By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia entered the ACC men’s soccer tournament ranked No. 9 in the NCAA’s RPI, so it was not a disastrous regular season for head coach George Gelnovatch‘s team.
The Cavaliers played a grueling schedule, as always, and each of their five losses was by a single goal. Still, coming off their 2013 trip to the College Cup, the Wahoos expected to do better than the No. 8 seed in the ACC tourney. And so they viewed the postseason as an opportunity to start anew.
“We had a meeting, just the players, and we talked about wiping the slate clean right now,” said UVa’s captain, senior midfielder Eric Bird. “We’re starting over. Let’s get after this, and let’s get on a run.”
What the `Hoos hope will be an extended postseason run began Wednesday night at KlÃ¶ckner Stadium, where they eliminated No. 9 seed Virginia Tech 1-0 in the first round of the ACC tournament.
Virginia (10-5-2) advances to meet top-seeded Notre Dame (10-4-3) in an ACC quarterfinal Sunday 1 p.m. in South Bend, Ind. In the latest NSCAA rankings, Notre Dame is No. 4 and UVa is No. 15.
“I love playing Notre Dame,” Gelnovatch said. “I have a lot of respect for the program and the coach, and it’s always a very good game.”
In 2013, when the Fighting Irish won the NCAA title, Virginia was the only opponent to beat them. The teams have met once this season, Sept. 21 at KlÃ¶ckner, where the match ended in a 1-1 tie after 110 minutes, which included two overtime periods.
“I’m definitely excited to play them again,” UVa goalie Calle Brown said of the Irish. “We always get up for them.”
The `Hoos get up for the Hokies too, and the rivalry invariably produces fiercely contested games. The teams’ 45th meeting — Virginia leads the series 38-4-3 — was no exception.
The Hokies (7-8-2) were called for two yellow cards and a red, the last of which, after Merlin Baus’ dangerous tackle on UVa defender Ryan Zinkhan in the 65th minute, forced them to play with 10 men the rest of the way.
Another Cavalier, Kyler Sullivan, had most of his right front tooth knocked off in a collision with a Hokie, but the senior defender played the full 90 minutes at center back.
“We expected that it was going to be extremely physical,” Bird said. “George was like, `Look, you guys gotta work for each other,’ and that’s exactly what we did.”
The Cavaliers edged Tech 1-0 during the regular season, too, and their latest victory extended their unbeaten streak in the series to 10 matches.
“We knew it was going to be a rough game, just because of the first game,” said Sullivan, a four-year starter. “Since I’ve been here, it’s been like a crazy, intense game. We were ready for it, and it happened and we played through it and we got the goal.”
UVa outshot Tech 12-5 in the first half and easily could have gone into intermission ahead by two goals. The breakthrough finally came in the 55th minute, when the Hokies’ Brad Vorv was called for taking down Virginia freshman Jake Rozhansky deep in the box.
The Cavaliers’ first penalty kick of the season followed. Todd Wharton had missed on a one-on-one against Tech goalie Ben Lockler in the 15th minute, sending his shot a few feet wide of the right post, but the junior midfielder’s penalty found its mark.
“The way our team goes, I knew someone would pick me up,” Wharton said. “That was an easy chance [in the first half], and I definitely should have scored. But it kind of made me play better. I let the team down a little bit, but I knew if I kept playing better I could maybe get one back for us or my team would pick me up.”
In their 19th season under Gelnovatch, the Cavaliers are locks to make the NCAA tournament for the 34th consecutive year. The top 16 seeds in the 48-team NCAA field are awarded first-round byes, and the win over Virginia Tech should assure Virginia a spot in that group, Gelnovatch said.
A win over Notre Dame would put the `Hoos in the mix for a top-8 seed in the NCAAs. Moreover, a victory Sunday would send Virginia to the ACC semifinals for the seventh consecutive year.
“There’s a lot of good things to play for,” Gelnovatch said.
In 2013, Virginia finished the regular season with a 9-4-4 record. In the postseason, the `Hoos advanced first to the ACC championship game. Then, as the No. 8 seed in the NCAA tourney, UVa reached the College Cup for the first time since 2009.
The core of that team returned this year, and though the Cavaliers stumbled several times during the regular season, their confidence level remains high.
“It wasn’t a bad regular season at all,” Wharton said. “I think the ball bounced unlucky for us a few times. I think we outplayed almost every team we played this year, unlike last year, when I think we were on our heels a little bit. This year we feel like we can play with anyone.
“It’s a good time to wipe the slate clean and get a new start. It’s kind of like a new season.”
Heading into last year’s ACC tournament, Brown had started only one game as a Cavalier, and that was in the 2013 regular-season finale. A 6-5, 200-pound fifth-year senior, Brown has started 15 games this season, and he made seven saves Wednesday night.
“I have no worries with him in the back,” Sullivan said. “He is definitely more confident this year, he’s got more experience. If anything goes over my head, I know he’s got my back.”
Brown is “at his best right now,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s doing very, very well.”
The Cavaliers changed formations before the season, switching from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 in which the back line consisted of redshirt freshman Wesley Suggs in the middle and two brothers — Kyler and Sheldon Sullivan, a redshirt freshman — on his right and left, respectively.
Overall, Virginia’s defense has played well this season, posting seven shutouts. Suggs, however, has received two red cards. The first, against Notre Dame, forced UVa to play a man down for the final 45 minutes. Suggs’ second red card, in a 2-1 loss to Wake Forest on Oct. 24, left Virginia with only 10 men for the final 61 minutes.
The second red card also meant Suggs had two sit out two games, the second of which was Wednesday night. With Suggs unavailable, Gelnovatch moved Kyler Sullivan from right to center back and Zinkhan from midfield to right back for the regular-season finale against North Carolina, a match that ended in a 1-1 tie, and stayed with that lineup Wednesday night.
“I played center back when I was younger, so I’m kind of used to the positioning,” Kyler Sullivan said. “Playing right back for so long, you get comfortable, but when the team really needs you, you’ve got to step up, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Of playing next to his brother, the older Sullivan said, “I love it. I know exactly what he’s going to do. I know he’s got my back, and he knows I’ve got his. It’s a dream come true to be able to play with your brother, but playing right next to him is just amazing.”
Junior forward Darius Madison, in one of his best performances of the season, took a team-high four shots, and his cross started the sequence that ended with Wharton’s penalty kick.
“He was better,” Gelnovatch said of Madison, one of Virginia’s postseason standouts in 2013. “He’s having these moments [where he looks like] himself. I just want more of them.”
For the game, UVa outshot Tech 20-9. In a season in which they’ve scored only 21 goals, finishing remains a challenge for the `Hoos, but they still believe their offense can eventually click.
“We’re creating chances,” Gelnovatch said, “and I think if one or two of those go in, we start scoring some more. Some of those just have to go in for us.”