By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even after Georgetown scored in the 59th minute to take a 1-0 lead Saturday, Eric Bird, standing in the rain on the UVa sideline, remained confident his college soccer career would not end on that dreary afternoon in Washington, D.C.
With about five minutes left in the second half, however, the Cavaliers’ captain began to grow anxious.
“It was like, `Come on, let’s go, guys,’ ” Bird recalled Wednesday at Klöckner Stadium.
His appeal was answered in the 90th minute, when Virginia midfielder Todd Wharton, assisted by defender Sheldon Sullivan and forward Riggs Lennon, scored the equalizer in this NCAA quarterfinal. After two overtime periods produced no more goals, the game went to penalty kicks, where UVa prevailed 5-4.
“I was honestly almost moved to tears, because it means so much to me,” Bird said, “and because I know [the Cavaliers on the field] were playing not only for themselves, but for everybody else on the team, including myself. So that was really special.”
For the Wahoos, the victory over Georgetown earned them a second straight trip to the College Cup. The win did more than that. It gave Bird, a senior midfielder from Virginia Beach, a chance to return this season from the injury he suffered Nov. 23 at Klöckner.
As Virginia warmed up for its first game in the NCAA tournament that afternoon, Bird hurt his groin. He was determined to play through the injury and started, as planned, against UNC Wilmington. But in the first minute “it just went on me,” Bird recalled, and he had to leave the game.
He hasn’t played since, but Bird has rehabbed diligently. He was cleared after the Georgetown game for full participation and trained well in practice Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Just having him out there today, there was extra energy on the field,” head coach George Gelnovatch said Tuesday.
Barring an 11th-hour setback, Bird is expected to play Friday in Cary, N.C., where No. 16 seed Virginia (12-6-3) meets unseeded UMBC (14-5-5) at 5 p.m. in the first College Cup semifinal at WakeMed Soccer Park.
“To have him back would be a great help, because he’s the leader of this team,” freshman midfielder Jake Rozhansky said. “He’s our heart, and he pushes everybody on the team to work as hard as they can.”
Gelnovatch said: “The only question now is his fitness, how long he can make it through a game. He’s actually been a great leader as a reserve, but having him back on the field has been great, so we’ll see.”
Bird, a third-team All-American in 2013, was UVa’s lone representative on the All-ACC first team this fall. He leads the `Hoos in goals (five) and points (12), but his absence did not derail their postseason run.
Virginia, which had a first-round bye, rallied to defeat UNCW 3-1 in the second round. The Cavaliers then scored two straight upsets on the road, knocking off top-seeded Notre Dame 1-0 in the round of 16 before ousting No. 8 seed Georgetown.
“Eric’s a great leader and a great person and a great player,” Wharton said, “so any time you lose a guy like that in the first minute of the game, it’s going to shake you up a little bit, and I think it did. You could tell against UNC Wilmington in the first 20 minutes or so that we were a little rattled, and they scored during that time.
“But it shows a lot about our team that we were just able to sub in Pablo off the bench, and he’s played great the last three games.”
“Pablo’s awesome,” Bird said. “He’s been able to mold his game. He’s great going forward, and always been since he got here. But now he’s unbelievable defensively, and that’s what we needed in these last two games, against two very good teams, and he came in and did an unbelievable job for us, so hat’s off to him.”
Bird, also the Cavaliers’ captain last season, did not let his injury deter him from his leadership responsibilities.
In South Bend, Ind., Bird “was on the bench, I remember, and he got everybody to stand up,” Rozhansky said. “Nobody was sitting on the sidelines. They were all standing up cheering on the people who were playing. In the rain, in the freezing cold, it doesn’t matter. He’s the No. 1 guy out there helping the guys who are playing at the moment. And in practice he’s pushing everybody to play their hardest. He’s always helping, whether he’s playing or on the sideline.”
Bird said: “I’ve been telling the guys on the bench that they make a difference, all throughout the season, and so I wanted to show them that you can make a difference. We just do the best we can on the bench, and that’s cheering the guys on and making sure that they know they have support.
“Another role was for me to make sure the guys on the bench were ready to go and ready to get out there and contribute to the team.”
Wharton said Bird’s “work ethic and attitude are contagious. Any time you see him working hard [and] doing what he does, it helps everyone else get energetic and start working harder.”
In the second NCAA semifinal Friday, No. 2 seed UCLA (13-4-5) takes on No. 11 seed Providence (16-4-2) at 7:30 p.m. The title game is Sunday at noon. ESPNU will televise all the College Cup games.
The `Hoos are seeking their seventh NCAA title. They won No. 6, coincidentally, in Cary, in 2009. That he can be more than a spectator this weekend will make his second College Cup especially meaningful for Bird.
“For a second there, I didn’t think I was going to be able to play again in a UVa uniform,” he said, “so it feels great to get back out.”