May 28, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the spring luncheon for UVa athletics department staffers, Brian Boland stood behind a lectern Tuesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena and looked around at his audience.
“Probably every coach in this room told me it would come,” Boland said.
The moment for which Boland has worked so tirelessly, for so many years, finally arrived May 21. On that day, in Urbana, Ill., second-seeded Virginia edged top-seeded UCLA 4-3 for the NCAA men’s tennis title, a feat that left Boland overcome with emotion as his players celebrated a few feet away.
The Cavaliers’ coach since August 2001, Boland had guided them to five ITA National Indoor Team titles, but an NCAA crown had eluded him, often in agonizing fashion. No more.
“I’m so happy for him,” said UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor, one of Boland’s neighbors. “Now he can go on and maybe win two or three straight.”
The NCAA championship was the first in men’s tennis by an ACC school, and it gave Boland membership in a select group at UVa. He joined Dom Starsia, Julie Myers, George Gelnovatch, Mike London and Kevin Sauer as current Virginia coaches whose head-coaching résumés include an NCAA title. (Another member of the athletics department, senior associate AD for programs Jane Miller, won two NCAA titles as women’s lacrosse coach at UVa.)
In 2008, his first season as a head coach, London led Richmond, his alma mater, to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision title. The others had to endure much longer waits.
Under Boland, the Wahoos were NCAA runners-up in 2011 and ’12. They lost in the NCAA semifinals in 2007, 2008 and 2010. They fell in the quarterfinals in 2005, 2006 and 2009.
“He’s been waiting a long time for this to happen,” Starsia said. “There’s been a lot of pain and anguish there.”
During Starsia’s tenure as men’s lacrosse coach at UVa, his teams have captured four NCAA titles — in 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011. Before taking over at Virginia, he coached for 10 seasons at Brown, his alma mater, and won 101 games at the Ivy League school. Starsia didn’t win his first NCAA title, however, until his seventh season at UVa.
In 1994 and again two years later, Virginia lost in overtime to Princeton in the NCAA championship game.
After those defeats, Starsia said Tuesday, doubt crept in. “You’re left there standing, thinking, `Maybe we’re not going to win this thing.’ The only answer is to keep plugging and keep doing it right.”
Myers reached the pinnacle of NCAA women’s lacrosse in 2004, her ninth season as head coach at her alma mater. In her first eight seasons, Virginia had been NCAA runner-up four times (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2003). Since 2004, the `Hoos have finished second in the NCAA tournament twice, in 2005 and 2007.
Like Myers, Gelnovatch is a UVa graduate. He didn’t win an NCAA title as head coach until 2009, his 14th season in charge. The `Hoos were NCAA runners-up in 1997, lost in the semifinals in 2006 and were ousted in the quarterfinals in 1998, 2000 and 2004.
About five months after Gelnovatch broke through, Sauer’s quest for an NCAA title ended too. Sauer is the only coach UVa rowing has had since becoming a varsity program in the fall of 1995. He’d seen his team finish second at the NCAA championships three times, third twice, fourth thrice, fifth once, sixth twice and seventh once before the Cavaliers won the team title in 2010.
Along the way, Sauer recalled, his colleagues at UVa, including Gelnovatch, assured him he was on the right path and urged him to stick with his system. Sauer told Boland the same thing.
“Brian obviously over the past few years has come close so many times,” said Sauer, whose program won a second NCAA championship in 2012. “I said, `Man, I’ve been there. I’ve been there many times myself. Just hang in there. You’re doing the right things. You’ve built this program into a consistent, powerful program, and it’s just a matter of time.’ “
Gelnovatch and Starsia offered similar advice.
“When Brian Boland came in to see me a year or two ago and said, `What do I need to do differently?’ I told him, `Nothing,’ ” Starsia recalled. “I said, `You’re doing exactly what you need to be doing.’
“It’s a little bit of a cliché, but it’s about the process of it all, and whether or not you win a game at the very end that makes you the champion is sometimes more out of your control than you would like. You just gotta keep putting yourself in a position so you’re giving yourself a chance, and then the kids have to rise up, the program has to rise up and get it done. I think we can all feel confident that that’s going to happen if you’re going about your business the right way, and clearly Boland was.”
After UVa suffered a gut-wrenching loss to nemesis Southern California in last year’s NCAA final, Sauer tried to reassure Boland.
“I said, `You are still the man. Look what you’ve done with this program. That’s the key, what your kids have done. Whether you get second or fourth or first, it’s not a measure of your coaching ability. Because of your coaching ability and what you’ve done, you will win,’ ” Sauer recalled. “And that’s what it’s all about. So it’s really cool to see that finally happen for him.”
Gelnovatch’s predecessor as head coach, Bruce Arena, won five NCAA titles at Virginia. Arena oversaw the program for more than a decade, though, before getting his first championship.
“I think it can actually be more problematic for you to win it early in your career,” Starsia said, “because there’s somehow a sense that it’s just gonna happen all the time.”
When the first NCAA championship doesn’t come as quickly, Starsia noted, a coach is “forced to appreciate waking up in the morning and coming to work, because you don’t have the gold trophy that validates everything you’ve done. And so you’ve got to be able to convince yourself that we’re doing it properly and we’re doing it right. I think when it happens that way it’s built to last.”
Though he believed Boland would eventually win an NCAA title, Starsia said, the “truth of it is that there’s no promise that that’s really going to happen. Part of my job was to continue to buoy his spirits, but again, there’s no guarantee of that. You gotta understand that. But if you keep working at it the way Boland has, you’d like to think that eventually all your hard work is going to pay off, and I think that’s generally how it works.”
When Gelnovatch began wondering if he’d ever reach his elusive goal, he said, Starsia would encourage him during their workouts at University Hall. “Bruce Arena said the same thing: Keep knocking, keep knocking, and you’ll break through,” Gelnovatch recalled.
Gelnovatch is convinced NCAA breakthroughs are imminent for other coaches at UVa. “There’s more coming,” he said. “When I look around the room at our coaches’ meetings and see the caliber of the coaches, it’s amazing. It really is. It inspires you.”
So does the success of Boland’s team. “When you see someone hoist the trophy, it makes you want to do it again,” Gelnovatch said.
O’Connor is among the UVa coaches most likely to join the club of NCAA champions. In his 10 seasons at Virginia, O’Connor has built one of the nation’s premier programs. The Cavaliers have advanced to the College World Series twice — in 2009 and 2011 — and they’re seeded No. 6 in the 64-team NCAA tournament this year.
None of Boland’s colleagues was happier for him last week than O’Connor.
“Living two doors down from Brian, I’ve spent many times with him in dealing with the disappointment of not winning it,” O’Connor said. “This guy and his coaches and his players work so incredibly hard, year in and year out. They deserve this. It was their time to do it … They’ve just been dominant in that sport and just [hadn’t] been able to win the final one. I think it proves to everybody how hard it is really to win at the very, very end.”