Oct. 31, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eric Bird started 29 of the 30 games in which he played during his first two seasons on the UVa men’s soccer team. On the eve of his third college season, however, Bird found himself among the Cavaliers’ reserves.

He never complained. Bird, a graduate of Cox High in Virginia Beach, had established himself as one of the team’s leaders, and he thought back to the players-only meeting held early in the summer.

“We talked about approaching the game with the right attitude,” Bird recalled this week. “Don’t get mad at your teammates. Don’t get down if you’re not playing. Just work hard, because if you work hard, it’s going to spread to the rest of the team and we’re all going to get better because of it.”

And so when Virginia coach George Gelnovatch put him on the bench, Bird said, “I couldn’t be a hypocrite. If I’m going to preach it, I have to do it. I knew I was going to play a big part in this team. I just needed to do everything right and approach it in the right way.”

Gelnovatch said: “In the three weeks of him not being a starter, he was the first one out at training, working his butt off, really trying to get in the lineup, without moping. And for the other guys, especially the young talented guys, he set a great example: This is how you work to get back into the lineup.”

Bird rejoined the starters for UVa’s second game, a 2-0 victory over St. John’s, and has not relinquished the job. His play as an attacking midfielder has been pivotal for a team that stretched its unbeaten streak to 11 matches Tuesday night with a 2-1 overtime win over UNC Greensboro.

“He’s the guy making us go right now,” Gelnovatch said, “no question about it. Eric Bird is making us go.”

Next up for the Wahoos, who haven’t lost since Sept. 13, is their penultimate regular-season game. At 7 p.m. Friday, No. 11 UVa (8-3-4 overall, 3-2-4 ACC) hosts No. 23 North Carolina (6-3-5, 3-1-5) at Klöckner Stadium. Virginia Soccer scarves will be given to the first 2,000 fans.

Bird, a 5-11, 185-pound junior, leads the `Hoos in scoring with 15 points — on a team-high six goals and three assists — and he’s had many magical moments this fall.

On Oct. 1, his golden goal in the second overtime lifted UVa to a 2-1 victory over VCU at Klöckner. On Oct. 18 at Virginia Tech, Bird’s goal with 34 seconds left in the second half forced overtime. In the first OT, Tech’s Kyle Renfro stopped a Bird penalty kick, and the game ended in a 1-1 tie.

“The goalie made a good save,” Bird said, “take nothing away from him. But I definitely should have put it away. It motivates me that much more.”

Had he buried that penalty kick, Bird’s performance in Blacksburg would have been the stuff of legend. Still, the Cavaliers’ longtime head coach has no complaints with No. 11. Gelnovatch said he hasn’t seen a better central midfielder in the ACC this season.

What makes Bird so special is his play from “penalty box to penalty box,” Gelnovatch said. “If you’re a good box-to-box guy, you’re good on the attack, and you can also defend. He’s an attacking midfielder, but he defends like crazy. He tracks people defensively. He’s one of our hardest tacklers. He’s our best guy in the air. He’s great at ghosting in the box, coming in and all of the sudden getting on the end of a cross or a corner kick. He just appears.

“He’s by no means the fastest guy on our team or the most athletic, but his engine is unbelievable. He is one of the fittest guys on our team. The amount of ground that he covers in a game, even though he’s an attacking midfielder, the amount of ground that he covers is tremendous.”

As a senior at Cox, where his classmates included his friend Ross Burbank, now an offensive lineman on UVa’s football team, Bird had scholarship offers from most Division I schools in the state.

That group did not include Virginia, which has won six NCAA titles in men’s soccer. But Gelnovatch offered Bird, who starred for Beach FC, a spot at UVa as a preferred walk-on and told him he’d have an opportunity to earn a scholarship.

“He said, `You have to prove yourself. It’s a merit system,’ ” recalled Bird, who said accepted the challenge because “UVa is such a prestigious university, and the [soccer] program was unbelievable.”

