By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He needed Saturday and Sunday to recharge. By Monday, UVa men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch was ready to get back out on the field with his players.
“With this team, I would have loved for the season to keep going, because we kept getting better,” Gelnovatch said Tuesday. “It was just a good group of guys, talented guys, with a winning mentality. I’m already looking forward to the spring.”
And for good reason. During a season that ended for them Friday night with a 2-1 loss to Maryland in an NCAA semifinal at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., the Cavaliers (13-6-5) started only one senior: defender Kevin McBride. It’s possible that an underclassman or two could turn pro before next season, but even if that happens, UVa figures to be loaded in 2014.
When the Wahoos begin training next semester, Gelnovatch will not have to deal with many of the issues coaches typically face in the offseason.
“I know the formation we’re going to play,” he said. “I know 80, 90 percent of the personnel we’re going to put out there. We haven’t been this far ahead, in my opinion, since going into the 2006 season, which was a College Cup season.”
In Gelnovatch’s 18 seasons as head coach at his alma mater, he has guided the `Hoos to the College Cup four times: in 1997, when they were runners-up; in 2006, when they lost in the semifinals; in 2009, when they won the program’s sixth NCAA title; and, now, this season.
“I didn’t really think about this until after the College Cup,” Gelnovatch said, “but this is the first time that I feel like we have a realistic chance to go back to back.”
After each of the first three trips to NCAA soccer’s Final Four, Gelnovatch said, he knew UVa would have to overcome substantial personnel losses. “This group has a real chance to go to back-to-back College Cups, and knows it. And I think they’re going to be working hard and motivated.”
Next year’s College Cup is at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., where Virginia was crowned NCAA champion in 2009.
Among the Cavaliers who ended this season with eligibility remaining are Eric Bird (team-high 19 points), Darius Madison (15), Todd Wharton (15), Riggs Lennon (12), Jordan Allen (11), Ryan Zinkhan (10), Marcus Salandy-Defour (10), Brian James (6), Patrick Foss (6) and Scott Thomsen (6), as well as goalkeepers Jeff Gal and Calle Brown.
Gal started Virginia’s first 16 games this season; Brown, the final eight. A redshirt junior, Brown didn’t make his first appearance for the `Hoos until early this season.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Brown said Friday night at PPL Park. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to play here. I started Senior Night and have played ever since. It’s just been so humbling to be able to play with this group of guys.”
In the first NCAA semifinal Friday, Notre Dame defeated New Mexico 2-0. The Fighting Irish then edged Maryland 2-1 for their first NCAA title Sunday.
Unlike UVa, each of the other three College Cup participants will look significantly different in 2014. Notre Dame — whose only loss this season was to Virginia — and New Mexico had strong senior classes. The Terrapins won’t lose as much as those two teams, but they’ll have to replace the nation’s best player, Patrick Mullins.
A senior forward, Mullins is likely to leave Maryland as a two-time winner of the Hermann Trophy. He scored three goals in the College Cup, two against the Cavaliers. UVa went 0-2-1 against Maryland this season, in large part because of Mullins’ brilliant play, and Gelnovatch won’t be sorry to see him in Major League Soccer next year.
“He’s the complete X factor,” Gelnovatch said. “That kind of guy, you don’t come across much. He’s got a little bit of everything. He’s got skill, he’s got power, he’s got speed, he’s smart. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s fit.”
Allen, a freshman midfielder who made the All-ACC third team, is the UVa player most likely to turn pro before next season. Gelnovatch, of course, would love to see him back in a Virginia uniform in 2014. Should Allen leave, however, Gelnovatch believes Zinkhan, Lennon and Nicko Corriveau, who scored a sensational goal against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, will be dangerous scoring threats from the wide positions in the midfield.
“These guys are goal-scorers,” Gelnovatch said of Lennon and Corriveau, who will be sophomores in 2014.
In the backline, UVa will return Thomsen, Foss, Kyler Sullivan, Zach Carroll and Matt Brown, who among them made 72 starts this season. Moreover, the recruiting class that will sign with Virginia in February is heavy on center backs.
“I told my staff, `This class coming in, here’s what we need: defenders and off-the-charts athleticism,’ ” Gelnovatch said, “and that’s what we went out and got.”
After starting the season 1-3, the `Hoos steeled themselves and grew into a formidable team. Gelnovatch marveled at his players’ mental toughness and will to win. They didn’t panic when they fell behind 3-1 late in the second half against Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals — Virginia rallied to force overtime and then advanced on penalty kicks — or when Maryland went up 2-0 in the NCAA semifinals.
“It became a little bit of who we were,” Gelnovatch said.
Wharton’s penalty kick in the 77th minute pulled UVa to 2-1 at PPL Park, and then James nearly tied the game in the 87th minute. Only a spectacular diving save by Maryland goalkeeper Zack Steffen kept James’ shot from finding the back of the net.
James, a 150-pound sophomore midfielder, played the final 15 minutes against Maryland. He was in and out of the lineup this season — James started four games — and scored three goals. His role could grow in 2014.
“He’s among the most skillful guys on the team,” Gelnovatch said. “When you watch a soccer player move and pass and receive, he is money. He’s 6-foot tall. He’s got a decent frame. His shoulders are good. He’s just got to fill out. He’s got to get a little tougher. But he’s still young enough for me to believe he can be very good.”
“We have a lot of things — more so than in years past — simmering in the pot that I’m really excited about,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s all good.”
His returning players feel the same way.
“The strides we’ve made this year are just incredible,” Wharton said Friday night, “and we hope to continue next year.”