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Nov. 9, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its final regular-season game, with a first-round bye and the No. 4 seed in the ACC men’s soccer tournament at stake, Virginia stumbled in Durham, North Carolina.

The Cavaliers outshot Duke 13-6, but they surrendered a goal in the 77th minute and lost 1-0 on Oct. 27.

In the locker room afterward, UVA head coach George Gelnovatch reminded his players, in no uncertain terms, that the team had squandered a tremendous opportunity. His message resonated. Back in Charlottesville, the players called a Monday morning meeting in the Wahoos’ locker room at University Hall. No coaches were present.

“We saw that we were very good, but there were some pieces missing,” recalled junior midfielder Jean-Christophe Koffi. “We were missing a lot of heart and a lot of fight. We were very good, but it wasn’t good enough to just play well and not get the result.

“So we all decided to have a meeting to push each. Not to point fingers, but to push each other and encourage each other.”

The `Hoos have not lost since that Friday night in Durham. The No. 6 seed in the ACC tourney, UVA defeated No. 11 seed Boston College 4-0 in a first-round game at Klöckner Stadium.

In the quarterfinals, after 110 scoreless minutes at Louisville, the `Hoos edged the third-seeded Cardinals in a penalty-kick shootout. And now, after beating No. 7 seed Notre Dame 2-1 on Wednesday night in a semifinal at Klöckner Stadium, Virginia will play for the ACC title.

“That was a dominant performance tonight,” Gelnovatch said, “especially in the second half, against a very good team.”

Sophomore midfielder Robin Afamefuna and freshman midfielder Joe Bell each scored a goal against the Fighting Irish (11-6-2). Junior forward Edward Opoku assisted on Bell’s goal, which came in the 54th minute and proved to be the game-winner. Notre Dame had tied the game in the 49th minute.

“Obviously, [giving up] that early goal in the second half was pretty hard,” said Bell, who on Tuesday was named to the ACC’s all-freshman team, “but I think it really shows the attitude of this team. We can turn around and bounce back and come straight back at them.”

Gelnovatch said: “Our response was fantastic. That’s the response you want, especially this time of year.”

Senior goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, a second-team All-ACC pick, helped the `Hoos hold off the Irish with a diving save in the 81st minute.

Virginia’s next challenge comes Sunday in Charleston, South Carolina. At noon, UVA (12-3-4) meets top-seeded Wake Forest (17-1-1) in the ACC title game. ESPNU is televising the game.

The Cavaliers are seeking their first ACC championship since 2009, when they went on to capture the sixth of the program’s seven NCAA crowns.

UVA and Wake did not play each other during the regular season. The Demon Deacons are ranked No. 1 nationally, but the Cavaliers will head to Charleston with confidence.

“We have been a different team [since the loss to Duke],” said Koffi, UVA’s lone representative on the All-ACC first team. “We all believe in each other. We all play for each other, and that’s what makes us do what we do on the field.”

In the regular-season finale, Gelnovatch said, the `Hoos “played well and we were dominant, but we just weren’t ruthless, and we’ve been ruthless since then, whether it’s our penalty kicks the other day, whether it’s all the chances we got today, or the four goals against BC. We just need to keep it rolling.”

For Afamefuna, his 38th minute goal, set up by senior midfielder Pablo Aguilar‘s pass, was his first as a Cavalier.

This has been a trying season for Afamefuna, a native of Germany who made the ACC’s all-freshman team in 2016. He suffered an injury in preseason and then lost his starting job to freshman Faris Abdi. But when Abdi, who was called into Saudi Arabia’s national team last month, chose to leave school and return to his country, Afamefuna, whose role had been increasing anyway, took another step forward.

“I feel very good,” Afamefuna said. “It was a very, very tough beginning for me, obviously with the injury, and then Faris kind of took my spot. I told the coaches right away that playing me is probably the best decision for them. I’m that confident. But I also know that I have to do the work and I have to show them that I’m the better player. And that’s what I did, and I’m still going on. I’m trying to play the best soccer I can for the team.”

Afamefuna is “playing his best soccer right now,” Gelnovatch said, “and I think he’s finally gotten himself just about where he needs to be fitness-wise.”

This is Gelnovatch’s 22nd season as head coach at his alma mater. The Cavaliers are locks to make the NCAA tournament for the 37th consecutive year, and the win over Notre Dame puts them in the mix for a top-eight seed. Virginia will play at Klöckner Stadium at least once more this season, and maybe multiple times.

“Since the Duke game, we’ve definitely improved a lot,” Afamefuna said. “I think we can improve more, but we’re going in the right direction.”

The setback in Durham, Bell said, was “hard for the team, but I think we’ve really turned it around. We’ve really stepped up, and I think it’s great that we’ve hit this peak form now. It’s the perfect time for it.”

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