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By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Like his teammates and coaches on the University of Virginia men’s soccer team, Prosper Figbe went online and watched the penalty-kick shootout between Notre Dame and Michigan last Sunday night.
Had the Wolverines prevailed, UVA would have hosted them at Klöckner Stadium in the NCAA tournament’s third round. Moreover, Figbe knows some Michigan players and “was hoping they would win so they could come here and I could see them,” he said.
The Fighting Irish refused to cooperate. Notre Dame ousted Michigan in the 12thround of the shootout, and Virginia began preparing for a trip to South Bend, Ind.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, 10th-seeded UVA (10-3-3) meets seventh-seeded Notre Dame (10-6-3) at Alumni Stadium. The game will be streamed on ACC Network Extra.
In their Oct. 23 game at Klöckner Stadium, Virginia and Notre Dame played to a scoreless draw. Figbe would rather be facing the Irish at home again, of course, “but that’s soccer,” he said. 
“If we’re trying to be the best in the nation, it doesn’t matter where we play. We just have to go out there and win every single game. It doesn’t matter home or away. We just need to go there with the right mindset and play for each other.”
A native of Nigeria, Figbe came to the United States in 2013 as part of the MTN Football Scholars program. That initiative identified young Nigerians who were promising players and excellent students and matched them with prep schools and universities in the U.S.
Figbe spent two years at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn., and then enrolled at the University of South Florida. When USF’s head coach, George Kiefer, left for NC State after the 2016 season, Figbe decided he needed a change, too.
From his prep school days, Figbe knew Edward Opoku, a native of Ghana who was then a standout forward for Virginia. Several other ACC schools were interested in Figbe, he said, “but when I came here to visit, I just loved it, and I knew UVA was a very, very good program.”
Figbe helped USF advance to the NCAA tournament in 2015 and ’16 and as a sophomore was honored as the American Athletic Conference’s top defensive player. At UVA, he quickly earned a starting job, but his transition wasn’t seamless.
The caliber of play in the Atlantic Coast Conference is higher than in the AAC, Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch said. Physically, the 6-2, 195-pound Figbe had no problems, but he needed to improve other areas of the game, and he’s done so, Gelnovatch said.
“He’s continued to get better at game smarts, tactics, instead of maybe just relying on athleticism,” Gelnovatch said. “I would love to have had him a couple more years to keep bringing him along in that regard, because I think he’s starting to really make progress in that area.”
The Wahoos, who are in the NCAAs for the 38th consecutive year, employ a three-man backline on which Figbe is by far the most experienced player. He’s on the right side. On the left is Aboubacar Keita, one of four UVA players to make the ACC’s All-Freshman team, and in the middle is sophomore Henry Kessler.
Figbe is a fast, powerful athlete, and “when he’s defending one-on-one in open space, he’s probably the best defender we have,” Gelnovatch said.
Eight games into the season, the ‘Hoos were 6-0-2 and had conceded only two goals. But defensive breakdowns became common in the Cavaliers’ remaining regular-season games – the Oct. 23 meeting with Notre Dame was an exception – and in a 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament’s first round.
A two-and-a-half-week layoff followed, during which Virginia focused on shoring up its defense. As one of the NCAA tournament’s top 16 seeds, UVA earned a first-round bye. In the second round, Virginia blanked Furman 2-0 last Sunday afternoon at Klöckner Stadium.
This renewed commitment starts “with those three guys in the back,” Gelnovatch said. “A lot of it’s coming from them. These guys have met themselves to say, ‘Look, this is what got us off to a good start,’ because we had so many new faces and no proven goal-scorers coming into the season. Those three guys were massive, and Prosper’s a big part of that.”
Figbe said: “I felt like it was really, really good for us to have that little bit of a break to reflect and talk together as a group and for me to get my guys in the back ready, knowing that this is the playoffs. 
“I’ve been in this situation a couple of times. The only way we can win games is having the mindset like we did at the start of the season. So we’ve been working a lot on communicating and closing guys down and marking them in the box. It’s about getting all those little things right. It’s just having the right mindset to go out there and compete and give everything.”
An American Studies major, Figbe is one of several UVA student-athletes with roots in Nigeria. Others include his teammates Kennedy Nwabia, Daryl Dike and Simeon Okoro, women’s basketball player Felicia Aiyeotan and football player Olamide Zaccheaus.
“It’s nice having those guys around,” Figbe said. “I remember when I came to the U.S. first, when I was at Loomis, I was fortunate to have a Nigerian guy who came from the same program who’d been there for a year. So it was a little bit easier for me to transition into the United States.”
The Cavaliers’ roster has a strong international presence. What’s notable about the imports is not only their talent, but “how humble they are and how thankful they are for the opportunity,” Gelnovatch said.
“To the guy, they thank me on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis, just out of nowhere: ‘Thank you for having me here.’ It’s just incredible, because a lot of them have a story of no opportunity or very little opportunity, and they’re all seizing this opportunity. They’re surrounded with good people in the community. They’re surrounded with good people on our team and our athletic department and the classroom, and I think they really feel that, and they’re thankful for it.”
Figbe, who has two brothers and two sisters, is from Ilorin, a city of about 780,000 residents in Western Nigeria. For a variety of reasons, he hasn’t been home since he came to the United States in 2013, but hopes to visit Nigeria this winter. In the meantime, he communicates with his family regularly.
“I call them pretty much every day, even though my mom and dad are not completely used to technology,” Figbe said, smiling. “But my siblings are.”
His mother completed high school, Figbe said. His father did not. Two of Figbe’s siblings, though, are college graduates, and he’s on track to earn that distinction in the spring.
He grew up in an environment, Figbe said, where “I was told, ‘You’re not good enough.’ People are jealous. They don’t want to see you succeed.” But he’s persevered, unless many others who came to the U.S. through the MTN Football Scholars program.
“I just think it’s my drive,” Figbe said. “It’s really, really hard back home, so I always try to put my family first.”
He hopes to sign a professional contract in 2019, “but I’m not going to play soccer for the rest of my life,” Figbe said. “School is going to be really important when I’m done playing soccer.”