By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As magnificent as it was for the UVa men’s soccer program, the NCAA title that the Cavaliers won in December 2009 did not pay immediate dividends in recruiting.
The recruiting calendar in college soccer has become as accelerated as in men’s basketball, and the class that signed with UVa in February 2010 was in place well before that NCAA tournament began in November 2009.
“Your recruiting classes for the next two cycles are really done at that time,” Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said recently. “You don’t necessarily see the direct benefits until later.”
Indeed, UVa already had commitments in late 2009 from most of the players who would form its 2011 recruiting class. But the Cavaliers’ sixth NCAA championship helped Gelnovatch persuade several more talented prospects to join that group, and the title made an even bigger impression on the Class of 2012.
The eight-player class that will enroll at UVa this summer is ranked No. 2 nationally by Top Drawer Soccer. Six of those recruits, led by defender Zachary Carroll at No. 7, are ranked among the top 150 prospects in the Class of 2012 by ESPNHS.
“Player for player, there is an argument for it being one of our top classes in my 16 years,” Gelnovatch said.
The class consists of Carroll, midfielder Brian James, forward/midfielder Darius Madison, midfielder Shane O’Neill, forward/midfielder Brian Poarch, forward/midfielder Marcus Salandy-Defour, midfielder/defender Scott Thomsen and midfielder Todd Wharton. Several of its members have played on age-group national teams or for Major League Soccer academy teams — or both.
Will the entire class stay at UVa for four years? Probably not. Gelnovatch wishes that were not the case, but he understands the appeal of MLS and other pro leagues to elite recruits. Moreover, some of the 12 recruits who enrolled at UVa in 2011, a well-regarded class that includes Chris Somerville, Eric Bird, Kyler Sullivan and Ryan Zinkhan, are likely to turn pro early too.
“I’m 100-percent sure I’m going to lose guys,” Gelnovatch said.
“The better players in the country aspire to be professional soccer players, just like the better players in basketball aspire to be professional basketball players and the best players in baseball aspire to be professional baseball players. And you’re naive to think that for those top players that is not their hope, their dream, their goal.”
During Gelnovatch’s tenure as an assistant to Bruce Arena at UVa, college teams rarely had to worry about losing players early to pro soccer. That changed soon after Gelnovatch succeeded Arena as head coach. After the 1997 season, Gelnovatch’s second in charge, three of his top players — Ben Olsen, Scott Vermillion and Brian West — left UVa with eligibility remaining to pursue MLS careers. Their departures floored Gelnovatch.
“I had no experience at dealing with it or knowing how to react to it, what to do about it, how to recover from it,” he recalled. “That was my first experience with it, and it took some time to get a grip on it.”
There may have been a time, Gelnovatch said, when he would have chosen not to pursue prospects who were likely to turn pro before completing their college eligibility. No more.
Consider Brian “Cobi” Span. A heralded recruit from Somers, N.Y., Span played two seasons at UVa before signing a contract in December with a professional team in Sweden. Gelnovatch supported Span’s decision, which was not unexpected.
“I think I’m now at a point where I have enough experience and enough information to exchange with not only the player and his family, but with the league and agents, all the parties that are involved,” said Gelnovatch, a UVa alumnus who starred for Arena and later played pro soccer.
“I think recruits see the value of that, and I think that’s one of the reasons why some of these players are coming. They see a value in our experience at developing pros at a great academic institution, our experience as coaches in dealing with the players in terms of Major League Soccer and leaving early and figuring out, ‘Does it make sense? Does it not make sense?’
“I think UCLA’s probably the only college soccer program that has put more guys into the pros than we have. Over the past three, four, five years, we’ve embraced that distinction of developing players. I don’t know if my philosophy has changed, but if we get players in here that are good enough to be pros, we want to help them with that. But along the way we ask them to be team players, to hold up their responsibilities academically, to do all those things.”
Gelnovatch expects the class that signs with UVa next February to be comparable in talent to the group that will enroll this summer.
“I think there are more pro-prospect guys [around the nation] that have an interest in starting their education and, if it gets to that, completing their education,” Gelnovatch said. “So I feel like that’s why there are more guys for us to go after that fit here.
“I think those kids now are much more educated about the importance of at least starting their education. And those are the kids we’re interested in, the kids that have a legitimate interest in their education as well as their professional career. Some of them stay for two years or three years. Some of them end up staying four years, for whatever reason, like Hunter Jumper, Brian Ownby, Will Bates.
“Those are the kids we’re willing to go after, and there seem to be more of those kids that are embracing the educational piece of it.”
For players who leave early, UVa offers a degree completion program. Admission into the program is “not guaranteed,” Gelnovatch said, “but I’ve never had a player turned down who’s come back. Almost every year I check one off the list, another guy who’s come back to graduate. Alecko Eskandarian was the last one. It’s something that’s pretty special here.”
Since their coronation in 2009, the Cavaliers haven’t come close to returning to the College Cup, the final four of NCAA soccer. Virginia finished 11-6-3 in 2010 after losing in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
A year later, ravaged by injuries, the Wahoos went 12-8-1 and again exited the NCAAs after one game.
More than half of the Gelnovatch’s first-year class logged significant minutes in 2011, including Somerville, Bird, Sullivan, Zinkhan, Calvin Rezende, Grant Silvester and Spencer LaCivita, who started every game in goal.
Upperclassmen such as Bates and Ari Dimas and Sean Murnane, who has rejoined the team after a year away from the sport, figure to play leading roles for the ‘Hoos this fall. But first- and second-year players will dominate the roster.
Potential starters from the incoming class include Carroll, Madison, O’Neill and Salandy-Defour.
“This team is going to be as inexperienced a group as I’ve probably had,” Gelnovatch said, “but as talented a group. It’s going to be exciting on the one hand, but there are probably going to be some interesting ups and down, almost like in 2008. But 2008 was the segue for [the championship season] 2009.
“I think ’12, ’13, ’14 are going to be really interesting and special years.”