Dec. 12, 2014

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In George Gelnovatch‘s 19 seasons as head men’s soccer coach at the University of Virginia, many of his teams have been renowned for their offensive prowess.

In 1996, for example, the Cavaliers totaled 65 goals in 22 games. They scored 62 in 2000 and 51 in 2004.

Gelnovatch’s latest team has been much less productive. Through 21 games this season, the Wahoos have scored only 26 goals, the fewest of any Gelnovatch-coached team. Among the 200 teams in Division I, Virginia ranks 110th in goals per game (1.24).

And yet, for all their offensive woes, these Cavaliers have advanced to the College Cup for the second straight season (and fifth time under Gelnovatch), and they’re two wins from the program’s seventh NCAA title.

“We’re in a good place,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s a different kind of team, there’s no question about it. We’re playing a little differently, but it’s fun.

“We may not be the most talented College Cup group that I’ve had, but in terms of the will-to-win type of thing, this is one of my best, and sometimes that goes a long way, as we’ve been showing lately.”

The College Cup, NCAA soccer’s version of the Final Four, starts Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., where Virginia was crowned national champion in 2009.

In the first semifinal, No. 16 seed UVa (12-6-3) meets unseeded UMBC (14-5-5) at 5 p.m., with No. 2 seed UCLA (13-4-5) and No. 11 seed Providence (16-4-2) to follow around 7:30 p.m.

The championship game is Sunday at noon. ESPNU will televise all three matches from Cary.

“I’m really excited for it,” UVa midfielder Jake Rozhansky said of playing in the College Cup.

Rozhansky is a freshman, so this is all new to him. Many of his teammates, among them Calle Brown, Kyler Sullivan, Eric Bird, Todd Wharton, Matt Brown, Nicko Corriveau, Riggs Lennon, Darius Madison and Scott Thomsen, helped the `Hoos advance to last year’s College Cup in Chester, Pa.

With so many veterans returning from that team, Virginia was expected to be a force from the start this fall. For a myriad of reasons, that didn’t happen.

“It’s been a really strange year, to be honest with you,” Gelnovatch said. “We’ve been thrown so many curve balls.”

Jordan Allen, a freshman standout on the 2013 team, turned pro after the season, but that was no surprise. The coaching staff did not expect, however, to lose starting forward Marcus Salandy-Defour to a torn ACL in July or to have players such as Wharton (knee), Corriveau (sports hernia), Lennon (ankle), Madison (ankle) and, most recently, Bird (groin) sidelined by injuries.

“I don’t have [an exact figure] in my head, but we were probably without 75 or 80 percent of our goal-scorers for a big part of the season,” Gelnovatch said.

“So it’s been a tough attacking year for us, really a tough attacking year, and it’s shown [in the lack of goals] … But we also haven’t given up a lot. If you take the Notre Dame game out, where we gave up three, we’ve been pretty good defensively, and I think at this point we’ve bought into how we have to operate. We’ve got to be real tight, keep teams off the board, buy into really defending in the box, and be clinical about how we get at teams.”

After defeating Virginia Tech 1-0 at Klöckner Stadium in the first round of the ACC tournament, UVa lost 3-0 at Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. That’s the only time this season Virginia has allowed more than two goals in a game.

The early exit from the ACC tournament gave the `Hoos extra time to prepare for their final postseason push, as did the first-round bye they received as one of the NCAA tourney’s top 16 seeds.

In the weeks leading up to the NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers changed tactics, adopting a defensive-minded approach in which they take fewer chances on offense.

The `Hoos are “finding ways as a team and as a coaching staff to change. We’ve got to play a certain style,” Gelnovatch said.

“I think we’re playing a little bit more pragmatic, and that’s our M.O., and we feel good about it. That’s what’s been good for us.”

Virginia’s run in the NCAA tournament began Nov. 23 against UNC Wilmington at Klöckner. The Cavaliers lost Bird to a groin injury in the first minute and later gave up the game’s first goal, but then rallied for a 3-1 victory.

UVa followed with a 1-0 victory over defending NCAA champion Notre Dame, the tournament’s No. 1 seed, on Nov. 30 in South Bend, Ind. Then, in the quarterfinals, Virginia ousted No. 8 seed Georgetown in a penalty-kick shootout last Saturday in Washington, D.C.

With each victory, the Cavaliers’ confidence has grown.

The tactical changes led to “results and put a little wind in our sails,” Gelnovatch said. “I think we always had the belief, but then getting the results makes a big difference. If you have belief and you’re getting results, it goes a long way, and I think that’s where we are.”

Against Notre Dame, Corriveau, assisted by Aguilar, scored the game’s lone goal in the 82nd minute. Against Georgetown, UVa trailed 1-0 heading into the 90th minute, but Wharton, assisted by Sheldon Sullivan and Lennon, supplied the equalizer with 53 seconds left in the second half.

“It’s a group of guys who believe,” Gelnovatch said. “When we were losing 1-0, guy for guy, they believed they were going to win until the very end.”

Rozhansky said: “As a team we all felt we were going to win, no matter if there was 10 seconds left in the game, or 50 seconds, when we scored. After Georgetown scored, we all got in the huddle and [encouraged each other], especially [Wharton]. Todd got us in the huddle and said, `Just keep playing. We’re going to win this game, we’re going to win this game,’ and we ended up winning.”

UMBC’s run to the College Cup was even more improbable than Virginia’s. The Retrievers had to survive four straight road games to reach Cary, eliminating Wake Forest in a penalty-kick shootout, defeating No. 4 seed Maryland 1-0, beating No. 13 seed Louisville 1-0 and, last weekend, ousting No. 12 seed Creighton in another penalty-kick shootout.

For the Cavaliers, this is their 12th appearance in the College Cup. For the Retrievers, it’s their first. But UMBC finished 16-1-3 in 2013 and has UVa’s full respect. The Retrievers, who are in their 24th season under head coach Pete Caringi, have not allowed a goal in this NCAA tourney.

“They’re good all over the field: very athletic all over the field, but also talented,” Gelnovatch said. “They’re not a prolific goal-scoring team, but in a lot of ways they’re like us, organized defensively and finding a way to win.

“Listen, it’s not an accident that you find a way to get past Wake, find a way to get past Maryland, find a way to get past Louisville, find a way to get past Creighton. Once or twice that might happen, but not four times.”

For the Cavaliers, injuries have been a major storyline this season, but the team should be close to full strength Friday night. Bird, UVa’s captain, leading scorer and lone representative on the All-ACC first team, resumed training this week and is expected to be available against UMBC.

At last year’s College Cup, Virginia fell 2-1 to then-ACC rival Maryland in the semifinals. The Cavaliers, the only team to make it back to the College Cup this year, are determined to add a seventh star to the team crest.

“You come to Virginia knowing the tradition of winning six national championships and always being one of the best programs in the country,” Wharton said, and he doesn’t believe it’s enough simply to be one of the final four.

“You want to win the College Cup, and I think the players before us have really set that tradition and really put that as a standard, that we don’t come [to Virginia] just to have a good season,” Wharton said. “We come here to have a great season and win championships.

“I think it’s our time to set our own legacy and win the seventh one for UVa.”

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