I write about sports for our school paper — and have done so for the last three years — because I am a fan.
So as I look at the future of the Virginia men’s soccer team, a team I have had the great pleasure of covering this past season, I can’t help but feel just a little bit lugubrious.
As a fourth year set to graduate and leave Charlottesville in the spring — please everyone knock on wood for me — I feel as if I just watched the first half of a really promising movie and now won’t be able to see it through to the end.
You know how in sports movies the team always has to go through some sort of trial and tribulation before it is able to attain ultimate success? Some clichéd combination of a bonding and learning experience that seems almost too good to be true?
Well, that’s what the 2012 campaign was for this young Cavalier team. If it was supposed to be a “transition year,” it couldn’t have been scripted any better.
Coach George Gelnovatch — in his 17th year leading the program — intentionally set up his “youngest team ever” with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. He said that he “thought about planning it that way, thought about making it tough for them,” but even he admits he never could have foreseen how well his plan was going to work out.
Week in and week out, the jejune Cavaliers were tested on the pitch, playing a seemingly interminable string of ranked opponents. And if that wasn’t enough, 17 of the team’s 23 contests were decided by one goal or ended in a tie. Remarkably, nine went into overtime. It felt like every game this season was a last second nail-bitter that continually tried the young team’s resolve and resilience and forced me to muffle myself with my sleeve in the press box to prevent from cheering, screaming, cursing and the like.
That kind of experience is precious and exceptionally rare. For a team that is set to return 10 of 11 starters next season, that kind of experience portends prolonged success.
“We really did a lot for ourselves this season in preparation for what we want to accomplish not just next year, but the next couple of years,” Gelnovatch said. “I really feel like it’s going to pay huge dividends. This young team went through it all this year.”
What the team accomplished this year was wholly impressive and commendable on its own merit too. They should be proud of their achievements, which include making it to the semifinals of the ACC and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, when they won the entire thing.
After the team rallied from behind to defeat then-No. 22 California all the way back in August, Gelnovatch presciently told me that he was impressed with his team’s spirit.
That spirit was on full display when the team finished off its season with a seven-game unbeaten streak — its longest since 2009 — leading up to its season-ending loss to New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was also palpable in the first round of the ACC Tournament when the Cavaliers battled back from two separate one-goal deficits in a game for the first time since 2005 en route to their upset victory against Wake Forest.
Their indomitable spirit is the reason that in every game this year, no matter the score or the amount of time remaining, it always felt like the Cavaliers had a chance to win — to come back, to do something exciting.
For a team that was forced to balance a precarious mix of marked inexperience with prodigious yet raw talent, Gelnovatch believes that his squad “got the most out of each other, got the most we could out of what we had, and potentially put ourselves in a position for great future success.”
In essence, it was the paragon of how to construct a transition year.
Yes, the team will lose senior captain Will Bates next season — who, if I call him the central hub and heart of the team this year, still wouldn’t get his due credit. Bates graduates as the seventh leading goal-scorer in the program’s storied history, and Gelnovatch admits that his absence will need to be filled “by committee.”
But with freshmen studs Darius Madison, Marcus Salandy-Defour, Brian James, Todd Wharton, and Jordan Poarch — in addition to sophomores Eric Bird, Chris Somerville, and Ryan Zinkhan — all returning, there will simply be too much talent on offense for the ball not to consistently find the back of the net.
In addition, sophomore goalkeeper Spencer LaCivita, who was purportedly playing at 80 percent health all season long as he courageously battled a painful hip injury that required surgery Tuesday, is expected to make a full recovery by next season. Combine that with a backline that already proved to be stout and is set to return all four starters, and the defense should again be tough to penetrate.
Honestly, I can say it was a real joy to watch this young team grow and develop throughout this season. It felt like I was experiencing the beginning — the creation — of something that could be special.
When you combine their spirit with what will now be an immense repertoire of experiences … well, let’s just say that I’ve never been one for bold predictions, but I feel very confident in saying that the future is very bright for our Cavaliers.
And I’m not alone in that belief.
“It’s exciting to think about the next couple of years for the program,” Gelnovatch said. “I think we’re going to be very, very good going forward.”
Selfishly, I just hope that wherever I end up after graduation, I’ll be able to make it back to Charlottesville — preferably in December — to see how the movie ends.