Senior captain sets example for young squad
Will Bates' unflappable demeanor has helped youthful Cavalier team succeed
Although it lasted only a matter of seconds, the silence was deafening.
The suspension of sound and movement lingered on the practice field until an emphatic declaration abruptly reestablished reality.
“Keep playing!” the voice bellowed.
The action on the pitch resumed, but it wasn’t until senior tri-captain Will Bates signaled “thumbs up” from the sideline where he clutched his bloodied nose that the palpable uneasiness dissipated.
Moments earlier, Bates had been inadvertently struck square in the face when an errant rocket shot fired toward goal. It was a relatively routine occurrence that nevertheless precipitated the team’s sense of angst.
Their trepidation was only natural. As postseason play lurks on the horizon, there can be little debate about which Cavalier player is the team’s most indispensible both on and off the field.
“It would be tough to imagine this young team without Will Bates,” coach George Gelnovatch said. “Not only in the starting lineup but also just being around and helping the guys.”
Youth and raw talent inundate this season’s Virginia men’s soccer roster. Gelnovatch regularly fills out pre-game lineup cards with at least six freshmen as starters and frequently dubs this squad his “youngest ever.” The coach is now in his 17th year leading the Cavalier program and has talked throughout the season about the challenges that come with such an inexperienced team and its potentially fragile psyche.
Virginia has faced a stream of formidable opponents during one of the nation’s toughest regular season schedules, yet the young team has exhibited a resiliency usually reserved for far more seasoned teams. The team credits Bates for the Cavaliers’ success this season.
Bates’ unflappable demeanor and incisive advice has helped the youthful Cavalier squad avoid what Gelnovatch calls “hitting the wall” through the long NCAA season.
“It’s just always being there for the young guys,” Bates said. “When things aren’t exactly going as we planned them to go, I’m just there to offer them a little senior leadership or advice and … get them back on track.”
Yet it is Bates’ remarkable ability with a soccer ball that looms largest for the squad. Although the Chester, Va. native is listed as only six feet tall, there is rarely a time that the powerfully built forward does not appear far-and-away the largest player on the pitch.
Bates consistently plays with relentless effort that would be more fitting for a walk-on desperately attempting to stay on the roster than what he truly is — a bona fide star.
Soft spoken away from the pitch, Bates is tenacious and unforgiving on the field. When he furiously springs into the air to battle a defender for a 50-50 ball, the result is often a foregone conclusion.
“I just think that I’m going to beat my guy to the ball every time,” Bates said. “Whether it’s a 6’4” guy or an athletic guy, I always think I’m going to beat him … with that first step and never let him come back.”
Bates’ dogged confidence, brawn and blue-collar mentality combine to create a picture-perfect goal-scorer. But Bates’ allure lies not just in his 10 goals so far this season — which has him tied for most in the ACC. More important is the context in which those goals have come.
“Looking at Bates’ [impact], we can start with the goals,” Gelnovatch said. “In a year where we needed a guy to not only score the goals but the important ones, he’s come through with a bunch of game-winners.”
Throughout his storied collegiate career Bates has demonstrated a penchant for notching late, timely goals. In 2009 Bates made a name for himself by earning a team-high five game-winning goals in his freshman season en route to winning both the ACC and NCAA Championships.
Now, three years removed from that miraculous campaign, Bates’ proclivity for coming through in the clutch has not diminished. Most recently, Bates notched an incredibly skillful equalizer in the 74th minute against Virginia Tech — managing to contort his body to the side and one-time the ball off the bounce — to help the Cavaliers earn a crucial comeback victory.
Bates’ performance is even more impressive because every Virginia opponent makes him the primary focus, forcing the senior to constantly deal with double and triple teams.
Bates, however, says this season has been business as usual. He rarely accepts praise for his dominating play and credits his goal-scoring ability to simply being “opportunistic” or “hanging out in front of goal.” Bates has jokingly attributed his prowess for putting away headed goals to the fact that he has an oversized cranium.
Bates is now firmly entrenched as the seventh-most prolific goal-scorer in the program’s illustrious history. As he finishes up his decorated career, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that the star forward has a big head.
“[Personal awards] are not why I play,” Bates said. “I love the game, I love to play, and I’ve been blessed with all the opportunities that I’ve had here … It’s a game that I love and I’ve lost no passion for it, so I’m going to continue to playing wherever that may be.”