By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Sweet Sixteen was nothing to savor for the University of Virginia’s soccer teams last month.
The UVA women, who entered the 64-team NCAA tournament as one of four No. 3 seeds, fell 2-0 at Georgetown, a No. 2 seed, in a third-round match Nov. 20.
The UVA men were ousted on the road in the round of 16, too. The No. 12 seed in the 48-team NCAA tourney, Virginia lost 1-0 on a controversial goal by fifth-seeded Stanford in the second overtime Sunday night.
Still, both Cavalier teams are fixtures in their respective NCAA tournaments, and 2017 figures to bring more success for each program.
The UVA men, who finished 11-4-5 this season, have particular cause for optimism. Only three seniors played prominent roles for head coach George Gelnovatch this fall — forward Marcus Salandy-Defour and midfielders Nicko Corriveau and Paddy Foss — and all seven of the Cavaliers who received All-ACC recognition last month have eligibility remaining.
“You have to stay healthy, you got to get a little fortunate here and there, but I feel stronger about this group moving forward than I have felt in a long time,” said Gelnovatch, who’s led the Wahoos to the NCAA tournament in each of his 21 seasons as head coach at his alma mater.
Coming out of the 2008 season, after Virginia lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament with a lineup dominated by underclassmen, Gelnovatch felt similarly hopeful. His confidence proved well-founded.
In 2009, UVA won the program’s sixth NCAA title. In 2014, a year after losing in the NCAA semifinals, the `Hoos captured the program’s seventh NCAA championship.
In 2015, Virginia lost in the NCAA tournament’s second round, and that was “a little bit of a tear-down-and-rebuild [season],” Gelnovatch said. But the Cavaliers righted themselves this year and turned in a stellar performance against defending NCAA champion Stanford.
“The frustrating piece was to have that end in the circumstances that it did,” Gelnovatch said.
The Cardinal advanced on a golden goal in the 105th minute, scoring in a sequence during which UVA goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell was knocked to the ground. Virginia’s players and coaches pleaded for a foul on Stanford, but no call was forthcoming.
Aguilar led the `Hoos with 16 points, on seven goals and two assists, and Opoku was second with 14 points (six goals, two assists). Third, with 10 points on five goals, was sophomore forward Wesley Wade.
Afamefuna, who started at left back during the regular season, missed UVA’s two games in the NCAA tournament for medical reasons, but he’s expected back in 2017. Lowe, a defensive midfielder during the regular season, played right back in the NCAA tourney games against Vermont and Stanford, and that may well be his position next season.
Among the others due back are junior Bay Kurtz, who started 16 games this season; redshirt junior Sheldon Sullivan and redshirt sophomore Julian Cummings, who started 11 games each; sophomore Daniel Barir, who started nine; and junior Nate Odusote, who started at forward against Stanford.
Gelnovatch’s main offseason priority is to strengthen his team at the attacking end. The 2014 team won the NCAA title despite averaging only 1.2 goals per game. The Cavaliers were slightly more prolific in 2015, when they averaged 1.3 goals per game, and they made another modest jump this season, to 1.5.
“I’d like to pick up two attacking players, one with a little bit more power and stature,” Gelnovatch said. “And those come in different sizes and shapes, whether it’s just pure strength and girth or height.”
As one of the NCAA tournament’s top 16 seeds, Virginia earned a first-round bye and played its second-round game at Klöckner Stadium. But having to cross the country to meet Stanford in the third round was less than ideal, and in 2017 “the goal’s gotta be a top-four seed,” Gelnovatch said. “Because if we were at home against Stanford, I think we take that game.”
The UVA women, who finished 15-5-2, will have more turnover than the men. Head coach Steve Swanson is losing four of the nine players who finished with six or more points this season: Alexis Shaffer (33), Kristen McNabb (eight), Morgan Reuther (six) and Meghan Cox (six).
“We’re going to miss some big cogs who have been major contributors for us over the last three years, and that’s always a challenge, to replace those players,” said Swanson, who’s guided the Cavaliers to the NCAA tournament in each of his 17 seasons as their head coach.
But he rotated more players than usual on the backline this fall, so even with McNabb, Cox and Iordanou leaving Virginia has “some experience returning back there,” Swanson said.
