By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Long before they became teammates at the University of Virginia, Todd Wharton and Ryan Zinkhan played together in the Richmond Strikers Academy program.

“Back then, he was just known for his speed,” Wharton said of Zinkhan, who’s a year ahead of him at UVa. “He was the fastest guy I’d ever played with.”

And now?

“He’s still really fast,” said Wharton, a sophomore defender, “but now he’s a lot smarter on the ball, he’s a lot more technical. He makes good decisions the whole game.”

Were Zinkhan not playing so well, UVa’s season might have ended already. The 5-9, 152-pound junior has scored two goals in this NCAA tournament for a team that’s headed to the College Cup for the first time since 2009.

At approximately 7:30 p.m. Friday, Virginia (13-5-5) meets longtime rival Maryland (16-3-5) at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia. In the first NCAA semifinal that night, another ACC team, Notre Dame, takes on New Mexico. The Wahoos are seeking their seventh NCAA title.

“A season like this is definitely what we come here for, to be very successful [and play in] the Final Four,” said Zinkhan, a graduate of Riverbend High School in Fredericksburg. “And it’s been great. It’s been awesome to actually be healthy and be part of the team on the field and everything.”

Zinkhan, The Washington Post’s All-Metro player of the year in the spring of 2010, started 17 games for Virginia as a freshman and finished the season with four goals and three assists. Head coach George Gelnovatch used him in a variety of roles, and Zinkhan made the ACC’s All-Freshman team.

In 2012, however, a severe hamstring injury — Grade 3 — limited Zinkhan to 10 games, only one of which he started. His lone goal came in UVa’s second game.

“It was an unlucky season for me,” Zinkhan said.

He worked diligently with strength and conditioning coach Bill Miller and athletic trainer Jeff Boyer in the spring and summer to strengthen his hamstring, and he’s continued his rehab regimen this fall.

“He really, really addressed it, and it was a non-issue this year,” Gelnovatch said.

“The thing that got him through it is just, I think, his personality and mental toughness. He’s a quiet guy, unimposing guy, not a yeller. You wouldn’t look at him and say, `Man, that guy’s tough.’ But he is. He’s quietly really, really tough, mentally and physically.”

Zinkhan had a summer to remember, as did his UVa teammates Patrick Foss, Zach Carroll and Wharton. The four Cavaliers played for RVA Football Club, a Richmond-based team that captured the National Premier Soccer League championship Aug. 4 with a 2-0 victory over Sonoma County (Calif.) Sol at Sports Backers Stadium.

Four months later, they’re two wins from another title.

“We’ve definitely been talking about it in the locker room,” Zinkhan said. “It’d be awesome if we win a couple trophies in one year. That would be the dream. But the NCAA tournament, there’s nothing better than that. We definitely want this national championship.”

Wharton said: “To be in this position and have this opportunity to actually make that happen is pretty cool.”

Zinkhan participated in training camps for the United States’ under-17 and under-18 national teams before enrolling at UVa in 2011, and he was a well-regarded recruit. Still, Gelnovatch said, “we weren’t 100-percent sure what position to play him in.”

During his college career, Zinkhan has played right back, midfielder and forward. He’s now on the right side of Virginia’s diamond midfield formation. Classmate Eric Bird is at the top of the diamond as attacking midfielder, Wharton is at the bottom as holding midfielder, and freshman Jordan Allen is on the left side.

“I think the position Ryan’s playing for us is very, very suited for him,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s a tireless worker, he’s fast, he’s athletic, he’s got great endurance.”

In the diamond formation, Gelnovatch said, the “two wide guys, you want them to be dangerous. They have to be prolific and dynamic and attacking and score some goals.”

Allen, who last month was named to the All-ACC third team, has three goals and five assists this season. Zinkhan has scored five goals. Each had a goal in Virginia’s 2-1 win over Connecticut in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Zinkhan also scored in UVa’s second-round win over St. John’s.

“When the ball’s coming from the other side, the left side, he’s in front of the goal,” Gelnovatch said. “The one he scored against St. John’s, the header, he’s right in front of the goal. The one he scored the other night [against UConn], he’s right in front of the goal.”

Zinkhan nearly added a second goal against UConn — his second-half header was cleared off the back line — “because he’s getting himself in really good scoring positions in front of the goal,” Gelnovatch said. “Instead of hanging out back there when the ball’s coming from the other side, he’s getting himself in an attacking player’s mentality, in front of the goal.”

His increased productivity, Zinkhan said, has a lot “to do with the teammates around me. They’ve picked me up. Last year I had a pretty hard season with an injury. So coming back from that, I felt really good. I prepared myself really well before the season started, and playing with these guys, this group of talent, it makes you look so much better.”

Virginia began the 48-team NCAA tournament as the No. 8 seed. Maryland was awarded the No. 5 seed. The teams have already met twice this season. They played to a 3-3 tie in a wild regular-season game at Klöckner Stadium. In the rematch, UVa surrendered a late own goal and fell 1-0 to the Terrapins in the ACC title game at Germantown, Md.

“We definitely left the ACC championship with a bad taste in our mouth,” Zinkhan said. “I think we’re all ready. We wanted another shot at them, because we got it stolen away from us.”

The `Hoos have become accustomed to playing in frigid conditions this postseason, and they can expect more of the same in the Philly area this weekend. During training, however, they’ve been able to escape Mother Nature’s wrath, thanks to the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, which opened in March.

“We’ve been in here the entire postseason,” Gelnovatch said after practice Monday, “and generally it’s been two times a week. We’ll go two times in here and two times outside in preparation for the elements. It’s really allowed us quality training time to get out of the ice and the wind and the cold and get some real work done.

“I don’t know what we would have done without it. Even during Thanksgiving break, there were a couple days where it was really bad, too. We wouldn’t have been able to have any quality training sessions. This thing’s been really good for us.”

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