By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHESTER, Pa. — Coming off the field at PPL Park, Todd Wharton stopped and took in his surroundings Friday night, wishing the UVa men’s soccer team had one more game to play in a remarkable season that Maryland had just ended in the NCAA semifinals.
“It’s a terrible feeling to lose like this,” said Wharton, a sophomore midfielder, “but we made it here as a really young team. Personally I think we outplayed `em this game. The fact that we came out with a loss really leaves a bad taste in our mouth, but it only gives us more fuel for next year and the offseason to get better and get back here.”
The final meeting between Virginia and Maryland as ACC rivals came in the College Cup, NCAA soccer’s version of the Final Four, and marked their third encounter of the season.
The first, in a regular-season game at Klöckner Stadium, ended in a 3-3 tie. The second, in the ACC championship game at Germantown, Md., was scoreless until UVa surrendered an own goal in the 88th minute, a breakdown that gave the Terrapins a 1-0 victory.
In the third, Virginia controlled the run of play for much of the game against the Terps, but lost 2-1.
“That’s probably the best that we’ve played against them, in terms of having the ball, feeling good about ourselves, getting possession, and in particular in the second half getting after them a little more,” UVa coach George Gelnovatch said. Maryland “just had a couple of moments, and that was the difference in the game.”
Senior forward Patrick Mullins — who else? — produced two of those moments, tormenting UVa (13-6-5) one last time before heading to Major League Soccer. Mullins scored a brilliant goal in the 11th minute and another in the 76th minute, each time finishing a sensational pass from a teammate.
“Obviously, he’s probably the best player in the country,” Wharton said. “The things he does on and off the ball, you don’t see that every day.”
Mullins, who’s likely to leave Maryland as a two-time winner of the Hermann Trophy, which is awarded annually to the college game’s top player, leads the nation with 18 goals. Four came against Virginia, and Mullins’ cross in the ACC title game resulted in the own goal.
His second strike Friday night put the Terps up 2-0, but the Wahoos, known for their resiliency, fought back. In the 77th minute, sophomore forward Marcus Salandy-Defour was taken down in the box while pursuing a pass from classmate Brian James. Wharton beat Maryland goalkeeper Zack Steffen with the penalty kick, and suddenly it was a one-goal game.
“It’s kind of been who we are,” said Gelnovatch, whose team erased a 3-1 deficit in the final six minutes of the second half to force overtime against Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals.
OT seemed a distinct possibility Friday night with 2:50 to play, when James, just inside the box, hammered a low shot at the goal. But Steffen, a 6-2, 185-pound freshman from nearby Downington, Pa., dived to his right to knock the ball away
In Gelnovatch’s eyes, Virginia “got beat by two guys” — Mullins and Steffen.
“I think we outplayed the rest of their team, and I think they’re a good team,” Gelnovatch said. “I don’t want to take anything away from them. But Mullins is a very, very good player, and he single-handedly beat us today, and I think the goalkeeper, Zack, making that save [was pivotal]. I was already up off my chair. I thought it was an outstanding save on an icy surface [on a shot] that was very, very well-taken by Brian James. He picked out his corner, he side-footed it, and I don’t know where Zack came from to make that save.”
The save, Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said, was one “very few keepers can make.”
Steffen finished with five saves. He had another game-changing stop about three minutes into the second half. Freshman forward Riggs Lennon passed to sophomore forward Darius Madison, who blasted a left-footed shot toward the goal. The ball deflected off Steffen and then bounced off the post, allowing the Terps to exhale.
“Luckily it hit the post,” Steffen said. “It was a nice shot.”
Madison said: “I was just unlucky. He made a great save. It went off the post, and it is what it is. A little bit unlucky.”
Fifth-seeded Maryland (17-3-5), seeking its third NCAA title in nine seasons, meets third-seeded Notre Dame (16-1-6) in the championship game Sunday at 3 p.m. The Fighting Irish blanked New Mexico 2-0 in the first semifinal Friday night.
For Notre Dame, whose only loss was to Virginia, this is its first trip to the College Cup. For the Cavaliers, this was their 11th overall and first since 2009, when they won their sixth NCAA title.
“This victory is extremely special to me,” Cirovski said, “because the program I respect the most in all of college soccer is Virginia.”
With only one senior on his roster, Gelnovatch went into the season thinking the Cavaliers’ next trip to the College Cup was not likely to come until 2014. After four games, UVa’s record was 1-4, and Gelnovatch’s thinking hadn’t changed.
But the `Hoos steadily improved. The players became smarter and more disciplined on the field, and by the middle of the season, Gelnovatch said, “not only were they believing in themselves, but [the coaching staff] really started believing in them.
“Before the season, I said, `OK, College Cup next year.’ By the time we get to the end of this season, I’m thinking, `Gosh, we could win a national championship with this group of guys.’ ”
In the NCAA tournament, eighth-seeded UVa defeated St. John’s 2-0, Marquette 3-1 and Connecticut 2-1 before falling to Maryland.
“It’s crazy how far we’ve come,” Wharton said.
The Cavaliers outshot the Terps 10-8. In corner kicks, UVa had a 4-2 advantage. Virginia put six shots on goal, to four for Maryland.
“The piece that was very, very good tonight for me was just the manner in which we kept the ball and switched the point of attack,” Gelnovatch said. “In particular in the second half when we started putting our foot on the gas a little bit. That part was very good tonight against a good team.”
At halftime, Gelnovatch said, he told his players to be more assertive. “Either you’re taking a guy on or you’re getting it off your feet and passing. One or the other … And clearly in the last 15 minutes, we were really turning it on, and I think if we had five more minutes we’d have got a goal.”
UVa started one senior (defender Kevin McBride), four juniors (goalkeeper Calle Brown, defender Kyler Sullivan and midfielders Eric Bird and Ryan Zinkhan), five sophomores (Wharton, Madison, Salandy-Defour and defenders Zach Carroll and Scott Thomsen) and one freshman (midfielder Jordan Allen) against Maryland.
“So I think this team was a little bit ahead of schedule,” Gelnovatch said. “Getting to this point and getting to the College Cup — and in my opinion, playing as well as we did tonight — with so many guys returning, we should be back here [in 2014].”
UVa used three reserves Friday night — James, Lennon and freshman Nicko Corriveau — and all are “going to be very, very good players,” Gelnovatch said. He’s also high on two freshmen who redshirted this season: defender Sheldon Sullivan (Kyler’s brother) and midfielder Pablo Aguilar.
“It’s a young team,” said Brown, who didn’t become a starter until the Nov. 8 regular-season finale against Boston College. “I think moving forward we’re just going to get better every game. We’re looking forward to the offseason and working harder to get back to the College Cup and hopefully get to the final next year.”