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Nov. 23, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The starting goalkeeper for the No. 8 seed in the NCAA men’s soccer tournament enrolled at the University of Virginia in 2010, but until Nov. 8 he had appeared in only one college game, coming off the bench early this fall in the second half of a one-sided victory.

This story has some twists. Calle Brown is starting not because of an injury to a teammate, but because his head coach was willing to gamble in a game the Cavaliers needed to win to stay in contention for a first-round bye in the NCAA tourney.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Brown said Thursday night, “but I didn’t think it was impossible, because I always knew I was good enough to play here. I just didn’t know if I’d get a chance.

“It’s kind of funny: My first opportunity came on Senior Night.”

That was Nov. 8 at Klöckner Stadium, where UVa closed the regular season against ACC rival Boston College. A week earlier, on the same field, sophomore goalkeeper Jeff Gal, the starter all season, had struggled in a 1-0 loss to North Carolina, after which Virginia coach George Gelnovatch began contemplating a change.

“It was a risky move, and I’m not sure all my staff agreed with me right away,” Gelnovatch recalled. “I remember mentioning it the day after [the UNC game]. I said, `Just think about it,’ and nobody really said, `Yeah, let’s do it.’ “

Gelnovatch didn’t rush his decision.

“We had a week,” he said, “and I wanted to think things through, but the most important thing was, I wanted to see how Calle would train in that week after the North Carolina game. Because whether it’s a field player or a goalkeeper, you can sense when that guy in front of you is struggling a little bit.

“Nobody said anything to Jeff. Nobody said anything to Calle. I wanted to see how Calle responded the whole week of training after that game, I wanted to see how Jeff responded, and Calle was fantastic.”

Brown, a Leesburg resident who graduated from Loudoun County High School, didn’t learn until the day of the BC game, when assistant coach Michael Behonick called him with the news, that he would be in goal that night.

Most fans at Klöckner that evening probably assumed it was nothing more than a courtesy start on Senior Night for a player who will graduate in May. Little did they know.

An imposing figure at 6-5, 227 pounds — “He’s the biggest goalkeeper we’ve ever had,” said Gelnovatch — Brown made a crucial save in the Wahoos’ 1-0 overtime win over the Eagles. Then he played every minute of Virginia’s three games in the ACC tournament. And now he’s preparing for his first NCAA tournament appearance.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, UVa (10-5-5) hosts St. John’s (11-6-2) in a second-round game at Klöckner. As one of the top 16 seeds, Virginia was awarded a first-round bye. The Red Storm edged Delaware 2-1 in overtime Thursday night.

Virginia and St. John’s have already met once this season, Sept. 2 at Klöckner. With Gal, a transfer from Creighton, in goal, the `Hoos won 2-0 that night.

A season ago, UVa went 1-1 in the NCAA tournament, defeating Lafayette and then losing to New Mexico in the second round. Brown was not part of that team. Frustrated by his lack of playing time, he had left the program not long after the Cavaliers opened spring practice in 2012.

“As a young guy, he just got a little bit disenchanted, I guess,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s hard for a young goalkeeper. If you’re a talented field player, you can get sprinkled in … I can’t blame him for feeling like to some extent he was overlooked. It happens.”

As a freshman, Brown had backed up Diego Restrepo, one of the heroes of the UVa team that won the NCAA title in 2009. Brown did not expect to beat out Restrepo for the starting job in 2010, but he was stung when Gelnovatch went with freshman Spencer LaCivita in 2011.

“I lost a lot of motivation,” Brown recalled, “because I wasn’t playing for the second consecutive year. It was disheartening not to play, and it was hard, because Spencer was a freshman.”

And so Brown, a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity, decided his time at UVa would be better spent off the team. LaCivita started for the Cavaliers again in 2012. When the season ended, however, Gelnovatch found himself short-handed at a critical position. LaCivita played last season with hip and groin injuries that would require multiple operations, and that meant the `Hoos had only goalkeeper available in the spring of 2013: walk-on Andrew Freschi.

