What to expect in Virginia sports in 2019-20

After a successful 2018-19 campaign, a preview of what lies ahead for Virginia sports

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Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins will lead Virginia in its pursuit of a division title.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

After success in multiple sports and two national championships this year — in men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse — Virginia has clinched the Capital One Cup in men’s athletics, an honor awarded to the school that achieves the highest level of success across multiple sports. 2018-19 was a successful campaign for Virginia athletics, and sports teams will look to replicate that success in the upcoming year.

Here’s an early preview of what to expect in several Virginia sports as the 2019-20 season approaches.

Football

Last year was a successful year for Virginia football, with the Cavaliers finishing 8-5 and winning a bowl game for the first time since 2005. Virginia’s 28-0 thrashing of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl cemented the season’s success. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has improved every year in his three years at Virginia — in 2016, the Cavaliers finished 2-10, in 2017, they finished 6-7 and lost their bowl game and last year they finished 8-5 and won their bowl game — and there is no reason why that trend won’t continue this year. 

Virginia returns multiple starters on a strong defense — senior Jordan Mack and juniors Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier lead a strong linebacking corps, senior Bryce Hall and juniors Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson lead a strong secondary and junior Mandy Alonso, senior Richard Burney, sophomore Aaron Faumui and senior Eli Hanback are poised to lead an improved defensive line — and has added a strong defensive recruiting class. Freshmen defensive tackles Jowon Briggs and Ben Smiley are instant impact additions to the Cavaliers’ interior, and freshmen linebackers Hunter Stewart and Nick Jackson provide important depth for an already strong position group. 

On offense, while Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheaus were big losses, Virginia has plenty of depth at the running back position — including Wayne Taulapapa, PK Kier and Mike Hollins, part of the incoming recruiting class — and has a talented receiver corps led by junior Terrell Jana and senior Joe Reed that will only be improved by the addition of graduate transfers Dejon Brissett and Terrell Chatman. 

Above all, Virginia is poised for success with dual threat senior quarterback Bryce Perkins running the show. After passing for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns and running for 923 yards and nine touchdowns in his first year, Perkins should only improve in his second year in Mendenhall’s system. With talent on both sides of the ball and an established system and culture, the Cavaliers are poised for success in 2019. While they had a solid season last year, Virginia did not win the ACC Coastal and came up short against in-state rival Virginia Tech. In 2019, Virginia football has all the tools to accomplish both of these goals.

Volleyball

Although volleyball had its fair share of struggles last season, the Cavaliers are an extremely young team and will be returning every player who appeared in more than 25 games in 2018. On the offensive side, Virginia is led by the trio of junior outside hitter Sarah Billiard, sophomore outside hitter Grace Turner and senior right-side hitter Jelena Novakovic. The three combined for 827 kills last season and will hope to lead the Cavaliers again in 2019. 

Defensively, senior libero Kelsey Miller and sophomore middle blocker Milla Ciprian led the team in digs and blocks, respectively. While the Cavaliers only won eight games last season, they have plenty of young talent throughout the roster and should only improve with another year under their belt.

Men’s soccer

Since the 1980s, Virginia has been a national power in men’s soccer, winning seven national titles in the last 30 years, with the most recent championship coming in 2014. However, the team wasn’t able to replicate its past success last season. After an up-and-down conference schedule, the Cavaliers were upset in the first round of the ACC Tournament before falling to Notre Dame in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite Virginia’s shortcomings in the postseason, the Cavaliers return most of their best players for the 2019 season and will look to be a national contender once again. 

Specifically, the team’s top three goalscorers — sophomore forwards Daryl Dike and Cabrel Happi Kamseu and junior forward Nathaniel Crofts will be back to lead the Virginia attack. Virginia’s defense only allowed 12 goals all season and junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler will look to maintain the Cavaliers’ defensive success next season. Men’s soccer — historically Virginia’s most successful team — looks to return to the program’s championship-winning ways and seem to be prepared to do so. 

Women’s soccer

Women’s soccer has consistently been a nationally ranked team in recent years and has always found a way to remain at or near the top of the ACC. The Cavaliers won 16 games over the course of last season and were 7-3 in conference play — third behind only North Carolina and Duke. While Virginia won six of its last seven regular season games, the Cavaliers only found limited success in the postseason. Virginia fell to Florida State in the ACC semifinals and was eliminated in the NCAA Round of 16 for the third year in a row. 

As the Cavaliers try to get past the third round of the national tournament for the first time since 2015, Virginia will return every player, but one, from last season’s starting lineup. With so much returning talent, Virginia seems poised to build on last year and make a deeper postseason run. 

Men’s basketball

The 2018-19 season was the most successful season in men’s basketball history, ending with a national championship. While that level of success will be tough to replicate, particularly with all three of Virginia’s leading scorers from last year — De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy — leaving for the NBA, Virginia has plenty of returning and incoming talent and has the potential to match up with the best teams in the country. 

