Sullivan Primed for Final Season at UVA
Aug. 9, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Kyler Sullivan arrived at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2011. Sheldon Sullivan joined him there in the summer of 2013, and they became teammates on the UVA men’s soccer team, as they had been at North Stafford High School.
Alas for the Cavaliers, Kyler and Sheldon have no other siblings. Which means the day is coming, sooner than UVA head coach George Gelnovatch would like, when he won’t have one of the Sullivan brothers on his team.
Kyler, a defender, started 75 games in his four seasons at Virginia. Sheldon, who redshirted in 2013, has started 49 games as he heads into his final season with the Wahoos.
In 2014, they each played 110 minutes in the NCAA title game, at the end of which UVA defeated UCLA in penalty kicks. The right-footed Kyler, who wore jersey No. 13, played right back, and the left-footed Sheldon, No. 31, played left back.
“They’re dissimilar in some ways, but they’re a lot alike, too,” Gelnovatch said. “They’re just terrific young men, terrific role models for our program and the [UVA athletics] department. They’re just good people, from a good family, and together they have combined for a lot of good memories here.”
Practice starts Wednesday for the Cavaliers, who are coming off a season in which they finished 11-4-5 after a controversial loss to eventual champion Stanford in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
In addition to Sullivan, returning players include Jeff Caldwell, Sergi Nus, Edward Opoku, Pablo Aguilar, Robin Afamefuna, Jean-Christophe Koffi, Raheem Taylor-Parkes, Daniel Barir, Leon Maric and Julian Cummings. Among the Cavaliers’ newcomers are transfers Kennedy Nwabia (Dayton), Prosper Figbe (South Florida) and Cameron Harr (Marist), as well as international imports Joe Bell (New Zealand), Ryan Peterson (Australia) and Nathaniel Crofts Jr. (England).
In 2016, Caldwell, Aguilar and Opoku were named to the All-ACC second team, and Koffi and Nus made the third team. Afamefuna was selected to the ACC’s All-Freshman squad.
“It’s a talented team,” Sullivan said of the Cavaliers. “We know what it takes [to win], and we clearly have the talent, in my eyes. So as long as we have the mentality, belief, buy-in and don’t put too much pressure on ourselves, I think we’ll be fine.”
Nwabia, a 6-2, 210-pound forward, and Figbe, a 6-2, 195-pound defender, are projected starters, and they impressed Sullivan during summer pickup games at UVA.
“Not only are they big, strong and athletic, they’re good guys,” Sullivan said. “They’re fun to play with.”
The first of Virginia’s three exhibition games is at 1 p.m. Saturday against Wright State at Klöckner Stadium. The `Hoos, ranked No. 13 in the United Soccer Coaches (formerly National Soccer Coaches Association of America) preseason poll, open at home Aug. 25 against Villanova.
After a season in which he was thrust into a new role, the 5-9, 165-pound Sullivan is back at the position where he’s most comfortable. He played every minute of every UVA game at left back in 2014.
As a redshirt sophomore, Sullivan moved inside to left center back, and he played every minute of every Virginia game until he suffered a season-ending groin injury on Oct. 30, 2015, in the regular-season finale against North Carolina.
With Sullivan out, UVA defeated Rider 2-0 at Klöckner Stadium in the NCAA tournament’s first round but then fell 1-0 to Maryland in College Park.
“I think it hurts a little bit more being on the sideline watching the team fight so hard and then losing in the end,” Sullivan said.
In 2016, the Cavaliers employed a three-man backline in which Afamefuna started on the left side. Sullivan moved to a midfield position on the left wing, where he started nine regular-season games but was no longer a 90-minute man.
“It makes you value your playing time a lot more,” Sullivan said. “So now when I’m on the field, I don’t take anything for granted. I know someone else on the bench is waiting to take my spot.”
At wingback, Sullivan defended well but was less effective in the attacking end. His role changed late in the year. After a concussion sidelined Afamefuna, Sullivan moved to left back for the Cavaliers’ two games in the NCAA tourney: a 2-1 win over Vermont at Klöckner Stadium and a 1-0 loss at Stanford.
When his minutes were reduced, Sullivan never pouted. He stayed engaged, and “that allowed him, when his time came at the end of the season, to do so well,” Gelnovatch said.
“In those playoff games, he was outstanding, and if you don’t stay in it mentally and physically, that’s really hard to do. He hadn’t played that position in well over a year and got thrust in there. And his personality allowed him to be able to do that. Because he never got too fazed by things.”
Sullivan said: “To be honest, I felt like I was right where I left off [in 2015]. It was a fine fit. George told me that I looked comfortable, like I’d been playing in that spot the entire year.”
With Sullivan set at left back again, Afamefuna has shifted to wingback. He should give the `Hoos more of a scoring threat at that position.
“I love playing with Robin, especially when he’s higher up,” Sullivan said.
In 2015 and again last year, Sullivan spent part of the summer playing for Premier Development League teams in Portland, Oregon, and Reading, Pennsylvania, respectively. This summer he stayed in Charlottesville, took classes at the University, and trained on his own.
“Mostly just running and technical work,” Sullivan said. “I know what I need to focus on. I know there are things I can work on individually that are just as beneficial.”
He’s one of the Cavaliers’ captains this season, along with Aguilar, Caldwell and Hayes Fountain. Each has different strengths as a leader, Gelnovatch said, and they complement each other well.
“Our locker room right now is as good as it’s ever been, in terms of the culture,” Gelnovatch said, in no small part because of the example the four captains set.
Sullivan is level-headed, mature, intelligent and upbeat. “He’s always smiling,” Gelnovatch said.
He’s also an excellent student who’s on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology in December, after which he hopes to pursue a professional soccer career. His brother stopped playing not long after graduating from UVA and now works in Northern Virginia for Insight Global.
When he was younger, Sullivan said in 2015, “I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to play with Kyler [in college]. I always wanted to beat him. But academically Virginia was up there, in soccer they were up there, and every time I went on a visit here, I loved it, so I had to choose it.”
He’s glad he did.
“I’ve loved all four years,” Sullivan said. “I can’t wait for this semester to finally start. I love the fall season.”