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May 2, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2013, only one school reached the NCAA tournament’s Final Four in both men’s and women’s soccer: the University of Virginia.

In 2014, the men’s College Cup will be in Cary, N.C., and the women’s in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. UVa hopes to be represented at each site, and both teams made strides this spring.

On the men’s side, head coach George Gelnovatch has virtually all the key players back from a team that finished 13-6-5 last season after losing to Maryland in the NCAA semifinals at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.

“It’s a pretty good situation,” Gelnovatch said.

Women’s coach Steve Swanson faces a bigger rebuilding job. In 2013, the Cavaliers finished 24-1-1 after falling in penalty kicks to eventual NCAA champion UCLA in a College Cup semifinal at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.

Gone from that team, the best in program history, are nine players: Churchill O’Connell, Kate Norbo, Amber Fry, Morgan Stith, Gloria Douglas, Annie Steinlage, Shasta Fisher, Molly Menchel and Danielle DeLisle.

“That’s a significant amount to lose, especially when you consider their value to the team,” Swanson said.

When the team started training in January, the change “was palpable,” Swanson said. “You walk in the locker room for the first time, and it’s a different team.”

Most of the holes Swanson must fill are on defense. Virginia’s top four scorers from 2013 are back — forward Makenzy Doniak (46 points), midfielder Morgan Brian (46), forward Brittany Ratcliffe (27) and midfielder Danielle Colaprico (23) — as well as midfielder Alexis Shaffer (15).

Brian capped a superlative junior season by receiving Hermann Trophy, which is awarded annually to the nation’s top player. She and Doniak were first-team All-Americans last season, and Colaprico was a third-team selection.

So there’s plenty of returning talent at UVa. Still, Swanson knew the “spring was going to be challenging from the standpoint that there’s new roles that have to be played, and [for some players] maybe the roles that they played a year or two years before will have changed,” he said. “Some of them have to figure out what roles those are. Some of them have to establish themselves maybe more as leaders. For some of them, it’s a chance to actually step up and show what they can do now and become a starter.”

Players whose roles could expand include rising sophomore Morgan Reuther and rising seniors Campbell Millar and Julia Sroba. Also, Kaili Torres, who started four games as a sophomore in 2012, is back after missing most of last season with a foot injury.

“It’s not easy to not play for six months,” Swanson said, “and she’s working her way back in. I don’t think she’s where she wants to be just yet, or where we need her to be, but I feel confident she’ll be there by the fall.”

Reuther, a forward, played well in a limited role last season, but “it was hard to give her as many minutes, and she wasn’t as consistent as I expect her to be next year with more minutes,” Swanson said. “But she’s one I think is steadily improving. She kind of reminds us a little bit of Caroline Miller. She’s got that little bit of unpredictability and creativity in and around the box. And she can score some goals for us.”

Brian will provide valuable leadership. She can’t do it alone, though, especially from afar. Brian’s obligations with the U.S. national team are likely to force her to miss part of the coming season.

Defender Emily Sonnett, a rising junior, is “going to have to become more of a leader,” Swanson said, as will Torres and rising seniors Millar and Mary Morgan.

Ratcliffe, a rising junior, has promise as a leader, too. “Brittany’s got a great personality,” Swanson said, “and I think some of the younger players, now that they’re more confident, they’re stepping up too. I think [goalie] Morgan Stearns is going to have to be a good leader for us, even though she’s a second-year, just because of her position and all that she can see. And she’s always been a pretty mature, sophisticated, smart kid.”

Overall, Swanson said, there has “been a metamorphosis this spring. It’s actually been really fun to watch from a coaching perspective, because I think there are players that are going to have to be more vocal. Danielle Colaprico’s a good example. We need her to accept more responsibility, which she’s doing, and now she has to do something she’s not as accustomed to on our team, which is talk more. She’s going to have to demand more. She’s going to have to lead more. She’s going to have to be more consistent in that regard, and I think she’s doing a great job.”

The Wahoos played four exhibitions this season, posting a 1-0-3 record. (They were scheduled to meet ODU last Friday night in Newport News, but bad weather forced the cancellation of that game.)

