By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Over the past two seasons, no school has had more combined success in NCAA soccer than the University of Virginia.
UVa was the only school represented in each College Cup — NCAA soccer’s version of the Final Four — last year and again this fall.
In 2013, the Virginia men and women were ousted in their respective NCAA semifinals. This season, each reached the national championship game.
The UVa women lost 1-0 to their nemesis, ACC rival Florida State, in Boca Raton, Fla., on Dec. 7. A week later in Cary, N.C., after 110 scoreless minutes, the UVa men defeated UCLA on penalty kicks, 4-2, to capture the program’s seventh NCAA title.
Each program will carry championship aspirations into the 2015 season, too.
“I like where we are,” men’s coach George Gelnovatch said. “I feel we’re in a good place.”
“We return a lot of good players,” women’s coach Steve Swanson said. “We have some have really good leadership, and I think we have some really good quality players coming back, especially in our fourth-year class.”
Swanson’s team loses only four seniors: midfielders Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico and Campbell Millar and forward Mary Morgan. Brian and Colaprico, however, rank among the greatest players in program history, and it’s difficult to calculate the impact of their departures.
“Danny and Morgan were two of the best at getting out of pressure and solving problems and creating things,” Swanson said. “They were tremendous midfielders for us, and they really linked our team together. So I think that’s probably the biggest challenge that we have to face: Can we have the same speed of play without those two? Can we move the ball and create the chances that we did and get the goals we did the last four years?”
Other challenges: “How much better can we get individually, how much better can we get technically, on the ball, how much better can we get in terms of our decision-making as a team?” Swanson said.
From a team that led the nation in scoring and finished 23-3 — all three losses were to Florida State — Virginia returns nine players who started at least 17 games apiece this season: Makenzy Doniak, Brittany Ratcliffe, Alexis Shaffer, Kaili Torres, Emily Sonnett, Kristen McNabb, Tina Iordanou, Megan Reid and goalkeeper Morgan Stearns.
“At the end of the day we might have to be a little bit different team, because we don’t have some of the individuals that we’ve had in the past,” Swanson said, “but I don’t think it changes our style, and I don’t think it changes the way we play the game.”
The starting defense will return intact, with Sonnett, McNabb, Iordanou and Reid in the backline and Stearns behind them.
“Any time you come back with the experience that we have at the back, it’s helpful,” Swanson said.
“I think those guys have got a lot of potential,” Swanson said, “I think we’ve got some others there that didn’t get a lot of time [who could contribute in 2015]. I like that first-year class. I think they’re a little bit unheralded.”
Swanson expects strong leadership from his upperclassmen, a group that includes Ratcliffe, Sonnett, McNabb and Doniak.
“Those players are very hungry and they’re very competitive,” Swanson said. “I think they’ll set the tone. They’ve got this intangible quality. They compete.
“I think that’s one of the things that I really admire about our rising fourth-year class, they really come to play every day. They bring that attitude to training.”
The signing period for soccer does not begin until February, so Swanson can’t comment publicly yet on his incoming recruits. But he expects several members of the class to play significant roles on the field in 2015.
The newcomers will join a program with two returning All-Americans: Sonnett, who made the third team this fall, and Doniak, a two-time first-team selection at forward.
For the second straight year, Doniak finished with 20 goals, tying the single-season school record set by Caroline Miller in 2012. For her career, Doniak has scored 50 goals, second only at Virginia to Angela Hucles, who totaled 59 from 1996-99.
“It’s hard to score 20 goals in a year in our sport, and it’s hard to do it in the conference that we play in,” Swanson said. “The fact that Mak did it two years in a row is incredible.”
What the `Hoos have accomplished in recent years is equally remarkable. They won the ACC title in 2012, finished 24-1-1 in 2013, and then this year became the first team in program history to reach the NCAA championship game. Only one prize has eluded them.
“It’s gut-wrenching, really, when you get that close [to an NCAA title],” Swanson said. “Once you get there, you want to get back there, and I think it’s a constant motivation for our team.”
On the men’s side, the Cavaliers will try to win consecutive NCAA titles for the first time since 1994.
Among the graduating seniors Gelnovatch will have to replace are All-American midfielder Eric Bird, right back Kyler Sullivan, center back Matt Brown, midfielder Ryan Zinkhan and goalkeeper Calle Brown. But such talented players as Sheldon Sullivan (Kyler’s brother), Todd Wharton, Jake Rozhansky, Scott Thomsen, Darius Madison, Nicko Corriveau, Patrick Foss, Riggs Lennon, Sam Hayward, Wesley Suggs and Pablo Aguilar are expected back in 2015.
