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Graduation Roundtable: The CD Sports Staff highlight the graduating athletes they’ll miss most

We take a look at four senior athletes who have made an ever-lasting mark on Virginia Athletics

<p>Bryce Perkins (top left), Jocelyn Willoughby (top right), Braxton Key (bottom left) and Meghan McCool (bottom right) have left a lasting mark on the University.</p>

Bryce Perkins (top left), Jocelyn Willoughby (top right), Braxton Key (bottom left) and Meghan McCool (bottom right) have left a lasting mark on the University.

Despite having some of their seasons cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these four senior athletes leave Charlottesville having made a lasting impression on their sport and the University. 

Which athlete will you miss most and why?

Akhil Rekulapelli, Sports Editor: Bryce Perkins. Following the graduation of Kurt Benkert, Coach Bronco Mendenhall needed a dual-threat quarterback that had the potential to lead Virginia football to new heights. Perkins was that quarterback, dazzling Cavalier fans with his ability to escape blitzes with ease and use his arm or his speed to make a big play. In the 2018 season, he led Virginia to an 8-5 record — its first winning season since 2011 — and a resounding 28-0 victory over SEC foe South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, firmly placing the Cavaliers in the upper echelon of ACC football. However, it was the 2019 season when Perkins truly thrust Virginia into the national spotlight. Despite being known as a strong runner, Perkins broke the Virginia single-season passing record with 3,538 yards while accounting for 33 total touchdowns en route to second-team All-ACC honors. Furthermore, in a game that will be forever etched into the memories of Virginia fans, Perkins passed for 311 yards, rushed for 164 yards, and accounted for 3 total touchdowns in a 39-30 win over rival Virginia Tech, almost single-handedly willing the Cavaliers to their first win over the Hokies in 15 years. As Perkins moves on to an NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams, he’ll be remembered not just as the quarterback that brought the Commonwealth Cup back to Charlottesville, but someone who brought tradition and excellence back to Virginia football. 

Zach Zamoff, Sports Columnist: Braxton Key. Key was a Swiss Army knife player for the men’s basketball team in his time at Virginia and was critical in the Cavaliers’ national championship run. He provided offense, defense and hustle every game. Key’s versatility on the defensive end — his ability to guard multiple positions — made the pack line work so well. Key was always willing to do whatever it took to help his team win. In the national championship season, he often came off the bench, though sometimes with limited minutes, but when Key’s number was called, he contributed. This past year, Key needed to play a much bigger role, and he did just that. Despite being listed as a guard, Key led the team with 7.4 rebounds per game — the highest per game total for a Virginia player since the 2012-2013 season. Besides his versatile skill set, Key’s cool humility epitomized Coach Tony Bennett’s pillars. He was an important leader for this year’s Cavaliers’ squad, which came out on top in many close games. Yet, Key’s impact on the University community went beyond basketball and into the classroom. He was a serious student with a passion for history. As a great student and athlete, Key will be remembered for his time on Grounds.

Caroline Lund, Sports Senior Associate: Meghan McCool. McCool is an easy choice for me after watching her dominate the field this season. It was my first time covering soccer as a beat writer, and I was immediately drawn to McCool’s strategic style of play. Whether she was spinning past defenders or finding open space in the posts, she was always in a position to strengthen Virginia’s offense and add flare to the front lines. She made an impact every match, finding ways to score even in the most difficult situations. In fact, after covering a few games I found myself watching and waiting for her to score — it was never a question of if but when — and she concluded the season in outstanding fashion with goals in 14 games. Never failing to excite, McCool scored six game-winners, including one against then No. 9 Duke in the ACC quarterfinals. Of course, McCool’s contributions went beyond scoring. In many ways, she firmly stepped into her role as team captain. She was incredibly vocal on the pitch, leading the rest of the group and shouting words of encouragement to the younger players. I was impressed too by her humility in post-game interviews, always highlighting other players’ performances and describing her goals as a team effort. McCool embodies what every soccer player should aspire to be — a talented athlete who works hard and leads by example. She will certainly be missed as the team takes the field this fall.

Eva Surovell, Sports Senior Associate: Jocelyn Willoughby. Willoughby was a key leader on and off the court for women’s basketball this season and the young team will definitely miss her. Her basketball feats are remarkable — the decorated player averaged 13.2 points per game throughout her collegiate career and led the Cavaliers in points, free-throw shooting, three-point shooting, rebounding and minutes during her final season — however, off the court was where Willoughby truly shined. She lived on the Lawn, made the ACC All-Academic Team four times and was named the first ACC Scholar of the Year in program history. However, Willoughby was not only an extremely accomplished student, but served as a phenomenal role model to her fellow teammates and peers at the University. Willoughby was recently selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury and was immediately traded to the New York Liberty, where she will form a dynamic duo with Naismith Player of the Year and point guard Sabrina Ionescu. While the Liberty have yet to win a WNBA championship in their 23 seasons, Ionescu and Willoughby could be the missing pieces to push New York over the hump. 

