Cavs embark on quest for title
Evenly-matched Virginia, Wake Forest kick off ACC tourney in tilt that looks to challenge teamís resilience
The Virginia men's soccer team has been through just about every game situation imaginable this season. The Cavaliers have played in closely contested matches and blowouts, physical defensive struggles and up-tempo offensive showcases, exhilarating wins and shocking losses. Through it all, the Cavaliers have emerged battle-tested and prepared for the unpredictable nature of postseason soccer, which begins tonight in an opening-round ACC clash against Wake Forest.
At the start of the 2011 campaign back in August, the Cavaliers ranked No. 11 nationally in the preseason polls and were expected to finish No. 3 in the ACC. Two and a half months later, the Cavaliers (11-6-1, 4-3-1 ACC) are a distinctly different team than when they took the pitch against Richmond in the season opener. The lineup has been in a perpetual state of flux, players' roles have evolved and the team's nucleus of young players has matured.
"Consistency is hard to achieve with all of the change from game to game," coach George Gelnovatch said.
Tonight, Virginia will host the Demon Deacons (8-6-4, 4-3-1) in a first-round ACC Tournament matchup between two of three teams deadlocked in the conference standings. Virginia, Wake Forest and Duke each concluded the regular season with 13 points, so the teams were seeded by goal differential.
Duke and Virginia earned the coveted third and fourth seeds, respectively, meaning the squads earned home field advantage for the first round of the tournament. The No. 4-seeded Cavaliers and No. 5 Demon Deacons will skirmish for the right to play either top-seeded North Carolina or the winner of the N.C. State and Virginia Tech matchup during Friday's semifinal in Cary, N.C.
During the quarterfinals of last season's ACC Tournament, the sixth-seeded Cavaliers upset the Demon Deacons 1-0 before falling against Maryland 2-0 during the next round. Virginia has now eliminated Wake Forest from the tournament three years in a row, and the team hopes to prolong that streak tonight.
"At this time of year, I would expect that we would be up for it," Gelnovatch said. "We just need to be more disciplined defensively when the ball turns over."
When the two teams met in Winston-Salem last month, the Demon Deacons prevailed in a fast-paced, offensive affair that ended in a 4-3 win for the home team. The Cavaliers fell behind 3-0 early during that game before rallying to within a goal during the game's waning moments. Junior forward Will Bates was largely responsible for leading Virginia's second-half surge with a hat trick.
This time around, Bates will be forced to watch from the sideline as he sits out with a torn ACL he suffered against Virginia Tech Oct. 21. Despite missing the final three games of the regular season, Bates tallied 14 goals and 32 points - the second highest total in the ACC in each category behind Duke junior midfielder Andrew Wenger.
"So much has happened to the team this year," sophomore forward Brian Span said. "When Bates got hurt, he was definitely somebody we need really bad, [but] we just have to keep going."
The Cavaliers have become accustomed to filling holes when key players are relegated to cheering from the bench. The team's wealth of youthful talent has proved crucial with eight of the 12 freshmen breaking into the starting 11 at one point or another. During recent weeks, defender Kyler Sullivan has mastered the left back position, Calvin Rezende has given the team a playmaker in the central midfield and forward Ryan Zinkhan has emerged as a dependable goal-scorer.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Cavaliers heading into tonight's games is senior forward Brian Ownby's return to form. Ownby - an All-ACC selection in 2010 - was hampered by injury problems throughout much of the season and never looked comfortable when he was able to play.
"I wish [Zinkhan] and I had been able to play together a lot more at the beginning of the season," Ownby said. "[W]hen it counts ... we're able to play more."
Since Bates was lost for the season, Ownby has appeared to regain his confidence. During the regular season finale against N.C. State, he contributed a goal and two assists. Ownby now boasts five goals, tying him with Span for second on the team.
"I guess I feel like I have to take on some of the pressure and help our team, especially since I'm a senior this year," Ownby added. "My last year, I want to go as far as we can."
In net for Wake Forest, junior goalkeeper Michael Lisch will try to stop Ownby and the rest of the Cavalier attack, which ranks No. 4 in the ACC in scoring. Lisch touts five clean sheets this season, while the Demon Deacons as a whole have given up 1.26 goals per game.
At the opposite end, freshman goalie Spencer LaCivita enters the matchup tied for the most shutouts in the ACC. The four goals allowed against Wake during the first meeting notwithstanding, LaCivita has proved reliable and durable, playing every minute of his inaugural season with the Cavaliers.
"[The freshmen] have played in enough big ACC games," Gelnovatch said. "Yes, they're first-year guys, but they have played in some big games now."
Tonight's match kicks off at 7 p.m. at Klockner Stadium.