By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — This has been a season unlike any other for the UVa men’s soccer team.
Of the players whom 16th-year coach George Gelnovatch expected to have this fall, three have been lost to torn ACLs, including Will Bates, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer. Another junior forward, Akheel Rodney, is taking a redshirt year because of back problems, and one of UVa’s most gifted freshmen, forward Chris Somerville, missed seven games while recovering from mononucleosis.
“It’s been so crazy,” said redshirt junior midfielder Ari Dimas, who missed six games himself with a high-ankle sprain.
“I’ve never been a part of a season that’s been like this,” said senior defender Mike Volk, who had groin surgery in August. “It’s been up and down for us.”
One of the high points came Thursday night at Klöckner Stadium, where UVa smashed ACC rival NC State 4-1 in the regular-season finale for both teams. With the victory, the Wahoos (4-3-1, 11-6-1) locked up a home game in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, and that’s not all.
“I do think that this has probably got us into the NCAA tournament as well,” Gelnovatch said Thursday night, “and to be honest with you, I really didn’t talk about that with the guys. I didn’t want to put that on them. I think they had enough pressure on them with the ACC tournament. But it was big.”
No. 4 seed Virginia will host No. 5 seed Wake Forest (4-3-1, 8-6-4) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Klöckner. The ACC semifinals and championship will be played next weekend in Cary, N.C.
Not since 1980 have the ‘Hoos failed to advance to the NCAA tournament. UVa has been crowned NCAA champion six times — in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 2009. This team probably lacks the firepower to compete for another NCAA crown, but the Cavaliers head into postseason with renewed confidence after whipping the Wolfpack (2-6, 6-10-2).
“In all the games we’ve lost this year, I haven’t felt out of it at all,” senior forward Brian Ownby said. “I feel like we’ve had the better of the play in most of them. I think it’s just that we can’t have any mental lapses, and we gotta finish our chances, and we did most of that tonight.”
Ownby has been slowed by hamstring problems for much of the season, but he contributed two assists and a goal Thursday night.
“I think right now I’m finally hitting full stride, which is good going into postseason,” said Ownby, an All-ACC selection in 2010. “Not having Bates out there hurts the team a little bit, but I feel like I can try to help us out and take on more of a role as the goal-scorer.”
In its previous three games, Virginia had totaled only three goals. Twenty-six minutes in Thursday night, the ‘Hoos had four. Ownby, freshman forward Ryan Zinkhan, freshman midfielder Calvin Rezende and sophomore midfielder Cobi Span each scored for UVa.
Ownby added two assists, and Zinkhan, Span and senior midfielder Felipe Libreros added one apiece.
“Tonight was huge,” Dimas said. “We had disappointing game against BC” — a 2-1 loss at Klöckner last weekend — “and we knew that coming out tonight we needed to be passionate, we needed to be ready right from the start, and I think that was evident in the game. We needed a good performance and a win, and we got it.”
Volk said: “This one was huge. I had a nice little conversation with the guys before the game, saying that in the loss with Boston College, we [did not start playing until] we got scored on. So we wanted to go into this game with the mentality that we were down a goal and that there were 15 minutes left, and it showed in the first 20 minutes of the first half, which was great.”
Ownby echoed those comments.
“Getting a goal early in the first 15 minutes definitely changes things,” he said. “It seems like throughout the season we got scored on first, and we didn’t start getting together and start dominating the team until the second half. But we came out in the first 15 minutes [against NC State] with a different mentality, saying, ‘We’re down a goal.’ “
Five Cavaliers were honored in a Senior Night ceremony before the game: Ownby, Dimas, Libreros, defender Hunter Jumper and defender/midfielder Sean Hiller. Volk and defender Greg Monaco are fifth-year seniors who were recognized before Virginia’s regular-season home finale in 2010.
“It’s a special group of guys,” Gelnovatch said. “In the locker room, we all put our arms around those guys, and I said, ‘Look, 15, 20 years from now they’ll be coming back here with their wives and children to be recognized for winning a national championship. That’s a special thing.’ It’s a lifetime achievement, so we’re really happy for them.”
The seniors’ experience notwithstanding, this team is young in key places, including the goal, where freshman Spencer LaCivita starts. In all, Gelnovatch started four freshmen and a sophomore against NC State. Still, he believes this team is talented enough to make a postseason run.
“We’ve got to stay healthy,” Gelnovatch said. “We can’t lose any more guys. With Ari, I held my breath twice tonight. Ownby’s probably 85 percent. I think the past two games he’s starting to look like the old Ownby. If we can get him closer to 100 percent, and Ari stays healthy, we can put a pretty good product on the field, so we’ll see what happens.”