By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Five hours after defeating Furman at Klöckner Stadium, the University of Virginia men’s soccer team learned the site of its next game in the NCAA tournament.
At 7:50 p.m. Sunday, the penalty-kick shootout between seventh-seeded Notre Dame and Michigan finally ended in South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish (10-6-3) prevailed in the 12th round to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, in which they’ll host 10th-seeded UVA (10-3-3) next Sunday at 5 p.m.
This will be a rematch of the teams’ Oct. 23 meeting, which ended in a draw after 110 scoreless minutes at Klöckner Stadium.
Postseason games in South Bend are nothing new for Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch. In 2014 and again in ’15, the Cavaliers lost at Notre Dame in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
In 2014, the teams met again on the same field three weeks later. This time the Wahoos upset the top-seeded Irish 1-0 to advance to the NCAA quarterfinals. That UVA team went on to capture the program’s seventh NCAA title.
“We know that place well,” Gelnovatch said of Notre Dame’s Alumni Stadium.
Had Michigan eliminated Notre Dame, the Cavaliers’ third-round game would have been at Klöckner Stadium, where they ousted Furman 2-0 on Sunday afternoon.
Sophomore forward Nathaniel Crofts scored in the 78th minute and again in the 85th, off textbook passes from 6-2, 225-pound freshman Daryl Dike and 6-2, 210-pound senior Kennedy Nwabia, respectively.
“Those assists are what you expect of a big center forward: holding it up, turning, slipping, and they both did great,” Gelnovatch said.
Crofts, who’s from Sheffield, England, had nearly scored in the 13th and 47th minutes, only to see his shot blocked each time. So when the breakthrough finally came against Furman (13-7-2), he exulted, breaking out some of his trademark dance moves.
“There’s no better feeling than to score a goal,” Crofts said, “and to come in this part of the season, it’s something special.”
After Croft put Virginia up 1-0, he and his teammates celebrated with extra gusto. Who could blame them? Not since Oct. 20 had the ‘Hoos scored in a game.
“It was definitely uplifting,” said Dike, one of four Cavaliers named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team this month.
Virginia gave up two late goals on Oct. 20 and lost 3-2 to top-ranked Wake Forest. Then came the scoreless tie with Notre Dame. The Cavaliers were scheduled to play Oct. 26 at North Carolina, but that game was canceled because of bad weather.
Then, in the ACC tournament’s first round, Virginia lost 2-0 to Pittsburgh on Oct. 31. Two-and-a-half weeks later, after drawing a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament, the ‘Hoos finally returned to action.
UVA had several excellent scoring opportunities in the first half, most notably on a breakaway by senior forward Simeon Okoro that went awry in the sixth minute, but could not convert.
The inability to score can “be frustrating,” Gelnovatch said, “but I felt like the vibe was still good. I felt like we would get more chances, and the intensity and energy were off to a good start. So when you have that, I think you get more chances, and we did.”
Heading into the NCAA tournament, redshirt sophomore Colin Shutler had played every minute of every game in goal for Virginia. But with Shutler sidelined for medical reasons Sunday, junior Marcel DaSilva took over as goalkeeper.
DaSilva, who transferred to UVA from Tulsa in January, made four saves.
“It’s his first appearance for Virginia,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s his first minutes of the year, in a playoff game. How hard is that? I commend him. He did a great job.”
In his two seasons at Tulsa, DaSilva appeared in 11 games, with three starts, so he had an idea what to expect in his UVA debut.
Even so, said DaSilva, he had some nerves Sunday. “But as soon as you start warming up,” DaSilva said, “as soon as you make your first kick, your first catch, everything kind of goes away, and you’re back in that same flow.”
He arrived at UVA hoping to win the starting job. Instead, he found himself in a reserve role until Sunday.
“It’s a hard grind,” said DaSilva, who rooms with Crofts. “It’s not easy to go in every single day and then not get game time, but it prepares you for when the occasion comes. And when the occasion comes, you have to be ready.”
UVA’s defense, led by backs Prosper Figbe, Henry Kessler and Aboubacar Keita, played well in front of DaSilva. Gelnovatch wasn’t happy with his team’s performance at that end of the field late in the regular season and the ACC tourney, and eliminating those lapses became a priority during the Cavaliers’ two-and-a-half-week layoff.
That work paid off Sunday.
“We had some adjustments and didn’t allow Furman to do to us what some teams were doing to us,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s a long tactical discussion, but [UVA] executed that very, very well, and we looked fresh, we looked fit. So with two-and-a-half weeks, we did a great job of making sure of that, and the intensity was good. It was a two-goal game, but it could have been three or four.”
The most important goal, of course, was the first one.
“I think it was a big, big icebreaker getting that goal,” Gelnovatch said, “and you could see the team take a big sigh of relief.”
During the regular season, Crofts totaled two goals and a team-high six assists. Both of those goals came in September, however, and “he’s been working his butt off every single game and trying to get [another] one,” Dike said.
After the game, the 6-3 Gelnovatch wrapped up the 5-7 Crofts in a hug.
“I think him getting a couple of goals is going to go a long way for him and for us,” Gelnovatch said. “I think for him, because he works so hard and gets himself into scoring positions, that that’s going to do him a lot of good.”