“I can’t run a training session with only one goalkeeper,” Gelnovatch said. “We were in a position where I said to the staff, `I need Calle Brown in here.’ “

At the coaches’ request, Brown met with them to discuss the possibility of his rejoining the team.

“My carrot for him was that I would basically guarantee him every minute of every spring game,” Gelnovatch said, “so that he knew at least that he was training for something.

“And I also told him that if Jeff Gal comes here — I told him up front that we were working on this kid — that [Gal] would probably be our starting goalkeeper in the fall, because of his experience. But I said, `You’ll get the spring and you’ll get all the [spring] games, and let’s see where it goes.’ “

Brown accepted the offer, and he was a different player after rejoining the team.

“Getting a second chance at something like this, not many people get a first chance,” he said. “Getting that second chance gave me an energy boost.”

Brown played well in the spring and became a positive force in the program. Even though he knew he would be Gal’s backup when the season started, Brown “still came through the summer and into the preseason with a great attitude,” Gelnovatch said.

“And I think that was the difference, just his maturity. Because back in 2011, when he wasn’t playing, he started to go in the tank a little bit.”

Two years later, Brown “had none of those days,” Gelnovatch said. “None. He was solid and good.”

In his four starts, Brown has justified his coach’s faith in him.

“He’s played in four very big games and has demonstrated more than a competent level,” Gelnovatch said. “Three of them to me are College Cup type of games: Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Maryland.”

Brown’s wingspan and physical presence make him especially effective on crosses and “anything in the air,” Gelnovatch said.

“With goalkeepers like him, the concern is getting down quickly. The play he made against Boston College was that play, where he had to get down, and it was as good a play that I’ve seen a guy his size make.

“The other thing is he kicks the ball fairly well. He needs to be a little bit more consistent with it. Sometimes he kind of hits a knuckleball, but more times than not, when you have the kind of range that he has, it relieves a lot of pressure when you need to put that ball 70 yards into the other field so that it’s not coming back at you.”

Four nights after defeating BC in the regular-season finale, Virginia upset third-seeded Wake Forest 1-0 in an ACC tournament quarterfinal at Winston-Salem, N.C.

Next came a semifinal match-up in Germantown, Md., against second-seeded Notre Dame, then the nation’s top-ranked team. The `Hoos fell behind 3-1 before storming back in the final minutes of the second half to force overtime. The game eventually went to a shootout, and Brown stopped two penalty kicks to help the sixth-seeded Cavaliers pull off a remarkable victory Nov. 15.

“I wouldn’t say they’re my specialty,” Brown said of penalty kicks, “but I’ve been told by teammates that my size is pretty intimidating and makes you think twice about where you’re going to shoot the ball.”

In the championship game, the Cavaliers gave up an own goal in the final minutes and lost 1-0 to top-seeded Maryland, but their play in the ACC tournament earned them the reward they were seeking: a first-round bye in the NCAAs.

Brown, an anthropology major, is listed as a redshirt junior, which means he could return and play as a graduate student next fall, and he’ll meet with the coaches after the season to discuss his options.

That conversation can wait. Brown’s focus is on the present. A month ago, he seemed destined to end his college career in anonymity. Now he’s starting for a storied program that has won six NCAA championships.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Brown said. “I didn’t think I was going to play at all this season.”

NCAA INFORMATION: Ticket prices for Sunday’s game — $9 for reserved seats, $7 for adult general admission and $5 for youth/student/senior citizen general admission. Fans can order tickets online at VirginiaSports.com and by phone through the Virginia Athletics Ticket Office at 800-542-8821 or 434-924-8821.

Tickets will also be available at the Klöckner Stadium box office, starting at noon Sunday. Gates will open at noon. Separate tickets will be required for the men’s and women’s games Sunday.

Parking is $5 and will be available in the John Paul Jones Arena, University Hall and McCue Center lots. Free parking will be available in the Emmet/Ivy Garage.

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