July 20, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the 2010-11 school year ended, UVa soccer standouts Will Bates, Brian Ownby and Brian “Cobi” Span headed north to Reading, Pa., for a summer enrichment program of sorts. For all parties, it turned out to be time well spent.

“It’s been fantastic,” Bates said.

“It couldn’t have worked out any better, to be honest with you,” Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said.

Bates, Ownby and Span, all forwards, joined Reading United AC, which competes in the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League. On a team stocked with college players who aspire to play professional soccer, the three Cavaliers had a major impact, Reading United coach Brendan Burke said.

In a recent phone converstion with UVa assistant coaches Matt Chulis and Michael Behonick, Burke recalled, “I just told them, ‘If those three guys are clicking for you guys this year, I don’t know that there’s anyone in college soccer that’s going to slow them down.’ ”

Bates, a junior from Chester, and Ownby, a senior from Glen Allen, are back at UVa taking summer-school classes. Span, a sophomore from Somers, N.Y., has been training in Germany. Burkes hopes all three can return to Reading for at least some of the PDL playoffs. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Virginia trio’s contributions will be one of the top storylines of this Reading United season.

For a team that’s 12-1-1 heading into its Wednesday night match with the Long Island Rough Riders, Bates is the leading scorer, with 15 points (six goals and three assists) — despite having played in only six games. Ownby has totaled four goals and three assists in four games, and Span has a goal and two assists in five appearances.

When the Wahoos were on the field together, Bates said, it “was consistently me assisting Brian, Brian assisting Cobi, Cobi assisting me. The three of us were creating a lot of opportunities, and we really got to understand each other better as players.”

Burke said: “When they’re clicking, there’s nothing that can stop them. The PDL can be a very high level at times, and there was no adjustment for them. They came in, and they’ve dominated a couple games for us.”

That’s what Gelnovatch hoped would happen. In years past, he and Burke had talked about sending UVa players to Reading for the PDL season, but nothing had come of those conversations, for various reasons.

“This summer was kind of a trial period, I guess you could say, to see if the environment was right for some of his top guys and if we could make it work from a schedule standpoint on our end,” Burke said. “Because obviously we have our season to worry about, so when guys are in and out, that can be a concern. But we’ve made it work on every front. I think it’s gone fantastically well, and it’s something we’ll probably do again.”

Gelnovatch worried that too many games in the offseason would take a toll on his players come fall.

“Brendan made it clear that he understands that concern and would be very flexible with how many games they play and their time off,” Gelnovatch said. “Given those things, I thought it would be a good thing for those three guys in particular, in terms of how they interact with each other and how they could continue to build off the spring, when all three of them were working together tremendously. They could use the summer and use that team as a way to keep that going.”

In 2009, Bates was a freshman and Ownby a sophomore on the UVa team that won the NCAA title. Span enrolled at Virginia last year and joined Bates and Ownby in the starting lineup.

With 20, 17 and 13 points, respectively, Bates, Ownby and Span were UVa’s leading scorers in 2010. Overall, though, it was not a memorable season for the ‘Hoos, who lost to ODU in the NCAA tournament’s first round.

Injuries have marred Ownby’s college career, but he was healthy this spring, which allowed him to develop a rhythm with Bates during practices. Also, Gelnovatch said, “Cobi had a season under his belt from the fall, so he was a little bit more comfortable, and the three of them really started to kind of jell and to work together and to do some really good things.”

Their bond is even tighter now, thanks to their time together in Reading. “It was awesome,” Bates said. “For a summer program, we got to go live up in a different area, so that’s something different. And we were in a training environment every day where we were playing with a lot of the best guys from a lot of different programs, from Ivy League schools to other ACC schools — UNC players were down there as well.”

In Reading, which is about 60 miles from Philadelphia, Span stayed in a hotel. Ownby and Bates, who grew up playing with each in the Richmond Strikers program, shared an apartment. Ownby and Bates also spent a week training with Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and had a 10-day trial with a team in Sweden, Mjällby.

“We got a lot of good feedback from there,” Bates said. “They liked both of our strengths and said it was obvious that we had played together, because we had good chemistry on the field. And they said they were going to continue watching us throughout this fall season here at UVa.”

Practice starts Aug. 9 for the Cavaliers, who finished 11-6-3 last year. Expect to see some wrinkles on the offensive end from the ‘Hoos this season.

“In the past we haven’t had a good stretch where Ownby and Bates have been healthy together,” Gelnovatch said, “and what we found out this spring is that they’re most dangerous as a duo up front, as opposed to one guy up front and one guy out wide. Both of them playing as two forwards created all sorts of problems for other teams.

“Last year we didn’t do that, and even in the year when we won the national championship we didn’t do that. Bates was kind of that high center forward, and Ownby was wide. This spring we played with two kind of traditional forwards, and those guys were banging in goals, working together great.”

Span is “more of a wide attacking guy,” Gelnovatch said, whose skills complement those of Bates and Ownby.

“Cobi’s got loads of talent,” Bates said. “I think he’s probably got the most talent of anybody on this team, as far as physical attributes go and what he possibly could become. For him it’s just learning the game and kind of understanding what his position on this team is and where he should be with positioning. But as you saw last season, he has the potential to score great goals and put teammates in great position to score goals, and this summer, more than anything, he’s been taking people on [one on one] and just destroying them.”

Two 2010 starters who had eligibility left at UVa — Jimmy Simpson and Sean Murnane — have left the program, Gelnovatch said. But in addition to Bates, Ownby and Span, such veterans as Hunter Jumper, Ari Dimas, Mike Volk and Greg Monaco return, and the ‘Hoos have added a large and well-regarded recruiting class.

“With the team we had in 2009, everybody was ecstatic that we won [the NCAA championship], but then there was kind of a hangover effect, and I don’t think we really performed to what we could have last year,” said Bates, who missed three games in 2010 because of injuries.

“So I think the new guys, this new blood, they’re going to be pretty hyped up. If anything, it’s just going to create competition for starting spots, which can only make everybody better.”

Gelnovatch went into 2010 knowing it could be a rebuilding year for the Cavaliers, and that’s how it played out. His expectations for 2011 are higher, and that optimism is well-founded, Bates believes.

The first-year class will add an infusion of talent, Bates said, and “I think leadership’s going to be huge this year, from guys that are moving from second year to third year and third year to fourth year. And I think after getting a taste of what it was like [to win the NCAA title] in 2009 and then having a taste of defeat in 2010, you reset your motives and your goals. Obviously we want to win championships this year, and I think we have the squad to do it.”

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