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Season success halted at NCAAs

For the first three months of their season, the Virginia men's soccer team was unstoppable. Backed by a dominating defense that recorded 11 shutouts, the Cavaliers ran through conference opponents seemingly at will, overcoming every challenge en route to a 16-0-1 regular season record.

After two early postseason losses, however, the Cavaliers saw their championship dreams evaporate in the conclusion to a season that, while in many ways exceptional, failed to live up to lofty expectations.

Despite Virginia's second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament after losing to Seton Hall, 1-0, at home on Nov. 24, coach George Gelnovatch said that his team had had a solid 2001 campaign.

"I think that the season was a very good one," Gelnovatch said. "We started out with a couple of goals. The first was winning the regular season ACC, which we did. We also wanted to compete for the ACC championship, which we did, although we fell a little short. Our success during the regular season put us in the position to compete for a national championship, getting the bye with the second seed. We were undefeated in the regular season for the first time in 15 years, and nobody in the ACC scored a goal on us. There were a lot of good things. It's just really tough now to look back on this season, but what a great season it was."

Led by a group of seniors that had suffered season-ending losses three times in the NCAA quarterfinals, the Cavaliers returned to Charlottesville early last summer to begin conditioning, followed by training and preparation for their exhibition tour in Europe.

After struggling with allowing soft early goals last year, the Cavaliers' defense was stellar the entire season. The most telling statistic about the improved quality of the defense is their six shutout victories against ACC opponents. While a perfect ACC season has been accomplished several times (the last one by the Cavaliers in 1986, when Gelnovatch himself was a player) no team had ever completed a conference season without allowing a goal.

"Overall, we had a priority as a team to do better in terms of defending," Gelnovatch said. "Matt Oliver, who was redshirted last year, was certainly a big factor. He and Jon Cole teamed up as our two central defenders. We knew that the combination would be pretty good, but it turned out to be one of best combos in country."

Paced by forwards Ryan Gibbs (23 points), Alecko Eskandarian (21 points), and midfielder Kyle Martino (20 points), Virginia proved just as effective at scoring goals as at preventing them. After a 2-1 win against rival James Madison Nov. 9, the team finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the nation.

Having secured the bye given to the top-seeded team, the Cavaliers entered the ACC Tournament in the semifinal round. They struggled to defeat fourth-seeded Wake Forest in overtime, 1-0, and the win was further marred by the losses of Cole and Gibbs to injury. While the remarkable depth of the Cavalier bench helped plug these holes, the team lost to Clemson, 1-0, in the ACC Championship game.

The downturn in momentum continued into the NCAA Tournament in which, after a bye week, the Cavaliers hosted Seton Hall. Despite hammering 23 shots at the Pirates' goal, Virginia was unable to post a response to an early goal by Phil Swenda and saw its season end for the fourth consecutive year on its home turf.

"In the back of my head I was thinking this is one of of those games where we just can't get it in," Martino told The Washington Post on Nov. 25. "I just kept looking back up at the clock and I felt it just couldn't happen."

With the graduation of four starters and the decision of Martino, a junior, to leave for the professional ranks, preparations for next season promise to be interesting for the Cavaliers. Nonetheless, as he looks at the returning players for the 2002 season, Gelnovatch sees no reason for concern.

"We have guys waiting in the wings, particularly a couple of first-year guys who are talented and ready to step in, as well as a very good recruiting class." Gelnovatch said. "Next year we should be as good as this year or better"


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