By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a men’s soccer program that has been crowned NCAA champion six times, it’s not enough simply to earn a spot in the tournament field. And so the past two seasons, several memorable victories notwithstanding, ultimately have been disappointing for UVa.
“I don’t feel good about losing in the first round two years in a row,” longtime coach George Gelnovatch said. “I also think it’s cylical, and our track record has been — and I think I’ve come to grips with it, too — that we should be winning ACC [titles] and getting to College Cups every three to five years. There shouldn’t be a period of five years that go by where we don’t win an ACC trophy or get to a College Cup.”
In 2006, Gelnovatch noted, the Cavaliers advanced to the College Cup — the sport’s final four — before losing in the semifinals. Virginia fell in the NCAA tournament’s second round in 2007 and in the first round in ’08. A year later, however, the Wahoos won the ACC tournament and then captured their sixth NCAA title.
UVa finished 11-6-3 in 2010 and 12-8-1 this fall. Teams that defeated Virginia this season included North Carolina and Charlotte, which met for the NCAA championship Sunday. (UNC edged Charlotte to become the fourth ACC team in five seasons to win the NCAA title, joining Wake Forest in 2007, Maryland in ’08 and UVa in ’09.)
When the ‘Hoos will make it back to the College Cup, Gelnovatch can’t be sure. But the six freshmen who played major roles for UVa this fall — Ryan Zinkhan, Eric Bird, Chris Somerville, Kyler Sullivan, Calvin Rezende and goalkeeper Spencer LaCivita — form the nucleus of a team that Gelnovatch believes will be strong in 2012 and better still in ’13 and ’14.
“We’re on that cycle,” Gelnovatch said.
Five seniors started for the Cavaliers this season: second-team All-ACC forward Brian Ownby, midfielder Felipe Libreros and defenders Hunter Jumper, Mike Volk and Greg Monaco. Virginia also is likely to lose second-team All-ACC midfielder Brian “Cobi” Span, a sophomore who’s expected to leave school to pursue a pro career in Europe.
There’s a lot of talent in the departing group, and there’s a lot of talent in the first-year class. The Cavaliers’ 2011 season, however, was marked by inconsistency, and for good reason.
“We never consistently had all the players on the field,” Gelnovatch said.
Hamstring problems slowed Ownby for much of the fall. Somerville missed a large chunk of the season with mononucleosis. Junior Ari Dimas, a starting midfielder, missed six games with a high-ankle sprain that continued to bother him after he returned to the lineup. Volk, Monaco and Jumper each missed at least two games, for various reasons, and junior forward Akheel Rodney sat out the season after having back surgery in late August.
And then there were the knee injuries. Three Cavaliers missed all or part of the season with torn ACLs: Bird, a midfielder who started eight of the nine games in which he played; Bryan Lima, a sophomore midfielder; and junior forward Will Bates, a first-team All-ACC selection.
In midseason wins over Clemson and Maryland, Gelnovatch said, UVa put “a pretty good product on the field, but we could never really get everybody on the field at the same time.
“I never could figure out, with Bates, Ownby, Somerville and Span, exactly where the heck to play everybody. Are they forwards? Are they wide players? I couldn’t really get a feel for that, because I could never get them on the field together at the same time to see where [they fit best].”
“And then the other dynamic was that we had guys like Jumper and Ownby and Bates, Volk and Monaco, some older guys, but the other half of the team were freshmen. There was not a whole lot of in-between. If you don’t have the Ownbys, the Bateses, the Jumpers, the Cobis all on the field at the same time to help those four or five first-year guys feel good about themselves, get some rhythm, get some tempo, all those things, you’re leaving them hanging out there to dry, and that happened a couple times with our first-year guys.”
Bates’ season ended Oct. 21 at Virginia Tech, but he still led UVa in scoring, with 32 points on 14 goals and 4 assists. His injury proved especially costly.
Without Bates, Virginia won two of its final three regular-season games and then edged Wake Forest in double overtime in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. “But by the time we got to the Carolina game in the ACC semifinals, by the time we got to the Delaware game [in the NCAA tourney’s first round],” Gelnovatch said, “it was really clear that we were starting to run out of the fumes that were left.”
UVa lost 1-0 to UNC in overtime and, six days later, 1-0 to Delaware in double overtime. Had Bates been healthy, those games might have gone differently.
“He makes a huge difference,” Gelnovatch said. “The knock on him is his first touch — sometimes a ball gets away from him a little bit — but he is a super competitor, athletic, strong, phenomenal in front of the goal, in the 18-yard box, and if he picks up where he left off [this fall] he’ll be a pro.”
Neither Bates nor Bird will be available for spring practice, but they should be 100 percent by the start of next season, Gelnovatch said, “and they’ll both be here all summer, working hard and getting themselves ready.”
Of the freshman classes that entered the ACC in 2011, UVa’s was the most talented, in Gelnovatch’s opinion, and the experience his first-year players gained will “pay huge dividends in the fall,” he said.
Zinkhan led Virginia’s newcomers with 11 points, on 4 goals and 3 assists, and was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
“I know he’s going to be a great player. He hit the wall a little bit at the end,” Gelnovatch said. “Somerville, I know’s going to be a great player. Eric Bird, I know’s going to be a great player. Kyler Sullivan, I know’s going to be a great player.”
Rezende, a midfielder whose twin, Conner, is another promising young Cavalier, contributed 2 goals and 2 assists this season, and LaCivita acquitted himself well in the goal.
“He actually exceeded my expectations,” Gelnovatch said of LaCivita. “I was very concerned about that position coming into the season. He really only had two [subpar] games. But other than that he did well. I think he’s going to be a very good goalkeeper.”
Three other first-year players, Kyle McCord, Matt Brown and Grant Silvester, are likely to assume leading roles in 2012 as Gelnovatch rebuilds the defense that Jumper, Volk and Monaco anchored for three seasons. Virginia has proven talent returning at every other position.
“That’s gonna be the biggest thing,” Gelnovatch said. “Those two guys, Matt Brown and Grant Silvester, have to pan out as center backs. They have huge upsides. They’re much more athletic than both Volk and Monaco.”
Gelnovatch plans to try McCord, a midfielder this season, at left back. Listed at 6-3, 170 pounds, McCord needs to improve his running form and add upper-body strength.
“But he’s got such a big body and frame, people bounce off him,” Gelnovatch said. “Once he gets a little bit stronger in the weight room, it’ll be scary.
“He’s going to fill out. He’s one of my special projects for the spring, because he’s left-footed, athletic, with pretty good skill. I gotta find a place for him.”
Virginia’s attacking players next season will include Bates, Somerville, Zinkhan and Bird, and incoming recruits should bolster that group. Dimas, a holding midfielder this fall, probably will move out wide, where he was so effective in 2009.
Sullivan started at right back for most of this season and distinguished himself at that position. But he may well end up as UVa’s holding midfielder in 2012. “I really think he could be pretty damn good there,” Gelnovatch said.
It’s too early to say how good the Cavaliers will be in 2012. The ACC, as usual, will be loaded. Still, Gelnovatch believes his team could enter the season ranked among the league’s top four teams.
“We’ll be in that discussion,” he said.