Sept. 13, 2014

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By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — With many of the greatest players in the history of the program looking on Friday night at Klöckner Stadium, as well as legendary coach Bruce Arena, this was not just any match for the UVa men’s soccer team.

“I don’t think we felt pressure,” senior midfielder Eric Bird said later. “It was more excitement.”

In the locker room before the Cavaliers’ ACC opener, head coach George Gelnovatch had spoken to his players about the 1989 team, which won the first of the school’s six NCAA titles in this sport. Gelnovatch was a part-time assistant on the ’89 team, whose head coach was Arena and whose stars included Tony Meola and Jeff Agoos, two of the 80-some former players in town this weekend.

“That group of alumni made a real difference for us tonight,” said Gelnovatch, who succeeded Arena as head coach after the 1995 season.

“We had a long talk about it — the culture, the passion and the tradition — and [said] that’s how they should play tonight.”

From the start, 15th-ranked UVa played with purpose and intensity against Virginia Tech, controlling the run of play. But for more than 70 minutes, the Wahoos had nothing to show for their efforts except statistical superiority.

The long-awaited breakthrough came in the 74th minute, to the delight of the boisterous crowd of 5,430 that included a student section packed with Hoo Crew members. Junior midfielder Scott Thomsen’s low shot from 30 yards out initially appeared to be a pass to sophomore forward Riggs Lennon, but the ball rolled past Lennon and Tech goalie Ben Lockler and into the left corner of the net.

Lennon “made a great run,” Thomsen said. “I don’t know if it hit him or not, but I was just trying to put the ball in a dangerous spot, and that always freezes the goalie.”

That turned out to be game’s only goal, but it was enough for the `Hoos (3-1, 1-0), who stretched their unbeaten streak against the Hokies (2-3, 0-1) to nine games.

“We played well,” Gelnovatch said. “We played very well and created enough chances to score more than a goal. Sometimes it just takes one, and we worked hard to get it.”

In Blacksburg last fall, UVa outshot Virginia Tech 37-2 but had to settle for a 1-1 draw after two scoreless overtime periods.

On Friday night, the Cavaliers outshot the Hokies 18-4 and had a 15-2 advantage in corner kicks. Still, Thomsen said, it did not feel like a repeat of the rivals’ 2013 clash.

“Last year we didn’t create as many good opportunities,” Thomsen said. “This year every opportunity we created had a real chance of going in. So we never really got discouraged. We never really got frustrated. We knew one was going to come, so we just kept working.”

Gelnovatch said: “I told them, `We’ll get better at finishing. If we just keep playing as resolute defensively as a team we’ll be in good shape.’ ”

Injuries hammered the Cavaliers in preseason, and Friday marked the first time Gelnovatch has had close to a full complement of players.

All-ACC candidate Darius Madison, a junior forward, made his 2014 debut and played 26 minutes.

“I just needed to get out there and see where my fitness level is and see how my ankle felt out there in a match,” said Madison, who reported no ill effects.

Sophomore forward/midfielder Nicko Corriveau, who had been sidelined with a sports hernia, played 28 minutes Friday night in his first appearance this season.

“It was definitely good that they got a run in,” said Bird, a third-team All-American last season. “I think we’re starting to click. I thought tonight everyone was very composed. We got a deep team where a lot of people can help us and contribute to the team.”

Madison and Corriveau have to “get in shape and get their touches back,” Gelnovatch said, “but just to get both those guys on the field, get their feet under them a little bit, get some fitness back, get them back in the swing of things, and get a few bullets back in the gun will really help us.”

A back injury forced Bird to miss most of UVa’s previous two games, but he went the full 90 minutes against Virginia Tech. So did junior Todd Wharton, who missed preseason with a knee injury.

Wharton’s fellow starters in the midfield include Jake Rozhansky, an unflappable freshman from Germantown, Md.

“I like those three guys in the middle right now — Todd, Eric and Jake,” Gelnovatch said. “They did well tonight, and Todd’s not fully fit, either. As he gets healthy, and Jake and Eric get used to playing with each other, and Darius gets back and Nicko gets back, I think we’ll score more goals. We just gotta keep doing what we’re doing and keep teams off the board.”

At 5-8, 140 pounds, Rozhansky is less than imposing physically, but he’s a magician with the ball who has played for the United States’ under-17 and under-20 teams. Gelnovatch, who wasn’t sure what to expect from Rozhansky this season, has been pleasantly surprised.

“My concern was just the physical part of things, like could he handle getting bounced around,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s so slippery. Never loses the ball. He’s faster than you think. He’s more athletic than you think. He was outstanding tonight.”

At halftime, the 1989 team was recognized, and about 15 of its players joined Arena at midfield. After the game, Arena came out to the field to congratulate the Cavaliers’ coaches.

The presence of so many distinguished alumni “was very inspirational,” Madison said. “It was great just to have the guys back and to see the legacy that they built. It was awesome to see them come back and represent us.”

Thomsen said: “Any time you see legends like that coming back, it’s always just an opportunity to play well and get you excited. And the crowd was great tonight. It was probably one of the best since I’ve been here.”

Madison agreed.

“It was a great atmosphere,” he said. “I was happy to be part of it. I hope we can keep it up and the students keep coming out.”

Virginia hosts another in-state rival, VCU, at 7 p.m. Monday. Last season at Klöckner, the `Hoos edged the Rams 2-1 in double overtime on a golden goal by Bird.

VCU is coming off a Thursday night upset of No. 6 Georgetown.

“This is a big weekend, a lot of things going on with our ’89 team in town,” Gelnovatch said. “But we gotta find a way to recover and get ready for VCU, who’s a very good team.”

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