UVa defeated Duke 1-0 (April 10 in Richmond) and tied Florida 0-0 (March 22 in Cary, N.C.), the professional Washington Spirit 1-1 (March 29 in Boyds, Md.) and Georgetown 1-1 (April 4 at Klöckner Stadium).

“I can say this has been a really productive spring for us, given how many people we lost and what we had to establish and where we had to go,” Swanson said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress. But we’re just going to be at a different starting point in the fall than we were last year, just because we’ll have so many new faces.”

The UVa men posted a 2-3 record this spring, playing two strong college teams (North Carolina and VCU) and three pro squads (Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers and New York Cosmos).

“The goal wasn’t necessarily to win all five games, it was to be as good as we can be in the fall,” said Gelnovatch, who has back nine of his top 10 scorers from last season, including midfielders Eric Bird (team-high 19 points), Todd Wharton (15) and Ryan Zinkhan (10), and forwards Darius Madison (15), Riggs Lennon (12) and Marcus Salandy-Defour (10).

The `Hoos beat the Riverhounds 2-0 in Pittsburgh on March 8 and edged UNC 1-0 in Richmond on March 30.

Virginia lost 3-0 to the Kickers in Richmond on March 22, 3-1 to the Cosmos on Long Island on April 5, and 1-0 to VCU at Klöckner Stadium on April 12.

“Of course we want to win every time we step on the field and play,” Gelnovatch said, “and with basically 85 percent of our lineup returning, I knew what we had, but I still took it as an opportunity to experiment with a couple things. I wanted to try some different things, and so we did. Every game I tried something a little different.”

Madison and Salandy-Defour, who are rising juniors, and Lennon, a rising sophomore, traded starts at forward. Along with Bird and Wharton in the midfield, Gelnovatch started, at various times, Nicko Corriveau, Brian James and Zinkhan, a rising senior who also played right back in one game this spring. Corriveau will be a sophomore and James a junior in the fall.

Virginia played multiple goalkeepers in each exhibition, and Gelnovatch started Wesley Suggs and Sheldon Sullivan, each of whom redshirted as freshmen last fall, at the center-back spots against VCU.

Two other freshmen who redshirted in 2013 — midfielders Pablo Aguilar and Luc Fatton, an Albemarle High graduate — are also expected to contribute in the fall.

The Cavaliers rarely redshirt players. Periodically, though, the coaching staff will tell a player that preserving a year of eligibility is an option worth considering.

“And that’s what we did with those guys,” Gelnovatch said. “We didn’t consciously say before they came in, `We’re redshirting those guys.’ We saw value in their potential and what they could bring to the team in later years and thought it made a lot of sense to do that.

“Sheldon, we easily could have thrown on the field a couple of times. Even Pablo toward the end of the year we could thrown on the field to get some experience. We made a conscious decision not to. I think there’s going to be some guys who we redshirted that have four full years of eligibility that are going to make a real difference in the team.”

With only two full-time starters to replace — defender Kevin McBride and midfielder Jordan Allen — Gelnovatch returns talented and experienced players at every position. Nowhere are the `Hoos deeper than at goalie, where the options this fall are likely to include Calle Brown, Jeff Gal, Spencer LaCivita and Jefferson Caldwell, a freshman who enrolled at UVa in January.

Brown, who’ll be a fifth-year senior in the fall, started for the `Hoos in the ACC and NCAA tournaments last season. Gal started 15 regular-season games after transferring to UVa from Creighton last year. LaCivita, who missed last season with an injury, started for the Cavaliers in 2011 and ’12. Caldwell has played for the U.S. under-17 and under-18 national teams.

Gelnovatch is heading into his 19th season as head coach at his alma mater, and this spring was memorable for several reasons, most notably, perhaps, the impact of Mother Nature.

“Thank goodness we got to use the indoor facility a couple times when the snow was bad,” Gelnovatch said. “This was the coldest, darkest, snowiest winter that I’ve had to experience.”

The Cavaliers, who train in the morning, were unable to practice on grass until the week of their final exhibition game. Couple in road trips to Pittsburgh (11 hours round-trip by bus) and Long Island (16 hours), and the spring “was tough,” Gelnovatch said.

That was the idea. This team, he believes, should be able to handle such challenges.

“It beat us down, and it was kind of designed that way, to be honest with you,” Gelnovatch said.

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