By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In most of the past 31 years, the University of Virginia men’s soccer team could, by mid-October, be all but certain that an invitation to the NCAA tournament was imminent.
This is not one of those seasons. With a lineup dominated by freshmen and sophomores, UVa has struggled at times while playing a grueling schedule. And so it was easy to understand why the Cavaliers were so pumped when the final second ticked off the clock Tuesday night at Klöckner Stadium.
“We needed that result,” sophomore midfielder Eric Bird said after Virginia edged previously undefeated High Point 2-1 on a late penalty kick by senior forward Will Bates. “We knew coming into this game it was a must-win.”
Bates said: “It’s huge, especially after the results we got in these recent games.”
Virginia (6-5-1), which is trying to advance to the NCAA tourney for the 32nd consecutive season, already has faced seven teams ranked in the latest NSCAA poll: No. 1 Maryland, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 5 UCLA, No. 10 Georgetown, No. 13 Xavier, No. 21 VCU and, now, No. 23 High Point.
The Wahoos are 2-4-1 against that group, with wins over VCU and High Point and a tie with Xavier. The losses to Maryland, UNC, UCLA and Georgetown were each by a single goal, and two came in overtime.
High Point, nationally ranked for the first time, came in with a 10-0-1 record and a high-powered offense. An ACC-caliber team, UVa coach George Gelnovatch called the Panthers, and they scored first Tuesday night, capitalizing on a blunder by freshman defender Zach Carroll in the 10th minute.
In their previous four games, a stretch in which they went 1-3, the `Hoos had scored only goal, so the last thing they wanted was to find themselves trailing early. But Virginia steadied itself and, in the 29th minute, pulled even when Bates, from just outside the box, curled in a free kick over a wall of defenders and into the left corner of the goal.
Bates said he and Bird practice lofting the ball over a wall of mannequins.
“It’s a good opportunity to get goals,” Bates said, “and each team should have a specialist, and so I really kind of put in a lot of work to try to make myself better at that.”
Bates’ first goal energized the Cavaliers, and they remained aggressive, adopting a strategy in the second half that left them vulnerable to counter-attacks.
“We literally had, I would say, close to 70 percent of the ball in the first half, but we didn’t really go anywhere with it,” Bird said. “We only generated three or four shots. So George was like, `It’s great you guys are keeping the ball, but we need to actually do something with it.’ So the second half he encouraged us to go forward and get that go-ahead goal. He said, `Just be wary of the counter-attack.’ ”
Gelnovatch said: “We played a little bit of a dangerous game, especially in the second half. We got aggressive and we started stringing passes together and keeping it and possessing it in their half, but when it turned over — zoom — they’re gone.”
The swift Panthers couldn’t convert, however, and UVa dominated possession in the final 30 minutes. Twice the Cavaliers nearly scored on corner kicks.
“The balls that [freshman] Scott Thomsen were putting in were really dangerous, and we were really aggressive,” Gelnovatch said, “and I felt that we were going to get a goal off a corner.”
Twice, though, a High Point defender saved a goal off the line after Thomsen played the ball into the box. The `Hoos have played four overtime games this season, and they appeared headed for a fifth. Then High Point midfielder Shane Malcolm was called for a hand ball in the box.
Bates, one of the greatest goal-scorers in the history of a program that has won six NCAA titles, buried the penalty kick, and 73 seconds later Virginia’s two-game losing streak was over.
“This is really huge in terms of a lot of things,” Gelnovatch said. “Keeping us just above that .500 margin is huge, and winning is energy. Losing, even when you play well, like we did against UNC, it just taps your energy. This win puts a little wind in our sails. It’s energy going into these three home games, and we needed to make the most of it.”
The Cavaliers’ next three games are also at Klöckner, starting Friday night against No. 18 Wake Forest. Then will come home games against Wright State (Oct. 16) and Virginia Tech (Oct. 19).
This is Gelnovatch’s 17th season as head coach at his alma mater. Against High Point, he started six freshmen, four sophomores and one senior. Virginia’s reserves Tuesday night included sophomore Chris Somerville and freshman Jordan Poarch.
“There’s no question this is the youngest group we’ve ever had,” Gelnovatch said.
Neither sophomore forward Ryan Zinkhan nor junior midfielder Sean Murnane was available against High Point. Both are out with injuries. The only senior on the roster is Bates, who with 41 career goals is tied for eighth on UVa’s all-time list.
In 2011, Bates was named to the All-ACC first team despite missing the final four regular-season games after tearing his ACL in an Oct. 21 tie at Virginia Tech. In Blacksburg, Bates recalled, he missed a penalty kick on which he went left.
“And then later that game I tore the ACL, so I don’t go left anymore,” Bates said with a smile Tuesday night.
Bird also suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2011. But he rehabbed diligently and has started every game for UVa this year.
He may not be back to full strength yet, but “I’m getting there,” Bird said. “There’s a little bit of hesitance here and there, but it’s what I’ve been dealt, so I’ve just got to deal with it.”