By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Coming off an 11-9-1 season, the UVa men’s soccer team merited barely a mention in the national-championship conversation when it took the field for its first game in 2009.
Coming off an NCAA title — the program’s sixth overall — the Cavaliers are dealing with a different dynamic this season.
“When you have a national-championship team, you’re going to lose players that were very instrumental in your success,” sophomore forward Will Bates said.
“With the loss of Tony Tchani, Ross LaBauex, all those guys, we have spots to fill. As well as that, you can’t fly under the radar as a team. You’re going to have that target on your back. With that said, we’ve prepared ourselves for that and said, ‘Look, we’re going to have it, and that’s something we have to deal with.’ ”
In their spring exhibitions and again in their preseason games last month, the Wahoos noticed a distinct difference in their opponents’ level of commitment.
“Every game is a battle,” senior goalie Diego Restrepo said. “Every game [the opponent is] going the extra mile to beat us. We have a big target on our backs, so we just have to take care of it, and stay smart.”
The ‘Hoos handled the pressure with aplomb Friday night. In their opener, the ‘Hoos rallied to beat Alabama-Birmingham 2-1 before an appreciative crowd of 2,418 at Klöckner Stadium.
In the 58th minute, UVa found itself trailing for the first time in nearly 11 months. The ‘Hoos came back to win that game on Oct. 17, 2009, whipping Virginia Tech 3-1 in Blacksburg, and they responded similarly Friday night after a spectacular goal by forward Babeyele Sodade put UAB up 1-0.
“It felt awkward for a second” — to be behind — “but the guys have been working great,” said Restrepo, a preseason All-American.
In the 61st minute, a foul called on UAB in the penalty box gave the Cavaliers a chance to pull even. In those situations, Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said afterward, his best options are sophomore back Sean Hiller and sophomore midfielder Ari Dimas.
In the penalty-kick shootout that decided the NCAA title game in December, Hiller and Dimas each had converted against Akron. Against UAB, it “was either me or Ari for the PK,” Hiller said, “and Ari was like, ‘You want it?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ ”
Hiller converted to make it 1-1, then assisted Bates on the winning goal in the 74th minute. Hiller crossed the ball from the left wing, and Bates did the rest with his head.
“Bates, he scores so many goals, because he’s always in the right place at the right time,” Hiller said. “So I figured if I put it in a good place, he’d be there.”
His pivotal role in the NCAA championship game notwithstanding, Hiller played little for Virginia in 2009.
“This year, they told me that Hunter [Jumper] was going to be moving to midfield, so it would leave an opening on the left side,” Hiller said. “I just worked as hard as I could this preseason, and things turned out well.”
The goal was the first of Hiller’s college career, as was the assist.
“Now it’s his time to step up, and he’s doing it,” Gelnovatch said.
Before the game, a video with highlights from the 2009 season — UVa also won the ACC crown — was shown. Former UVa great Alecko Eskandarian then raised a flag commemorating the NCAA title. Eskandarian, who now helps Gelnovatch’s staff, was the 2002 national player of the year.
“It was a special night for us,” Restrepo said.
A loss might have spoiled the evening, but Gelnovatch was willing to take that risk. UAB went 12-4-1 last season.
“It would have been easy for us to schedule a cupcake for this, but we wanted a quality opponent,” Gelnovatch said. “That’s a playoff team. That’s an ACC-quality opponent, and a terrific win.”
Virginia outshot UAB 20-5. The ‘Hoos had six corner kicks, to none for the Blazers.
“I think we just wore them down, like we’ve been doing all preseason,” Gelnovatch said.
Virginia went 3-0 and outscored its preseason opponents — VCU, VMI and George Mason — by a combined 7-1. The Cavaliers weren’t so dominant in the spring, which let them know how difficult it would be to repeat as NCAA champions.
“We played a couple college teams that took it to us. It was a rude awakening in a positive way, so I think it inspired us over the summer,” Gelnovatch said.
“I think our fitness level is excellent because we got our butts kicked a little bit in the spring.”
Next up for second-ranked UVa is a Sunday afternoon date with No. 17 St. John’s, also 1-0. The ‘Hoos host the Red Storm at 3 p.m. St. John’s beat Virginia Tech 2-0 in the first game Friday at Klöckner.