Describe the first time you saw him/her play.

AR: When I arrived on Grounds, I knew of Bryce Perkins, but was admittedly unsure as to if he could fill the shoes of Kurt Benkert. Benkert led the Cavaliers from an abysmal 2-10 record in the 2016 season to their first bowl game in six years in the 2017 season, breaking Virginia single-season records in passing and total offense. As the Cavaliers took the field to face Richmond to kick off the 2018 season, I couldn’t help but recall Virginia’s humiliating 37-20 loss to the Spiders just two years prior. Nonetheless, Perkins immediately washed those concerns away. He posted 185 yards passing and two passing touchdowns to go with 108 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, leading the Cavaliers to a 42-13 blowout

ZZ: I remember his first game in a Virginia uniform. The Cavaliers were opening their season against Towson and Key started the game. I was expecting a blowout victory, but the beginning was very close. Key’s first field goal for Virginia was a three-pointer that allowed the Cavaliers to start gaining a lead. Virginia ended up with a dominant victory, and Key finished with 7 points and 9 rebounds. Just like he did throughout his time at Virginia, Key played with great physicality and hustle, which was the first part of his game I noticed. He also threw a great alleyoop to Jay Huff in the second half.

CL: I didn’t really follow women’s soccer until I began covering it last season, so the first time I saw McCool play was a home match against Liberty in August. The Cavaliers won 6-0 in a complete blowout, but it was nevertheless an exciting game as four Virginia players scored in the matchup. McCool scored the team’s fourth goal — and her third of the season — in the 73rd minute, extending the Virginia lead off a corner kick with a flick from a near post. 

ES: Since I didn’t cover a specific sport this year, I tried to make it to at least one game for every team. Two of my closest friends actually helped manage women’s basketball this year, and I remember grabbing dinner with them over the winter while they talked about how great of a player Willoughby was. I was interested — and had still yet to attend a women’s basketball game — so I attended Virginia’s game against Duke, where Willoughby ended up scoring three consecutive free throws to win the game 66-63

What is your fondest memory of him/her?

AR: While it’s easy to say that the 2019 victory over Virginia Tech is my fondest memory of Virginia football, the 2019 Orange Bowl was when Perkins’ talent was displayed on a national stage. Although the Cavaliers fell 36-28 in nail-biting fashion against No. 9 Florida, Perkins captivated college football fans with his athleticism and vision. At the start of the second quarter, with Virginia down 14-7 to the Gators, Florida sent a late blitz, forcing Perkins out of the pocket. As he attempted to escape the Gator players barreling towards him, Perkins hurdled one defender, shed another defender and launched a pinpoint pass to wide receiver Hasise Dubois in the end-zone for a touchdown. As Virginia fans celebrated another fantastic display of poise from their quarterback — one that they had become accustomed to over the past two years— Perkins left college football fans and pundits unfamiliar with him in awe. 

ZZ: The national championship game, and in particular, Key’s block of Jarrett Culver and his dunk in overtime that cemented the Cavaliers’ victory stands out to me. Like he had to do for much of the season, Key came off the bench to make an impact. Key played just 10 minutes in the previous national semifinal game against Auburn, but played 29 minutes in the national championship game. His defense and rebounding — Key led all players with 10 rebounds — played a big role in Virginia’s victory. At the end of regulation, Key’s leaping block of Culver sent the game to overtime. In overtime, Key’s dunk off a long Ty Jerome inbounds pass extended Virginia’s lead to eight points with less than 15 seconds left, sealing the Cavaliers’ national championship victory. For Virginia fans, it was a moment of relief after yet another nail biting game. As Key dunked it, CBS broadcaster Bill Raftery even said, ”Say goodnight.”

CL: While McCool had several tremendous performances throughout the season, her game-winning goal against Florida State in October was my favorite moment of the season. The Seminoles had filled the stadium with fans — who were exceedingly loud throughout the match — and I remember wishing I could be there to watch the teams go head-to-head. It felt like the first game that Virginia had finally met its match — the Cavaliers’ perfect record was in jeopardy as they took on the No. 5 team on the road. It truly was one of the more nerve-racking and competitive matches I covered all season. Both teams remained scoreless through regulation, constantly trading possession as the defenses put on strong performances. In the 63rd minute, McCool found space as she broke away from a pair of defenders, but her shot was redirected by the Florida State goalkeeper. It was in the second period of overtime and 104th minute that McCool converted off a corner kick and scored the golden goal — taking down the reigning national champions and protecting the Cavaliers undefeated record.

ES: My fondest memory isn’t an exciting performance or play — it’s actually when Willoughby was named the ACC Scholar Athlete of the Year. I remember getting the notification on my phone and being so overwhelmed with joy for her — it is really a tremendous accomplishment. Notably, this is the first time a player has been awarded this honor in the women’s basketball program’s history, so I can only imagine how excited they were for her as well. This achievement is yet another reason why Willoughby’s teammates and peers can look to her as an example, and I am so excited to see what she accomplishes in the future.