Super sophomores loom large
Talented Cavalier second year players are key to team's 2013 success
The Virginia men’s soccer team endured a roller coaster 2012 season, one that began with an inauspicious 1-2 start but culminated in the squad’s 32nd consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. In between, then-senior forward Will Bates established himself as one of the best players in the ACC, fellow senior midfielder Ari Dimas was ruled ineligible thus ending his collegiate career and several Cavalier freshmen rose to the occasion to mitigate his departure.
Virginia’s season ultimately ended in the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round with the Cavaliers bowing out to No. 13 New Mexico. The team posted a 3-4-1 record in the ACC for the season and played competitively but did not break through against some of the country’s best teams.
Six freshmen and four sophomores started for those Cavaliers, and this year, with the team ranked 25th in the preseason NSCAA Coaches Poll, Virginia coach George Gelnovatch expects to rely on youth once more. For the on-the-cusp Cavaliers to take a step forward, Virginia’s sophomores must be anything but sophomoric.
“We’ll still be young — not quite as young as last year [with] how much they’ve grown just in experience and how they can apply that with leadership and confidence,” Gelnovatch said. “That experience will have a lot to do with our success this year.”
The group includes midfielder-forward Marcus Salandy-Defour, forward Darius Madison and midfielder Todd Wharton, each of whom garnered All-ACC Freshman Team honors in 2012. Salandy-Defour started each of the Cavaliers’ 21 games, and Wharton stuck in the starting lineup for the season’s final 18 after beginning the year in a reserve role. Madison scored twice for Virginia in a year interrupted by an ankle injury.
The sophomore class also boasts midfielder-defender Scott Thomsen, who last season displayed a knack for setting up his teammates while playing the most minutes of any Cavalier. Thomsen’s eight assists ranked second in the ACC and were the most by a Virginia player since 2006.
Sophomore defender Zach Carroll proved an adept playmaker out of the backfield. Carroll finished second on the team with 10 points despite missing five games with his own bum ankle. Carroll’s four goals included two game-winners.
This year, the already standout sophomore class received another strong piece with the addition of Creighton-transfer Jeff Gal. The goalie started 15 games for the Blue Jays in 2012, compiling a 13-1-1 record, and played a significant role in then-No. 12 Creighton’s run to the NCAA College Cup Semifinals. Gal made a career-best eight saves in a Round of 16 overtime win at then-No. 5 Akron and placed fifth in the NCAA in save percentage and eighth in goals-against average in his trial campaign.
“He played in … some of the toughest environments that a young goalkeeper can play in,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s played in big games – at home, on the road – so he’s not coming here as a young, inexperienced guy. I mean, this guy’s been around the block, and he’s a good goalkeeper.”
Gelnovatch believes his team will receive on-field contributions from this season’s freshmen class as well. The precocious group, which includes College Soccer News top-five recruits midfielder Jordan Allen and forward Nicko Corriveau, received ample playing-time in last week’s friendly against Radford. Freshman forward Riggs Lennon scored off a Corriveau assist and later set up junior forward Ryan Zinkhan’s goal in the Cavaliers’ 2-0 exhibition win.
“Both these classes – last year’s class and this year’s class – are among our most talented classes in years, and I anticipate two, [or] as many as four guys working their way into the [starting] lineup,” Gelnovatch said. “The bulk of this team is going to be made up of freshmen and sophomores.”
If Virginia is to challenge Maryland, North Carolina and new-to-the-conference Notre Dame – the second, fourth and seventh-ranked teams in the country, respectively – for the ACC regular season title, the young Cavaliers must play with consistent poise and grit. In the preseason poll, ACC coaches picked Virginia to finish fifth out of 12 teams in the conference.
“Our conference is the best soccer conference in the country,” Gelnovatch said. “Traditionally, the top five or six or even seven ACC teams are in the top-20 of college soccer rankings. And so, I guess what that means is, every weekend you’re playing in a big game, you’re playing against a very good opponent in a very good atmosphere.”
Challenging for the conference championship will be all the more difficult without Bates on the pitch. The two-time First-Team All-ACC forward concluded his Virginia career with 46 goals, the seventh-most in program history. Last year, Bates accounted for 12 of Virginia’s 29 goals.
“Without Will Bates scoring goals, we’ve got to figure out who’s going to do that,” Gelnovatch said. “I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be by committee. I do think that we have a number of guys that can score between four and 10 goals.”
The team will look to find its post-Bates identity in the season’s early goings. The Cavaliers play their regular season-opener against No. 10 Louisville at Klöckner Stadium Aug. 30, one of seven matchups against teams ranked inside the preseason NSCAA poll’s top-25.
Gelnovatch, entering his 18th season at the University, lauded his team’s superior depth while noting that it may take time for his young players to adapt.
“I’m trying to think back when I’ve had this many good options,” Gelnovatch said. “The issue is that I think they’re very good options – it’s just a lot of them are young, inexperienced, and unproven … Scoring goals and kind of figuring out what our best group of guys is, I think that’s going to take a little time. The concern is just making sure we win games along the way and keep ourselves very competitive.”