By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — George Gelnovatch has good reason to look forward to his 16th season as UVa men’s soccer coach. His returning starters include junior Will Bates, senior Brian Ownby and sophomore Brian “Cobi” Span, the Cavaliers’ top three scorers in 2010.
Bates, Ownby and Span combined for 20 of the Cavaliers’ 36 goals in 2010, and the forwards are coming off a summer in which they played together — and played well — on Reading United AC of the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League.
Even so, Gelnovatch faces a challenge. He also wants to carve out prominent roles for two other forwards, Chris Somerville and Ryan Zinkhan, among the jewels of the team’s large and well-regarded first-year class. So some of the forwards occasionally will be used in the midfield.
“I gotta figure out how to get all those guys on the field,” Gelnovatch said, then laughed. “Which is a pretty good problem to have.”
From a team that won the NCAA title in 2009, Virginia lost several key players, and its record last season reflected that. The Wahoos finished 11-6-3 after losing to Old Dominion in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
Gelnovatch expects more from this team, and so do his players. UVa opens the season Friday night against West Virginia in the ACC/Big East Challenge at Germantown, Md.
“This is my last hurrah, so obviously the goal for us is to win a national championship,” senior defender Hunter Jumper said after the team’s Blue-Orange scrimmage Monday night at Klöckner Stadium.
“I feel like it’s going to be interesting, because our 2009 team just had great chemistry, and it resembles this team a lot, just because everybody on this team gets along incredibly well. We have that same locker-room chemistry that we had then. And if we can just evolve as a team in the next two to three months and understand each other and become a great defensive team first, and then just let the offense happen, I think the sky’s the limit.”
Of the 30 players on Virginia’s roster, 12 are freshmen.
“All have different things to offer,” Jumper said, “and they’re really good people off the field, and it’s just been a smooth transition.
“It’s kind of similar to our ’09 team. We didn’t have that big of a freshman class that year, but there was a good mixture between upperclassmen and young talent, and this class definitely has a lot of young talent.”
Among the newcomers who have impressed early are Somerville, Zinkhan, midfielder Eric Bird, defender/midfielder Kyler Sullivan and goalkeeper Spencer LaCivita. Other members of the class will play this season, too, which means the Wahoos are likely to experience growing pains along the way.
“I think more so than in some years, this team will evolve,” Gelnovatch said. “We have one of the best reserve teams in the country, probably, and they’re made up mostly of young guys, and it’s forcing all of us to be better. You can’t have a bad day in training. If you have a bad day, then somebody’s looking over your shoulder … We haven’t had a reserve team this good in 15 years.”
The starting goalie on the 2009 team was Diego Restrepo, and he closed out his college career last season. His replacement is the 6-1 LaCivita, who graduated from high school early and began classes at the University in January, becoming the first mid-year enrollee in the men’s soccer program’s history, Gelnovatch said.
The 6-1, 160-pound LaCivita, who’s from Raleigh, N.C., practiced with the Cavaliers in the spring, an experience that Gelnovatch called “hugely beneficial” for his young keeper. LaCivita dazzled in UVa’s exhibition win over George Mason and played well again Monday night in the Blue-Orange scrimmage.
“I hope it’s kind of a coming-out thing,” Gelnovatch said. “I think we’re seeing it now, almost a little bit of a delayed effect [from practicing in] the spring.”
In front of LaCivita is a defense that includes three starters from the team that went 19-3-3 in 2009 and won the program’s sixth NCAA championship: Jumper and center backs Greg Monaco and Mike Volk.
In 2010, Jumper shifted from left back to holding midfielder, where he replaced Ross LaBauex. The move did not produce the desired results, and Jumper returned to left back in the spring.
“It’s so much better,” Jumper said. “I wanted to play defensive midfield so bad, and I wanted to enjoy it, and I thought it was going to be the best thing in the world, and it just didn’t work out for me. It just never really felt natural. But at the end of the day it definitely helped me, because I got better in a lot of aspects that I wanted to sharpen, and it gives me a better appreciation for when to play the defensive midfielder the ball.”
Marcus Douglas, a 5-11, 150-pound redshirt sophomore from Washington, D.C., has taken over as Virginia’s No. 1 holding midfielder.
Douglas, a minor contributor last season, began to emerge in the spring, Gelnovatch said, and “now he’s strung together almost three weeks of consistent practices and games. He’s an interesting guy. We’re convinced he has the tools.”
No one has ever questioned Span’s raw talent. He was considered the prize of the class that entered UVa in 2010, and he totaled five goals and three assists in his 18 games.
Still, Span said Monday night, “I felt like it was an eye-opening season for me, because I didn’t really know what to expect. But I knew it was going to be tough, and I felt like I learned so much.
“I feel like I had a solid year. It could have been better. I just think that after my first year, after that experience, when I come back now, it’s so much easier.”
In Soccer America‘s preseason poll, UVa is ranked No. 11. The ‘Hoos figure to be tested early. Only one of their first five games is at Klöckner — Monday night’s match against the University of Richmond.
Virginia will play two games in Blacksburg — the first against Cincinnati, the second against Wisconsin — before opening its ACC schedule at Duke on Sept. 9.
“That’s a first,” Gelnovatch said of UVa’s early-season schedule. “We played all our spring games on the road, except for one, just to kind of [prepare for] that. That’ll be a challenge.”