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By Jeff White (
RALEIGH, N.C. –– At the end of 2018, the total was 25, and it’s grown to 27 this year. That’s how many NCAA championships University of Virginia teams have won, and that tradition of success inspires the entire athletics department.
Head men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch remembers a comment one of his colleagues, Lars Tiffany, made after guiding the UVA men’s lacrosse team to the NCAA title in Philadelphia last spring, about seven weeks after the Virginia men’s basketball team was crowned NCAA champion in Minneapolis.
“Lars said, ‘When you walk down the hallway at the McCue Center and you see those smiling faces on those national championship pictures, you’re motivated. You’re motivated to bring something like that home,’ ” Gelnovatch recalled Saturday afternoon.
Under Gelnovatch, the Cavaliers have won two NCAA titles, in 2009 and 2014. They’ll play for a third Sunday night at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. At 6 o’clock, top-seeded UVA (21-1-1) meets third-seeded Georgetown (19-1-3) in the NCAA championship game at Sahlen’s Stadium.
ESPNU will televise the game, the first meeting between these teams since Dec. 6, 2014, when Virginia ousted Georgetown in a penalty-kick shootout in the NCAA quarterfinals in Washington, D.C.
For UVA athletics, 2019 has been spectacular. The highlights include NCAA titles in men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse, and Gelnovatch said he’s thought about what a third national championship would mean for the athletics department, the University and athletics director Carla Williams.
His players have considered that possibility, too.
“Obviously it would be a big honor to win the national championship,” sophomore midfielder Daniel Steedman said, “and it just shows how good a school UVA is athletics-wise if we can do it, as well as other teams have done it this year.”
The NCAA semifinals were played Friday in a cold, driving rain that created pools of standing water at one end of the field, the end Virginia had to defend in the second half of its 2-1 win over fourth-seeded Wake Forest.
“It was very difficult,” junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler said Saturday. “We had to kind of change our plans on the fly, but the guys did what they needed to do, and we got through it.”
The forecast for the championship game is much better. It’s expected to be clear, with temperatures in the high 40s. UVA forward Nathaniel Crofts, a junior from Sheffield, England, won’t miss the mess he played in Friday night.
“I got a lot of stick from the coaches, who said I should be used to it, because I’m from England,” Crofts said Saturday, smiling, “but for the game we play, I’d prefer it to be dry out there, so we can play football.”
Georgetown, which ousted No. 7 seed Stanford 2-0 in the first semifinal, has reached the NCAA championship game for the second time. In 2012, the Hoyas lost to Indiana in the title game.
In 14 seasons under head coach Brian Wiese, the Hoyas are 170-80-35.
“I think Brian’s been knocking on the door for a little while and does a very, very good job there,” Gelnovatch said. “It doesn’t surprise me playing them.”
The teams are familiar with each other. They met last spring in Charlottesville in a scrimmage at Perry Field, where the Wahoos train. The intensity of that match, which UVA won, has stuck with Crofts.
“A lot of teams don’t really bring that in the spring,” he said.
For years, the NCAA championship game started in the early afternoon. But it was switched to 5 p.m. Eastern last year, when the College Cup was held on the West Coast, and Gelnovatch is delighted with the late start Sunday. 
It was past 11 o’clock when UVA’s players got back to the team hotel in Raleigh on Friday night, and some of them had to start studying for final exams that awaited them Saturday.
That’s not ideal, Gelnovatch acknowledged, but “we’ve been through this before. We’ve just got to get ready for it.”
Shutler, a first-team All-American, said the quick turnaround is “definitely a challenge. We haven’t had two games in three days all year, but we have a great training staff that’s going to help our guys get through it, and I think we’ll be ready [Sunday night].”
Virginia has won 11 of its past 12 games at Sahlen’s Stadium, including the NCAA finals in 2004 and ’14. WakeMed Soccer Park also hosted last month’s ACC championship game, in which UVA defeated Clemson 3-1.
In 2009 and, especially, in 2014, the Cavaliers relied heavily on their defense in postseason. In each of those NCAA championship games, a penalty-kick shootout was held after the finalists played 110 scoreless minutes.
UVA, seeded No. 2 in the NCAA tournament, edged Akron for the title in ’09. The Cavaliers were seeded No. 16 in 2014, when they outlasted UCLA in the championship game.
In 2009, the Hoos (18-3-4) averaged 1.5 goals per game. In 2014, when the Cavaliers finished 13-6-4, they totaled only 27 goals, an average of 1.2 per game.
This is Gelnovatch’s 24th season as head coach at his alma mater, and his latest team has much more firepower offensively. Led by sophomore striker Daryl Dike, a third-team All-American, the Cavaliers are averaging 1.9 goals per game. This NCAA final figures to be more wide open than the 2009 and ’14 championship games.
“I feel this team could be more aggressive,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s set up that way, and we will be. I think the ’14 team, we couldn’t do that, and we had to make sure the team bought into being really organized defensively. The 2009 team was a little bit more like this team, but minus Daryl.”
Dike, a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore, scored both of UVA’s goals Friday night. For the season, he has nine goals and eight assists, both team highs, and plays on which he’s been fouled have led directly to seven other goals.
“Having Daryl on the field definitely helps us, especially me,” said Crofts, who has six goals and three assists. “He attracts the other teams. Their main focus is to stop him, so it kind of frees up space for me, because all the pressure’s on him. His big presence is good to have.”
In 2018, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 before losing on the road to Notre Dame, which scored late to secure a 1-0 victory. Virginia returned the core of the team, and almost all of those players, including Dike, have shown significant improvement this season.
The addition of such freshmen as Andreas Ueland and Axel Gunnarsson further bolstered the Hoos, and they’ve been dominant for most of the season. Players come to UVA, where the legendary Bruce Arena preceded Gelnovatch as head coach, expecting to compete on the college game’s biggest stage, and the opportunity for this group comes Sunday night.
“It’s amazing,” Crofts said. “We’ve been working for it all year, and to finally get here is incredible.”