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Leonard stops offenses with attitude, heart

In last weekend's heartbreaking 2-1 loss to N.C. State, Virginia defender and emotional leader Marshall Leonard must have been tired after nearly 90 minutes of draining play. He must have been frustrated after struggling with the Wolfpack's aggressive offensive scheme. And, when he missed the shot that might have won the game for the Virginia men's soccer team, the emotion poured out.

Leonard shot from point-blank range, but fate was behind N.C. State that day, and the goal that could have been was not. Then came a blood-curdling scream of frustration and the image that exemplified the bad luck of the Cavaliers -- Leonard doubled over with his knees locked and his head dug into the moist earth, his eyes directed at the feet that failed him moments before.

The emotion that Leonard exhibited in that match and in every game in which he suits up at defender for Cav coach George Gelnovatch demonstrates the passion and excitement he brings to the Cavaliers (7-4-1, 1-2-1 ACC).

"He's a really emotional player," second-year midfielder and tri-captain Steve Totten said. "He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that gives our team a lift whenever we need one."

Leonard came to Charlottesville two years ago by way of Shaw High School in Midland, Ga., where he earned Parade and NSCAA All-American honors as a midfielder. When he arrived at Virginia, though, the coaching staff saw his potential on defense and sent him to the backline.

The 5-foot-7 Leonard flourished at his new position last season, starting all but one of Virginia's matches as a first year. He has improved on that this year and has become a steady and reliable force in the back. Through 12 games, Leonard has played 1,077 minutes, and has sat for only 43 minutes of the Virginia season.

"He's got one of the greatest hearts I've seen in anybody playing," third-year defender Mike Feller said. "He's a great defender, but the main thing is how hard he works everyday in practice and games. He's one of those guys that people feed off."

Leonard leads a fearsome foursome of starting defenders that also includes first-year Jonathan Cole and third-years Feller and Chad Prince. The four average 170 pounds across the line, and opposing teams know they should be prepared for a physical game whenever they face Virginia. The Cavs have committed 15 or more fouls in all but one of their 12 games.

"Other teams probably don't appreciate our physical play, but they have to deal with it," Leonard said. "There's always an intimidation factor when we play. Our defense wants to set the tone early and prove to the forwards that they're not going to beat us."

Thus far this season, the Virginia defense has been matched up against some of the best offensive players in the nation. Maryland's Jason Cropley and Taylor Twellman, N.C. State's Sebastian Rodriguez and Wake Forest's Jason Barbee -- several of the top scorers in the ACC -- were all prevented from finding the back of the net against the Cavs. In Saturday's 2-0 victory over VCU, the defense frustrated All-American forward Ricardo Capilla en route to their third shutout of the season.

"We know coming into a game who the top offensive players on a team are, and we're going to stop them," Leonard said. "Everybody in this backline can match up with any player on any team."

Leonard said he is confident the Virginia defense can carry the team where it wants to go.

"We're one of the few teams in the country that plays soccer the way it was meant to be played," he said. "If we play as well as we're capable of, we can win the national championship"

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