By TRAVIS CLARK
Last year in men's college soccer, there were few trophies that the University of Virginia didn't get its hands on. Winners of both the ACC Championship and NCAA Championship tournament, the 2010 Cavaliers enter with eyes on defending both titles.
The life cycle of a college player makes that a very challenging prospect, even for a prestigious program like Virginia, and head coach George Gelnovatch was quick to mention there would be some rebuilding this campaign.
"I said at the beginning before the season started this is a little bit of a rebuilding year for us, as we’ve lost our entire central midfield from last year," he said. Gelnovatch is referencing the loss of Tony Tchani and Ross LaBeaux, who now play in MLS, and Jonathan Villanueva and Neil Barlow, who just wrapped up their rookie campaigns with USL-2 side Richmond Kickers.
That's not to say that UVA has to rebuild from scratch. Senior goalie Diego Restrepo, who set numerous school records last season, is back, as well as their starting central defenders, Mike Volk and Greg Monaco, who will also serve as team captains. An exciting attack will be lead by last season's leading scorer, sophomore Will Bates, and U.S. youth international Brian Ownby.
Bates got hot towards the end of the 2009 regular season, notching 12 goals for the Cavaliers, and Gelnovatch is eager to see his rising star pick up from where he left off last season.
"He’s clearly ahead of this time last year – it took him a month to get going last year – he didn’t really start scoring goals till October," he said. "If we can get him to start scoring goals in September, we should get him on track to having an even better year."
Even with Bates and Ownby in attack, there is still the matter of filling in some big holes in the Cavalier midfield, a process that dates back to earlier in 2010 — before school was even let out in the spring.
"To be honest with you, that work in progress started last spring. We started to tinker with things and do some things back in the spring, some which worked, some which didn’t," Gelnovatch said. "It’s a process. