Virginia seeks return to College Cup

After 1-0 upset of Notre Dame, men's soccer faces Georgetown Saturday afternoon

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The start of the 2014 NCAA Tournament against UNC-Wilmington certainly could have sent better omens to the Virginia men’s soccer team. It took all of 62 seconds for the Cavaliers to see their captain and leading goal scorer — senior midfielder Eric Bird — exit the game with a groin injury.

After a 20th minute score by the Seahawks, it appeared Virginia — with Bird absent — could fall in its first contest of the postseason. But a goal in the 44th minute by sophomore forward Sam Hayward, who substituted into the game nine minutes earlier, changed not only the game’s momentum, but also the trajectory of the Cavaliers’ postseason.

Virginia went on to score two more goals before the final whistle to capture the 3-1 victory. The following week, the Cavaliers shocked the college soccer world by taking down top-seeded Notre Dame, 1-0, in South Bend, Indiana.

But the Virginia team — with its eyes on a higher prize — still did not buy into the national hype.

“We didn’t really see it as an upset as much as everyone else did,” junior midfielder Todd Wharton said.

Now just one game stands in the way of a return trip to the College Cup — an NCAA Quarterfinal matchup against No. 8 Georgetown (14-4-4, 6-2-1 Big East) in Washington, D.C. Saturday.

Plenty of the credit for reviving the No. 16 Cavaliers (12-6-2, 3-3-2 ACC) goes to coach George Gelnovatch, who switched from the 3-5-2 alignment he utilized throughout the regular season to a more traditional 4-4-2 look his teams employed in years past.

The Fighting Irish — whose strength is exploiting open space — struggled to get past the four-man Virginia back line Sunday, which played a large part in the Cavaliers notching the shutout despite giving up three goals to the same opponent three weeks earlier.

“I think playing four in the back, more than the 4-4-2 itself, has allowed us to not be so vulnerable in certain places,” Gelnovatch said. “I think that has been a pretty big part of things that has helped us.”

Perhaps more impactful, however, has been Virginia’s newfound depth. While battling through the nation’s toughest schedule by opponent’s winning percentage, the Cavalier reserves logged key minutes in critical situations.

The past two games are perfect examples of the way Gelnovatch challenges his team to play against strong opponents year in and year out.

Redshirt freshman midfielder Pablo Aguilar — who saw only limited action this season — was pressed into immediate duty after Bird’s injury. Aguilar played a solid 64 minutes against UNC Wilmington, and he earned his first career assist on the game-winning goal against Notre Dame while playing 89 minutes.

“Pablo, as a guy that hasn’t played much all year, stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat,” Gelnovatch said.

Similarly, the Cavaliers have received contributions from several reserves that constitute a formidable rotation at forward.

Both Hayward and senior forward Kyle McCord — neither of whom started against UNC Wilmington — netted goals against the Seahawks. A week later in the game against Notre Dame, it was sophomore midfielder Nicko Corriveau, who played sparingly through the first half of the season, who scored to help carry the Cavaliers to victory.

“The whole team has just rallied around and everyone has fought for each other,” Wharton said.

Now, as Virginia prepares for a re-match against Georgetown — the two teams played to a 1-1 draw in an August exhibition match — it might have yet another leg up on the competition.

Gelnovatch said he feels even more prepared for Saturday’s matchup because Georgetown coach Brian Wiese is one of many coaches in college soccer who was taught by Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark.

Wiese played under Clark at Dartmouth, then spent multiple years as his assistant at both Stanford and Notre Dame. More importantly for the Cavaliers, Wiese’s team has philosophies and formations similar to the Fighting Irish.

After preparing for Notre Dame three times this season, Gelnovatch and his staff could not have asked for a better team to play next.

“If there was a team to prepare for [Georgetown] in the whole country, I would have picked Notre Dame,” Gelnovatch said.

But even without the advantageous matchup, Virginia is confident in the state of its team. As the lineup continues to evolve and players continue to develop, the Cavaliers have only improved.

Throughout the season, Gelnovatch expressed frustration that Virginia seemed unable to catch any breaks. And even Bird's injury aside, the postseason has been far from smooth sailing for the Cavaliers.

Now, with improved depth and renewed confidence, Virginia appears to have reached a point where those lucky breaks will finally go its way. As they showed a year ago, the Cavaliers are as dangerous as any other team in the tournament heading into their quarterfinal matchup.

“When you can evolve like that and get better and have the good morale and team spirit that we have, that’s what you call a playoff run,” Gelnovatch said. “I think that’s where we are right now.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Shaw Field in Washington, D.C.

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