Returning starting sophomore guard Kihei Clark and senior forward Mamadi Diakite should play big roles, and rotation players last year — senior guard Braxton Key and junior forward Jay Huff — will have to step up for Virginia in 2019-20. Because of the loss of Virginia’s three leading scorers, however, the incomers will also have to make an immediate impact. Junior transfer guard Tomas Woldetensae will likely be asked to start and contribute offensively, in addition to the incoming class — freshman guard Casey Morsell and freshman forward Kadin Shedrick. 

Last year, it was clear who the playmakers were on offense. It was clear what players Virginia would turn to down the stretch — any one of the big three, who accounted for 118 of the Cavaliers’ 147 points in the Final Four. Look for Key to make a big leap this year and become one of Virginia’s primary scorers — he already was one of the Cavaliers’ best defenders last year. In addition to Key and improved outside shooting from Diakite, one of the incoming guards — Morsell or Woldetensae — will need to become a primary scorer. If that happens, Virginia is set for success.

Women’s basketball

While the Cavaliers struggled in their first year under Coach Tina Thompson, finishing with a 12-19, 5-11 ACC record and losing in the second round of the ACC Tournament, there is reason to believe this upcoming year will be a different story. 

First, Virginia returns most of its starters — a talented lineup that includes senior forward Jocelyn Willoughby and senior guard Dominique Touissant — and will have senior center Felicia Aiyeotan, the Cavaliers’ defensive anchor, back from injury. Sophomore guard Armandine Toi, who was projected to start before she had to sit out all of last year with injury, will give a boost to the team. 

Even though they struggled in Thompson’s first year, Virginia returns a talented, experienced team that has what it takes to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers showed signs of improvement from non-conference to conference play and should only get better in year two under Thompson.

Men’s lacrosse

Unlike the men’s basketball team, which will have to fill a significant void next year, the national champion men’s lacrosse team returns almost all of its best players and will add to that one of the best recruiting classes in the country, according to Inside Lacrosse. Virginia lacrosse is back, and it isn't going away anytime soon. The national champions return four of their best offensive players — junior attackmen Matt Moore and Ian Laviano, senior attackman Michael Kraus and senior midfielder Dox Aitken. The three attackmen, arguably the best trio in the country, will only improve their chemistry next year. They will be joined next year by freshman attackman Connor Shellenberger, ranked the top recruit in the nation by Inside Lacrosse. 

The Cavaliers also return junior starting goalie Alex Rode, starting junior defenseman Kyle Kology and sophomore defenseman Cade Saustad and standout sophomore faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla. Virginia is loaded — and will only get better with the incoming recruiting class. Coach Lars Tiffany’s team is poised for a repeat.

Women’s lacrosse

For the third consecutive year, women’s lacrosse’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In an extremely loaded ACC, Virginia finished fifth, going 3-4 in conference play and picking up big wins against conference rivals Duke, Louisville and Virginia Tech. While the Cavaliers may not have gone far in either the ACC or NCAA Tournament, Virginia was unfortunate to run into top ACC teams — Syracuse and North Carolina — early in both competitions. 

Going forward, Virginia lost four of its top five players in points from 2018 — midfielders Kasey Behr and Maggie Jackson and attackers Ana Hagerup and Avery Shoemaker — as well as the team’s starting goalkeeper Rachel Kolk. Shoemaker and Jackson — who finished with 62 and 64 points last year, respectively — will be particularly tough to replace. Virginia’s top goalscorer last year, however, remains in Charlottesville. Senior  midfielder Sammy Mueller will hope to bring the Cavaliers’ attack to the next level.   

Baseball

After 14 consecutive seasons of making the NCAA Tournament and a College World Series Championship in 2015, Virginia baseball has recently had a few frustrating seasons. In the last two, the Cavaliers failed to make the NCAA Tournament. That said, the future looks bright for Coach Brian O’Connor and Virginia baseball. 

This past year saw gradual improvement from 2018 — Virginia finished 32-21, 14-16 ACC this year, an improvement from the Cavaliers’ 29-25, 12-18 ACC record last year. Despite star shortstop Tanner Morris leaving for the MLB, Virginia returns First Team All-ACC sophomore second baseman Nic Kent and junior designated hitter Brendan Rivoli — who tied for the team lead in RBIs with 42 — and freshman third baseman Zack Gelof, who had 32 RBIs and batted .313. Furthermore, senior pitcher Chesdin Harrington, who had the most wins of any Cavalier pitcher last year, is returning to Virginia for his last year of eligibility.

Softball

With Lacy Smith leaving, softball loses its best hitter in a long time. Smith racked up records in her time at Virginia, and the Cavaliers will need to replace her offensive firepower next year. In addition to Smith, Haley Busby, the other go-to bat for the Cavaliers, will be gone next year. On top of that, Allyson Frei, Virginia’s primary starting pitcher, has graduated. 

Softball hasn’t eclipsed a .500 record since 2012 — and that isn’t likely to change next year. Returning talented hitters like sophomore left fielder Tori Gilbert and junior center fielder Kate Covington and pitchers like sophomore Aly Rayle, however, should allow the Cavaliers to challenge in the ACC, one of the toughest conferences in softball. In particular, Rayle took turns with Frei on the mound down the stretch and gives Virginia an automatic go-to starting pitcher. Virginia will play in a new stadium in 2020 — and that should add some excitement to the upcoming season.

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