The Virginia starters assembled on the field at Klockner Stadium for a Sept. 26 game against East Tennessee State, forming a circle on the grass, arms winding around each other. The pregame tradition seemed the same as always, except for one startling difference — no Holden Brown.
The senior goalkeeper and co-captain suffered a season-ending PCL tear in practice before the game against the Buccaneers, Virginia’s ninth game of the season. Junior Joey Batrouni, who transferred from Coastal Carolina this spring, replaced Brown in goal that night and has occupied the position since.
The Cavaliers went undefeated in the eight regular season games after Batrouni’s installation — including wins over then-No. 8 Louisville, then-No. 10 North Carolina and then-No. 11 Pittsburgh — before falling on penalty kicks to No. 22 Syracuse in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. They have ascended from unranked to No. 9 in that time. Batrouni also earned ACC Defensive Player of the Week after the Louisville game.
Batrouni has, by all accounts, performed brilliantly. But it has sometimes been disconcerting to watch Virginia play without Brown. Brown had become something of an institution, a gloved 6-foot-4 buttress. He played every minute as a sophomore and junior but will play no more minutes this season.
“A freshman [teammate]... knee slid into my knee and got me right underneath the knee,” Brown said.
His PCL tore immediately, but Brown was luckily able to avoid rupturing his ACL. He’s hyper mobile, he explained, demonstrating by grotesquely contorting his uninjured knee. So the ACL remained safe, meaning Brown dodged the bomb but still got pelted by its shrapnel.
The injury left a void, and in stepped Batrouni, who just a year ago was playing his home games at Coastal Carolina’s Coastal Carolina University Soccer Field. Upon transferring, Batrouni was excited about Virginia’s larger audience — a noticeable improvement over Coastal Carolina.
“Coastal probably got around 400 to 500 fans,” Batrouni said. “Here we get 3,000 to 5,000 fans. It’s definitely a big difference. Something I’m not really used to, but I’ve experienced in away games when I was playing with Coastal. So it’s definitely very special.”
Batrouni transferred to Virginia in January, ditching a calcified starting spot to fight an uphill battle for Virginia’s starting position. His route to playing time appeared murky. But Batrouni explained the switch from playing in the Sun Belt Conference to the ACC was motivation enough to transfer and fight for a starting spot.
“In the college world, ACC is known as the best,” Batrouni said. “So I played two years there, started, and I wanted to take my game up to another level.”
Virginia, in recruiting Batrouni, performed its own calculus. Coach George Gelnovatch cited depth issues, the team having struggled with high turnover and injuries at the goalkeeper position over the last few years. But there was something else, too — Gelnovatch was specifically looking for a goalkeeper to challenge his starter.
“We wanted to find a goalkeeper who was not just competent and good, but who could also push Holden for the starting position,” Gelnovatch said. “And that’s what Joey is.”
Brown supported the decision. He wanted an accomplished training partner, competitor and someone to use as a springboard.
“I love Joey,” Brown said. “Joey’s one of my best friends on the team, actually. Even when we were competing for the spot in the beginning of the semester. Great guy, hard-working.”
Brown suffered a labrum injury in the spring season, making Batrouni the temporary starter throughout the unofficial spring season. Gelnovatch praised his performance, and Batrouni said he was pleased with the way he played.
“I think I played pretty well,” Batrouni said. “Had some good wins. It went pretty decent.”
Batrouni carried that momentum into the summer and into the season’s inception. The goalkeeper battle remained active as the season began, Brown the established stalwart, Batrouni the talented transfer.
Brown started the first game of the season, against Iona. Virginia won, 1-0 and Iona never challenged. Batrouni started the second game of the season, against Loyola Marymount. Virginia lost, 3-1. Pundits can parse Batrouni’s performance but the equation — at least as far as the goalkeeping battle goes — was simple. Brown won and Batrouni lost.
“We lost,” Gelnovatch said. “He was involved in a couple of plays. And so the next, whatever, five games, it was Holden. That’s how it works.”
Batrouni understood the reasoning, he said. Brown had been the man for two years and the coaches had grown comfortable with him. So when trouble arrived, of course they reverted fully to their proven keeper and captain. While Batrouni understood, the loss of playing time still tormented him.
“Obviously, any loss is a disappointment,” Batrouni said. “But losing your spot is even worse. So it took a toll on me.”
But Batrouni kept working. He earned his start against East Tennessee State. He had been slated to start even before Brown’s injury, reigniting the goalkeeper battle.
“It was like, okay, it’s my chance,” Batrouni said. He seized it and things have gone quite well.
“We’re undefeated, have two clean sheets, a win against No. 8 Louisville, and a tie against No. 19 Hofstra,” Batrouni said after his fourth consecutive start, before adding the wins over No. 11 Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, High Point and No. 10 North Carolina. “It's going good so far.”
He possesses, it might seem, something of a knack for understatement. Losing Brown might have seemed to the casual fan like doomsday, but Batrouni holds the talent, experience and credentials.
“With Holden, when it was all four of us [goalkeepers], it was very special,” Batrouni said. “We had a good relationship. Now, with Holden out, it's kind of like we're missing a piece.”
That piece will, eventually, return. Brown has two more years of eligibility — the COVID-19 year granted to all athletes and a recently approved medical redshirt. He plans to use one, he said. But for now, all he can do is sit there, large frame tucked into a sideline folding chair, winter hat on, crutches at his side.
Batrouni has plugged the void. He will try, as Virginia motors into the postseason, to fasten it shut.