The toughest game of the season could not have come at a more dramatic time as Virginia faces North Carolina at home in its final regular season game Friday night. Virginia looks to not only get a win on senior night, but also to take advantage of its last opportunity to move up in the ACC standings.
The No. 25 Cavaliers (9-3-2, 4-2-1 ACC) come into this game having won their last two games. While these wins have helped Virginia gain confidence, the No. 3 Tar Heels (14-1-1, 6-1-0 ACC) should prove to be a more difficult test. North Carolina’s high-pressure style has led them to top of the conference, and a win on Friday would solidify that spot going into the ACC tournament.
Both players and coaches know that beating a team as talented as the Tar Heels never comes easy, even at home. The Tar Heel press has been nearly unstoppable this season, causing the opposition to crumble under the constant pressure. Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said he hopes his team can counter North Carolina’s dominating style and take advantage using their speed and one-on-one talent.
“They’re going to play like they always play,” Gelnovatch said. “They’re going to come out and press. However, we’re different than anyone they’ve played. I think we’re good enough to pick our spots to play through it. If we catch them at the right time, we can make them pay for it unlike other teams.”
A Cavalier win on Friday would put Virginia in a top-four seed in the ACC, guaranteeing home field advantage in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. With Notre Dame close behind, anything other than a victory on Friday would likely drop the Cavaliers out of the top four and force them to navigate an already challenging ACC tournament on the road.
In past years, Virginia has not relied on home field advantage in the playoffs to bring success. Experienced players, such as senior midfielder Scott Thomsen, know that while playing at home can be an advantage, good teams can always find a way to win on the road — that is part of what makes them good teams.
“Any time on the road in the ACC, you know you’re going to play in tough places,” Thomsen said. “Over my four years here, we haven’t had the home field advantage, and we seemed to have done alright. We’re ready to play wherever we have to go, but it would be nice to get a game at home.”
Virginia hopes senior night will not be the final time this Cavalier team plays under the lights in Charlottesville, but now is not the time to worry about the postseason. Virginia must focus on the game at hand.
“They’re going to be one of the best teams we’ve played all season,” Thomsen said. “If we start looking at anything else, that’s the wrong mindset to have.”
North Carolina has won three straight coming into the matchup, including a 1-0 victory Tuesday night against Northeastern. Virginia, which has not played since Friday, hopes that its extra practice time during the week will help its performance.
“We purposely don’t have a midweek game to have some meaningful training sessions and preparation,” Gelnovatch said. “We’ve been through this before. We just have to stay focused down the stretch.”
It’s clear that a lot is riding on this game, and playing against one of the nation’s top teams does little to relieve tension. Senior midfielder and captain Todd Wharton invites the pressure.
“I love playing in games like this,” Wharton said. I’d rather have the hardest game than the easiest game to score five goals.”
The matchup is set for Friday in Klöckner Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.