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Cavs earn 32nd consecutive NCAA berth

Team will host Lafayette Thursday in first round of tournament action

The Virginia men’s soccer team will host Patriot League Champion Lafayette Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Cavaliers (9-6-4, 3-4-1 ACC) will be making their 32nd consecutive appearance in the tournament, the longest active streak in the NCAA, despite using one of the nation’s youngest rosters. With six freshmen regularly penned into the starting lineup, youth and inexperience have largely defined this year’s campaign. Although Virginia is pleased to see its postseason streak continue, the players are not content with settling for that accomplishment.

“I’m proud of the group and we’re excited to be back [in the tournament],” sophomore goalkeeper Spencer LaCivita said. “But at the same time, we’re not satisfied with where we are. There are still more wins to be had and more achievements to reach this year.”

After a tough stretch in the middle of the season that saw the Cavaliers hovering around .500, coach George Gelnovatch — now in his 17th year with the program — gave his team an “ultimatum,” sophomore midfielder Eric Bird said.

“There was a point when we were 6-6 where we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Bird said. “There were two ways the season could have gone. We said we were just going to forget everything, and we knew that in the last four [regular season] games, we just needed to not lose. And that’s what we did.”

The team responded to their coach’s plea, enhancing their Tournament resume with an undefeated four-game stretch to close their regular season, followed by two solid performances in the ACC Tournament.

Virginia will enter into Thursday’s contest unbeaten in its last six games, a span that includes the team’s two ACC Tourament games — both highly competitive affairs that ended as draws in regulation and resulted in penalty kicks.

In their first round matchup against Wake Forest, Virginia managed to come back from two separate one-goal deficits for the first time since 2005, and the game concluded knotted at a 2-2 draw. The squad then advanced via a 5-3 advantage in penalty kicks.

In the semifinals, the Cavaliers played North Carolina to a scoreless draw through 110 minutes and were eliminated from the tournament 4-3 in the shootout.

The six-game unbeaten stretch was the team’s longest since 2009, when the team tallied 16 straight en route to a National Championship. With the freshmen core improving and becoming more experienced, the entire Cavalier team seems to be rounding into form at the most opportune time.

“The younger guys have really stepped up, I can’t say enough good things about them,” Bird said. “But really, I think we’ve all just been more confident. It was about coming together as a team and getting that chemistry going.”

Although unseeded, Virginia has historically proven to be a formidable force in its 34 total NCAA appearances. The Cavaliers own a 52-27-4 mark all-time and have won six NCAA Championships, third most of any school behind only Saint Louis with 10 and Indiana with seven.

Virginia is one of five ACC teams that were selected for the 48-team NCAA Tournament — the second most of any conference behind the Big East’s seven teams.

The Cavaliers have played what is generally regarded as the hardest schedule in the NCAA this season. Now, Virginia hopes that the quality of its opponents and the intensity of ACC play has helped mold the team throughout the year, giving them an edge in tournament play.

“I think [our schedule] has made us really resilient,” LaCivita said. “It gives us confidence knowing that we can play with any team in the country. Those tough games really help prepare us for postseason play because in the playoffs, every game will be like that — it’s win or go home.”

The Cavaliers have also proven to be rather hard-wearing, having played in nine overtime contests this season — including a remarkable five consecutive — and tout a 3-2-4 record in extra time affairs this year. Fifteen of the Cavaliers’ 19 games this season have been decided by one goal or have finished in a tie.

“This team has a lot of character,” Bird said. “Whenever we go down, we seem to come right back.”
The Leopards (9-7-4, 3-1-3) are no strangers to close contests themselves this season. Fifteen of Lafayette’s 20 games this year have been decided by one goal or less, and they have played in six overtime contests, holding a 1-1-4 record in those games.

Lafayette is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005, securing an automatic bid after scoring a 2-0 upset victory against top-seeded American University in the Patriot League Championship last week.

Junior midfielder Alec Golini leads Lafayette’s relatively insipid offense with seven goals this season, but the team averages just 1.15 goals per game as a whole. The Leopards defense, fortified in goal by junior Nathan McDonald, has been stout all year long, allowing just one goal per game on average.

The Cavaliers will focus much of their defensive attention on the Leopards’ senior captain, forward Kyle Scharfenberg. Scharfenberg scored a decisive goal in the Patriot League championship.
Although some players on the Cavaliers’ youthful roster were not on last season’s squad, the team’s 2011 NCAA Tournament first round home loss against Delaware — a similarly unheralded, small-conference team — still weighs heavily on many players’ minds. The players see similarities between the two matchups, and steadfastly vow that they are not taking Lafayette lightly.

“We are not overlooking Lafayette at all, I can’t stress that enough,” Bird said. “We don’t want to have a repeat of last year, and we have nothing but respect for Lafayette and what they’ve done this year. But we’re going to come out and hopefully make a statement.”

Kickoff in Klöckner Stadium will be at 1:30 p.m.