Moreover, Marcus Salandy-Defour, who was instrumental in the Cavaliers’ run to the College Cup in 2013, will return after missing this season with a knee injury. Salandy-Defour had three goals and four assists as a sophomore in 2013.
“That’s a big one,” Gelnovatch said. “Getting him back is huge.”
Bird figures to be a huge loss. Still, a groin injury limited his participation in UVa’s five NCAA tournament games, and Aguilar, a redshirt freshman, impressed in the captain’s absence.
“We got a snapshot of life without Bird,” Gelnovatch said. “What’s nice is, we had a month, basically, of big games where we learned to have the confidence to play without him, and we were able to get Pablo seasoned. He should feel like The Man now, coming into .”
In 2013, Aguilar, Sheldon Sullivan and Suggs, who started 14 games at center back this season, were redshirted. This year’s freshman class included such players as Nate Odusote, Peter Pearson, Manny Scere and Julian Cummings. The first three played sparingly, and Cummings redshirted, but all figure prominently in the coaching staff’s plans for 2015.
Cummings, an excellent athlete, is “fast,” Gelnovatch said. “Not quite as fast as Marcus Salandy-Defour is, but he’s going to be stronger. He’s thick, and he can score goals.”
As has been well-documented, scoring was an issue this season for Virginia, which entered the 48-team NCAA tournament as the No. 16 seed. Playing one of the nation’s most challenging schedules, the `Hoos (14-6-3) totaled only 27 goals, their fewest in Gelnovatch’s 19 years as head coach at his alma mater.
Bird led the team with five goals, and he’s leaving. Even so, Gelnovatch believes the Cavaliers should be significantly more potent in 2015, and not only because he expects several incoming freshmen to contribute on offense.
“I have to believe that with the guys that are returning, and their experience, and if they stay healthy, we’ve got to score eight or 10 more goals,” Gelnovatch said.
For most of the regular season, the Cavaliers played a wide-open style. That strategy yielded many chances but few goals. And so, after his team’s 3-0 loss to Notre Dame in the ACC quarterfinals, Gelnovatch decided new tactics were needed.
Defense became the focus for the ‘Hoos, who ousted No. 1 seed Notre Dame, No. 8 seed Georgetown and No. 2 seed UCLA, among others, en route to the NCAA crown.
“Going into the postseason, I felt like we did a lot of things right,” Gelnovatch said. “Goal-scoring just wasn’t one of the things we were great at. But I did think when we wanted to we could really keep [possession]. We had some good skilled players. We had pretty good athleticism. We had a big, tall goalkeeper, so if [opponents] wanted to cross the ball, that was OK. If they just want to put balls in the box, Calle’s going to catch `em.”
Lennon, a forward, converted the penalty kick that secured the NCAA title for UVa in Cary, N.C. After scoring five goals as a freshman in 2013, Lennon struggled with ankle injuries this year. He finished the season with no goals and one assist, which came in the final minute against Georgetown in the NCAA quarterfinals.
Gelnovatch expects Lennon to regain his 2013 form next season. “”I think he’s full of talent, and if he continues to stay the course and can stay healthy, I think he can be a goal-scorer and a great player.”
Gelnovatch is also high on Hayward, who transferred to UVa from the University of Pennsylvania last summer.
Hayward, who hammered home his penalty kick against UCLA, didn’t get to train with the `Hoos until practice started in August. Still, he finished his sophomore season with three goals — only Madison and Corriveau, with four apiece, and Bird had more — and should have a larger role in 2015.
“He’s got a lot of things going for him,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s fast and athletic. He’s got a knack for scoring, but this was a whole different level [of college soccer] that he kind of had to get acclimated to. But he’s got a really fantastic mentality and attitude. I think he’s going to be on the field, and it might not even be as a forward. I think we can make him a wide player if we need to. I think we could even make him a fullback, like a right fullback, because of his willingness to work, his engine, his athleticism.”
In goal, rising sophomore Jeff Caldwell is expected to take over for Brown. Caldwell, who started two games early this season, has played for the United States’ under-17, under-18 and under-18 national teams.
“Losing a guy like Calle, you would have a concern, but in terms of a replacement, I couldn’t feel more comfortable with Jeff Caldwell,” Gelnovatch said. “He has unbelievable training habits and work ethic and mentality and drive. He didn’t play much, you know, but he was training hard every single day, right to the end. Just driven, driven, driven.”