On the field, from “Day One I had like a little chip on my shoulder,” said Bird, and it didn’t take him long to show he belonged. By the second game of the 2011 season, Bird was in the starting lineup.

“I remember saying to myself, `This kid is going to be good. He’s going to be really good,’ ” Gelnovatch said, “and he’s playing that way now. He’s at that place where we thought he could be. And he’s gone through a lot, with the injury and all the things he’s been through.”

In the ninth game of his freshman season, Bird suffered a major injury to his right knee, tearing his ACL and MCL. “The doctors told me I would never be the same,” he said.

The damage to his MCL was especially severe. It was a Grade 3 tear, Bird said, and “the ligament was completely detached from the bone, so I literally had no ligament there, and it was, like, shriveled up in my knee, and so they had to do a whole different kind of surgery. They did a case study on my knee because it was so rare.”

Not until late in the spring semester of his first year was Bird cleared to participate on a limited basis with the team, and he had to wear a cumbersome brace on his right knee.

He started every game in 2012 — Bird was on scholarship by then — and helped the `Hoos advance to the NCAA tournament’s second round. But he finished the season with only two goals and one assist.

“All last year, he was still not right,” Gelnovatch said. “He didn’t have his first step back yet, you could tell, his balance, his form.”

Bird said: “I was maybe 75, 80 percent, tops, and it was just like a constant nagging in my knee the whole time, before and after games, and after practice. It was extremely frustrating the whole time. You know what you were capable of before the injury, and then you see what you’re doing now. It’s frustrating because you always think, `If this hadn’t happened, what would it be like now?’ ”

More setbacks were to come. In February, Bird had to get an appendectomy. When he was finally cleared to train again with the team, “two practices after being back I sprained my [right] MCL again, which is the one that always gives me trouble,” Bird said. “So that knocked me out the rest of the spring.”

Early in the summer, he spent three weeks in South Africa as part of a study-abroad program led by UVa professor Bob Swap, whose course is titled “The People, Culture and Environment of Southern Africa.” Also on the trip were UVa football players Henry Coley and Kwontie Moore.

“It was unbelievable,” Bird said.

In South Africa, he played in a couple of pickup soccer games, but nothing serious. “I didn’t have cleats or anything,” Bird said.

By the time he made it to UVa this summer, his knee felt good, and Bird worked hard on his fitness. Many of the other Cavaliers were playing summer soccer for clubs away from Charlottesville, so “it was basically just up to myself to run on my own and try and get as many touches on the ball with players that were in town as I could,” Bird said.

For all of his offseason training, though, Bird was still “behind the 8-ball in terms of form” when the `Hoos opened practice in August, Gelnovatch said, and the coaching staff wasn’t sure what to expect from him this season.

They’ve been delighted with his play. Bird may not be all the way back from his 2011 injury, but “I would say I’m getting there,” he said. “It’s definitely night and day compared to last year.”

An American government major, Bird is on track to graduate from the University in three-and-a-half years, after which he hopes to pursue a professional career. For now, though, he’s focused on making this a memorable postseason for the `Hoos, who are closing in on a 33rd consecutive invitation to the NCAA tournament.

“We can go as far as we want to,” Bird said.

Last weekend, Virginia went on the road and knocked off then-No. 2 Notre Dame 2-0. The loss was the first for the Fighting Irish, who had not allowed more than one goal in a game all season.

“It was good, but that’s just another stepping stone,” Bird said. “That’s the level that we want to be at.”

The Cavaliers start only one senior, defender Kevin McBride, and Bird is understandably excited about the team’s long-term prospects.

“George has done a tremendous job of recruiting,” Bird said, “and now he’s got that core group of guys, which I think he’s lacked the last couple of seasons, that he can depend on and are consistent. I think with this group, the sky’s the limit. They’re a bunch of high-character guys. They’re here to work hard, and they’re here to do the best that they can and show out for the school.”

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