“It’s going to be tough to lose that kind of experience and the qualities that those players had — I’m talking about Kristen, Tina and Meghan Cox — but I think we’ve got some players that can fill their shoes and have some experience,” Swanson said.
Stearns was a four-year starter in goal, and “anytime you lose somebody that’s played that much, I think that’s always going to be a challenge,” Swanson said. “But I feel good about the keepers that we have in the program. I think we’ve got a great coach in [assistant] Kerry [Dziczkaniec] that can work with these keepers — redshirt sophomore Kelsey Kilgore, redshirt freshman Morgan Beans and freshman Sarah Maurer — “and I think at the end of the spring we’ll feel even better about it.”
At the attacking end, Virginia returns such players as junior Veronica Latsko (19 points), freshman Taylor Ziemer (18 points), sophomore Betsy Brandon (10 points), freshman Meghan McCool (seven points) and freshman Alissa Gorzak (six points),
Shaffer’s departure will leave a huge void. The ACC offensive player of the year and ACC midfielder of the year, Shaffer led the `Hoos in goals (13) and assists (seven).
“She was very influential on the offensive side of the ball, no question about it, and we’ll miss her,” Swanson said. “She was able to change a game very quickly with either foot.”
From its 2015 team, UVA had to replace forward Makenzy Doniak, who holds the program record for career points. That was challenging, Swanson said, and “I think it’ll be same with Shaff: How are you going to replace Shaff next year?
“And I don’t think we’re going to have one player do that. I think we’re going to have to really try to pick up the slack as a team. I think [because] we return so many players from the offensive side of the ball, we’re capable of doing that.”
The return of midfielder Courtney Petersen will help, too. Petersen, who made the ACC’s All-Freshman team in 2015, withdrew from UVA this semester to play for the United States in the U20 World Cup. She’ll return to the University next month.
“It’ll be a nice addition for us,” Swanson said. “She’s very versatile. She can play a number of positions, and she’s got a great mentality about going forward. And I think she’ll help us, too, in certain areas. Shaff was such a good free-kick specialist, but I think Courtney is one of the players that can help pick up the slack at that end, and I think that’s important for us as well.”
Shaffer was the lone Cavalier named to the All-ACC first team this season. McNabb made the second team, and Latsko and Gorzak were third-team selections.
Gorzak and midfielder Zoe Morse were UVA’s representatives on the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
The Cavaliers added a 12-player recruiting class in 2015 and a 10-player class this year. The 2017 class will be significantly smaller, and the program already has a “really good foundation” in place, Swanson said.
“Whereas the last two years we were continually trying to teach during the beginning of preseason,” he said, “we’re going to have more veterans returning than first-years coming in [next summer].”
Like Gelnovatch, Swanson came away from his team’s final game pondering what might have been.
“There’s more randomness in our sport than most sports, and there’s a lot of things that can happen,” Swanson said. “On the day, you have to play well, and you’ve got to have things go your way as well in a tournament like this and a sport like ours. But whenever you bow out, it’s never easy, especially if you feel like your team is strong enough to move on and advance.”
In early September, Virginia traveled to Washington, D.C., to play Georgetown, which rallied for a 3-2 victory. The rematch was played on an afternoon marked by severe winds.
“I was very disappointed from the players’ standpoint in the fact you never want weather to be a factor,” Swanson said. “For us to be playing in 30-mile-an-hour winds, I’d rather play in the snow, rain, anything but that.
“I’m not making excuses, and I’m not saying we would have won the game. But I would have really liked our chances. [The weather adversely affected] the things that we work on so much in training: our ball movement and our ability to manipulate opponents with the ball in space. It was very difficult to play any sort of soccer on the day. So you knew it would come down to one or two plays here or there, and unfortunately we weren’t on the end of it.
“On the other hand, you’ve got to give Georgetown credit. They had six shots in two games against us and scored five goals, and one of them was an own goal. With that kind of conversion rate, they’re not going to lose too many games. But from our perspective, it was disappointing because we were playing our best soccer at that time. I would have liked to have seen the team on a good day. But that’s part of what we have to recognize and try to improve — our ability to win no matter what the conditions, no matter who we’re playing against.”