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Virginia’s fall sports sustain success and take strides forward

With all Cavalier fall sports in the books, let’s take a look at how each season went

<p>Virginia women's soccer paired a successful regular season with a run to the NCAA Quarterfinals before suffering a heartbreaking overtime defeat to UCLA.&nbsp;</p>

Virginia women's soccer paired a successful regular season with a run to the NCAA Quarterfinals before suffering a heartbreaking overtime defeat to UCLA. 

As the fall semester nears an end, all of Virginia’s athletic programs that compete primarily in the fall have seen their seasons come to a close. Women’s soccer and field hockey sustained a season of success, men’s soccer rediscovered its footing as an elite program and cross country and volleyball made significant strides forward.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of a new era for Virginia football with Coach Tony Elliott in his first year in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers (3-7, 1-6 ACC) had a rocky season drawn to a devastating conclusion following the fatal shooting of junior wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., junior wide receiver Devin Chandler and junior linebacker D’Sean Perry Nov. 13.

The road forward for the football team will be marked by uncertainty and difficulty, but while its 2022 campaign has ended, Virginia will undoubtedly play inspired football in 2023 in the memory of its fallen teammates.

On the soccer pitch, the men’s and women’s teams both had successful seasons, each with a unique significance. After two consecutive losing seasons and missed NCAA tournament appearances for the first time since 1980, Virginia men’s soccer (10-4-5, 5-1-2 ACC) rebounded in a big way in its 2022 campaign. 

Despite falling in the opening round of the NCAA tournament to Marshall in penalty kicks, the Cavaliers injected life back into one of the most prestigious soccer programs in the nation.

Led by junior forward Leo Afonso — a first team All-ACC selection — and senior defender Andreas Ueland — the ACC defensive player of the year — Virginia turned it around after an embarrassing 6-1 loss at the hands of then-No. 9 Maryland. The Cavaliers took down rival Virginia Tech in a thriller before going on to best five ranked opponents over the course of the season including a signature shutout victory at then-No. 3 Syracuse in late September.

While Virginia will lose Ueland and possibly Afonso and junior forward Philip Horton to the professional ranks, the Cavaliers will return a host of key players and have set themselves back on the right track.

“We’re in a place where I feel like I have seven, eight starters in place, and I can pinpoint exactly what we need to do to compete better for a trophy,” Coach George Gelnovatch said.

The women’s soccer team will go down as the most successful Virginia fall 2022 squad. The Cavaliers (16-4-3, 6-2-2 ACC) advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament before falling to top-seeded UCLA in an overtime heartbreaker

Their season was marked with a number of ups and downs. Virginia peaked at No. 2 in the national rankings coming off a thrilling comeback win over then-No. 2 North Carolina in September but then faltered, enduring a three-game winless streak in October. The Cavaliers then found a rhythm late in the season, reeling off wins in their last three regular season fixtures before embarking on a postseason run.

However, women’s soccer remains a program of what-ifs as Virginia has yet to win a national championship despite perennial regular season success and a long list of deep postseason runs — a narrative the Cavaliers will hope to put to bed in 2023 with a number of key pieces likely returning. 

Another consistently elite Virginia program is field hockey. The 2022 team, under the direction of legendary Coach Michele Madison in her 17th season in Charlottesville, excelled despite falling in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in shootout. The Cavaliers (13-8, 3-3 ACC) faced a gauntlet of highly ranked teams throughout the season including a pair of matches against the eventual national champions No. 1 North Carolina.

Virginia made an impressive run to the ACC tournament finals, toppling a pair of top-15 teams before eventually falling in a close contest against the Tar Heels. The program is in good hands with Madison at the helm going forward and will surely be competitive once again in 2023. Virginia will return a number of prolific goal-scorers including freshman midfielder Daniela Mendez-Trendler. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of this team, not just today but the entire season,” Madison said after the season-ending loss. “They’ve supported themselves and supported me, showed up every day like they showed up today.”

Moving to the race course, both the women’s and the men’s cross country teams put together impressive seasons with the women’ side finishing ninth at the NCAA Championships and the men’s team finishing 22nd.

For the women, it was a banner year and one in which they continually exceeded expectations. Virginia’s performance at the NCAA Championships was not only its first appearance at the event since 2015, but it was only the Cavaliers fifth top-10 finish in program history and their first since 2013. After finishing in 10th place in the 2021 ACC championship, a ninth-place national finish is an incredibly impressive improvement.

“Finishing ninth at the NCAA Championships demonstrates the commitment to the process of building a national-caliber program and they just took a meteoric step forward in that process as they established themselves among the nation’s best,” Vin Lananna, director of track and field, said.

The men’s side also demonstrated strides forward this fall after not appearing in the NCAA championships either of the last two years. Virginia placed second in the southeast regional championships to clinch an automatic berth in the NCAA’s, as sophomore Justin Watchel led the way with a third-place finish.

Shifting to the only fall sport played indoors, the 2022 season for Virginia volleyball was one of progress. With just one conference win and a 10-32 record across 2020 and 2021, the Cavaliers (12-17, 4-14 ACC) hoped to take a step forward under the direction of Coach Shannon Wells in her second season. Virginia did just that.

There was no meteoric rise, but Virginia earned 12 wins to go along with four conference victories. The Cavaliers toppled Florida State for the first time since 2010. Virginia swept the season series against Virginia Tech, and in the team’s home match against the Hokies, the Cavaliers set an all-time attendance record at Memorial Gymnasium with over 1,100 witnessing the win.

There was no postseason for this volleyball squad, but it is clear that Wells has the program trending in the right direction.