Cavaliers Win College Cup
Dec 13, 2009
The 2009 College Cup Champions! (Photo courtesy of Jim Campbell)
CARY, N.C. - A little more than three months ago, the Virginia men's soccer team was the loser of all three of its exhibition games by a combined score of 6-1.
Now, the Cavaliers call themselves National Champions.
The road wasn't always easy, it wasn't always pretty, and it was often unpredictable. But as Akron's fifth and final penalty kick sailed over the crossbar, Virginia's ultimate destination was in a dogpile in the corner of the penalty area, celebrating George Gelnovatch's first National Championship as the Cavaliers' head coach. Ending the 2009 campaign with an unbeaten streak of 16 games, the Hoos' finished with a victory over previously undefeated Akron, winning a penalty-kick shootout 3-2 after 110 minutes of scoreless soccer.
The Virginia atmosphere at game's end was as emotionally intense as the game itself - which was saying something, as evident from the 32 fouls and five yellow cards dished out by center referee Chico Grajeda. Some players cried as they hugged Gelnovatch or an assistant. Others cheered with the dedicated "Wahooligans" in attendance, many which drove four hours and sat in bitterly cold and rainy weather to cheer on the Hoos. Still more simply ran from teammate to teammate, hugging and screaming, "We're National Champions!" as if they couldn't believe it themselves.
"It's incredible," said senior Neil Barlow. "We always talked about winning an ACC Championship and a National Championship. It just feels incredible."
While disbelief was certainly a prevalent emotion at game's end, it was a moment that Gelnovatch had been anticipating. His predecessor, Bruce Arena, had won five championships - including four in a row from 1991-94 - before handing the reins to his assistant coach, Gelnovatch, in 1996. Since Gelnovatch took over, the Hoos had been to the College Cup just twice, in '97 and '06, and had not won a title. Until 2009.
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Gelnovatch likely didn't think it would take this long to earn his first National Championship as the head coach, and he said he didn't necessarily see it coming this year. But he certainly expected it soon.
"I told my athletic director, I told my associate athletic director, that it's not a matter of if it comes, it's when it comes," Gelnovatch said. "I was hell-bent on making sure of that. Over the last couple years I've been saying that, and here we are."
Standing in the way in the final, however, was Akron and its daunting 23-0-1 record - and from the moment the two teams lined up for the opening whistle, the match-up was an intriguing one. There was Virginia, which had suffered a few defeats early in the season; there was Akron, which had yet to be beaten in 2009. There was Virginia, which had allowed its first goal in nearly two months in its previous game against Wake Forest; there was Akron, which had not been shut out all season until its previous game against North Carolina. There was Virginia, which had caught fire offensively in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 11 goals in four previous tournament games; there was Akron, which had not allowed a goal in the tournament. There was Virginia, who had been battle-tested by a brutal ACC schedule; there was Akron, who had been scored on by just one team in the MAC all season.
A soggy field added an extra element to the game's dynamic. With Akron's aptitude for connecting passes in the attacking third versus Virginia's reliance on direct balls and counter-attacks, the conditions likely altered Akron's tactical approach more than that of the Cavaliers. Add that to the Virginia defense's ability to absorb pressure without making mistakes, and the weather decidedly played into the Cavaliers' hands.
"In conditions like this, we probably have a little bit of an advantage," Gelnovatch said. "I just feel like that's our mentality. We played in the ACC Tournament in the rain; our first opening weekend was in the rain."
As the game began, UVa indeed had the better of the action, earning two outstanding chances for a go-ahead goal in the first half - a redirecting header from Will Bates clanged off the near post in the 4th minute, and Tony Tchani's point-blank header sailed over the cross bar in the 26th minute. But, as has often been the case for the Cavaliers, even through the NCAA Tournament, Akron dictated the tempo in the run of play for the majority of the match, and particularly in the second half. In typical Virginia fashion, though, the back four and the goalkeeper continually stonewalled their opponent, even as the Zips created chance after chance in the penalty area. Whether it was defenders Mike Volk or Shawn Barry clearing the ball out of danger at the last possible moment, or fellow defender Greg Monaco customarily dominating balls in the air, Virginia did just enough to keep Akron from getting too many clean looks on goal.
Mike Volk made several key plays for the Cavalier defense, which pitched another shutout. (Photo courtesy of Jim Campbell)
"From day one of our season, we've had each other's backs on the back line," Volk said. "I think with us, it's, each game, we've gotten better and better. And then we continued to get better along the edge of the season. After the Final Four game, and after the Elite Eight game, we were getting better and better."
"They're very organized, and they fought hard," Akron coach Caleb Porter said of the Virginia defense. "That's the best defensive team we've played."
There was no better chance in the run of play for Akron than its last, which came in the final minute of the second overtime. Akron knocked a penetrating ball into the 18, and a Zip forward touched the ball past Monaco. Restrepo came charging off his line, and Volk began to recover back toward the goal line - another Akron touch forward, and the Zips had a clear path to goal. Instead of a shot, however, the ball pinballed around the top of the six, before Volk made one of several game-saving clearances.
