“Again, as I’ve stated on many occasions, I know for many fans it really does come down to: ‘What have you done in football? What have you done in basketball?’ ” Littlepage said.
“And the Directors’ Cup and the competitive success of so many of our Olympic sports is great, but many people feel as though the nuts and bolts, in terms of how [UVa’s athletics department] might be evaluated, really does come down to the success [of football and basketball]. And because of that reason, I think that we still have work to be done, yet we think that we’re in a very good position to get those programs moving again.”