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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE – UVA’s director of track & field, Bryan Fetzer, was on the other side of the world, in Auckland, New Zealand, when the improbable occurred. In a store dedicated to the All Blacks, New Zealand’s famed national rugby team, an employee recognized the V-sabre on Fetzer’s pullover.
“The guy at the register was like, ‘Virginia? Wahoowa, right?’ ” Fetzer recalled. “And then he proceeded to tell me about Joe.”
Rugby-mad New Zealand has about 4.7 million residents, few of whom are aware of Joe Bell’s exploits on the soccer field. But the store employee had played with Bell and knew the talented midfielder was now at UVA.
“I was completely shocked,” Fetzer said.
Bell, who’s from Wanaka, a town of about 8,500 on New Zealand’s South Island, enrolled at Virginia in January 2017. He started all 21 games for the Cavaliers last season and was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
This season, Bell is one of Virginia’s captains, along with junior midfielder Robin Afamefuna.
“He’s beyond his years,” UVA head coach George Gelnovatch said. “He’s got a really good pedigree coming in, and then he’s a very smart kid. Unbelievable head on his shoulders. You would never think that he’s a sophomore.”
To be named a captain “obviously is a huge honor,” Bell said, “and I’m proud that George recognized me as one of those players.”
In New Zealand, Bell played as an amateur for Wellington Phoenix FC, a pro club that competes in the Australian A-League. He’s also a standout for the New Zealand Under-19 team that last month won the Oceania championship to qualify for FIFA’s U-20 World Cup in Poland next year.
Bell received the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s top performer.
“It was tough, but it was good,” Bell said of playing in Tahiti, where the heat can be oppressive.
He hopes to make his country’s U-23 side next year and one day play for the All Whites, New Zealand’s national team. Bell’s immediate focus, though, is his UVA career.
For a program that lost such mainstays as Jeff Caldwell, Jean-Christophe Koffi, Sheldon Sullivan, Pablo Aguilar and Edward Opoku from its 2017 roster, Bell is a pivotal player. When he was overseas at the Oceania championships, the Wahoos felt his absence during their preseason exhibition games.
“Joe’s a possession player,” Gelnovatch said. “In the midfield we can play through him, where he can turn and distribute, turn and play wide and dribble and slip.
“I think he’s good in an advanced role, too. He can score and make that final pass, but he’s also smart enough to play in the defensive midfield. He’s not the most athletic guy on the team, but he’s smart, he’s tough, and he’s got great endurance.”
In the ACC opener for both teams, No. 10 Virginia (1-0-1) meets No. 21 Virginia Tech (3-0-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Klöckner Stadium. The winning team will earn a point for its school in the annual Commonwealth Clash competition between the ‘Hoos and the Hokies.
Bell, who had two goals and an assist in 2017, has the Cavaliers’ lone goal this season. In the 90th minute of Virginia’s opener, Aug. 24 at Klöckner Stadium, Bell dribbled past several New Hampshire players and scored with 21 seconds left.
“I was there,” Jack Salt said Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena. “It was awesome.”
Salt, a 6-10 center on the UVA men’s basketball team, is one of several student-athletes from New Zealand on Grounds, along with Bell, field hockey player Anzel Viljoen and rower Star Davidson.
“I think there’s an unspoken friendship there [among the Kiwis],” Bell said.
He smiled. “There’s a few Australians, too, but I don’t hang out with them.”
As a senior in high school, Bell decided to pursue a college career in the United States. He enlisted the help of a company that sends video highlights of potential recruits to Division I teams.
“The ones that are interested get back to you, and then you start conversations with the coaches,” Bell said. “Obviously, George was interested in my video, and we had a few conversations over the phone, and it all kind of lined up.”
When the process started, Bell admits, he knew nothing about the University.
“It’s weird, because in New Zealand, you hear mainly about the Ivy League schools,” he said. “But I came over and visited [UVA} with my dad before I committed, and I was just blown away.”
He’s not the only Cavalier with international roots. Teammates have ties to such countries as Spain, Nigeria, Denmark, England, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Belgium, Ivory Coast, Scotland, Switzerland, Tanzania and Germany.
“The team is very diverse, and it makes for a very entertaining locker room,” said Bell, who lives with sophomore center back Henry Kessler.
Virginia has won seven NCAA titles, the most recent coming in 2014. The Cavaliers have advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of the past 37 seasons, and they’re determined to extend that streak this year.
Scoring, as has often been the case in recent years, has proved challenging for the ‘Hoos so far this season. They’re coming off a Labor Day game against Maryland at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., where 110 minutes produced no goals.
It was frustrating not to come away with a victory, Bell said, but UVA’s defense was stout, and the game was “really just a building block for us.”
In the attacking third, Bell said, “I think we’re still trying to figure things out, and George has got that [point] across. At the start of the season, it’s about not conceding goals and giving ourselves a chance to really figure ourselves out, who plays where and what works best. And then I think the goals will start flowing in.”
Bell, who plans to major in psychology, is thankful he decided to attend UVA. Had he stayed in New Zealand, Bell said, he probably would have signed a professional deal with the Wellington Phoenix and continued his education as his schedule permitted.
“Obviously, it’s a bit of a risk coming over — on George’s part, too, bringing over an international player — and sometimes it’s hard making that initial decision,” Bell said, “because obviously the pro route was in front of me, and that’s always been my dream. But I felt the academics and the opportunity here were better, and it’s proven true.”