With the Zips getting the better of the action all the way down to the final seconds, Barlow, for one, was just fine with the game going to penalty kicks. While Virginia did not take the potentially harmful mentality of playing for a tie at the end of regulation and in the overtimes, Barlow said that, with Restrepo in net, he felt his team had an advantage.
"That thought definitely crossed my mind at least," Barlow said. "Diego's such an incredible goalkeeper. With the PK takers that we have, and with Diego in goal, we knew it was going to be a victory."
What's more, Virginia went into the shootout with an additional edge: the Hoos had seen all five of the Zips' shooters in their previous game against the Tar Heels. Porter was cognizant of that advantage even before the game began, and said he planned on inserting two new players into his first five shooters; however, neither participated. Porter didn't use one shooter because he wasn't in the game, he said, although NCAA rules allow anyone on the roster to take a shot. The other player was in the game, Porter said, but he asked not to be in the first five shooters because of a sore groin muscle.
The Cavaliers had confidence heading to penalty kicks with Diego Restrepo in goal. (Photo courtesy of Jim Campbell)
That gave a mental edge to Restrepo - who said he went over the shooters and the direction each went against UNC on Saturday, again before the game Sunday, and a third time immediately before the shootout. Goalkeeper coach Mike McGinty even stood beyond midfield with a jersey "like a traffic cop," Gelnovatch said, signaling which way each Akron shooter had gone the previous game.
But, of course, the Cavaliers had to bury their shots, too. With Virginia winning the right to shoot first, the Hoos' typical in-game penalty shooter, midfielder Tony Tchani, first rifled his shot to the upper-90 to give the Hoos a 1-0 advantage.
And that is when Restrepo's homework came into play, as he made that one enormous save that has defined him for Virginia this season. Against North Carolina, Zarek Valentin had scored a penalty kick by shooting to his right; Restrepo, though, had a feeling that Valentin would switch directions in this game, and that feeling was well-founded. Valentin fired a shot headed toward the lower left corner of the net, but Restrepo - who was named the College Cup's Most Outstanding Defensive Player - made a diving save to his left look easy.
"I had a feeling that [Valentin] was going to be nervous and switch it up," Restrepo said. "That's what happened, and I just went with my instincts, and got the first one, which was huge for us."
The Hoos' most beloved walk-on, midfielder Ari Dimas, then had Akron goalkeeper David Meves diving the wrong way with his shot into the right side of the net. Restrepo then dove the correct direction again on Akron defender Ben Zemanski's ensuing shot, but it sailed just past the reach of Restrepo and into the side netting.
The Hoos then found an unlikely hero in Sean Hiller, who had appeared in just one match previously this season. According to Gelnovatch and his players, though, Hiller showed a knack for penalty kicks in practices, which is why he was called upon to be Virginia's third shooter. Of course, the National Championship venue isn't quite the same as the practice field next to Klockner Stadium - but the redshirt freshman drilled a wicked, bending ball to the lower 90, rendering Meves motionless.
"He just doesn't miss," Barlow said. "He has an incredible PK, and we put our confidence in him, and thankfully he scored."
It was Akron's next attempt from Yoram Mwila that seemingly made Virginia's PK lead insurmountable. Like Valentin before him, Mwila went the opposite direction from the side he went in penalty kicks against UNC - and, for the first time, Restrepo dove the wrong way. The shot, though, merely glanced off the heart of the left post, giving the Cavaliers a 3-1 advantage - the Hoos were one converted Virginia shot or one Akron miss away from being crowned National Champions.
The margin, however, was very nearly fool's gold. Meves followed with two spectacular diving saves against Virginia's next two shooters, the ever-talented Jonathan Villanueva and the heady Monaco. As Akron's Scott Caldwell fooled Restrepo to find the back of the net, the Zips only needed their final shooter, Blair Gavin, to convert to keep their championship hopes alive - Gavin had just put away Akron's game-winning PK on Friday night against Carolina.
And, Restrepo did no better against Gavin than he did the previous two shooters; Restrepo dove one way, and the shot went the other. The ball also cleared the cross bar by a wide margin, however, and unbeknownst to Restrepo, Virginia had won - "I didn't think it was over; I thought we had to kick again," Restrepo said. But, that thought quickly faded, as an elated Virginia team chased Restrepo around the 18 before piling on top of him. The celebration was on.
Amazingly, the same team that lost three exhibition games in August, the same team that had tied Liberty 1-1 in October, had won the National Championship. Incredibly, Akron had not allowed a goal throughout the NCAA Tournament, and yet still lost.
But with the amazement, with the disbelief at being a National Champion, came the feeling that, finally, the Virginia men's soccer program is back where it belongs.
"It's such a rich tradition," said Villanueva, who was named the College Cup's Most Outstanding Offensive Player. "For us to add another star to the crest, that'll be there forever. It's a really rewarding feeling."
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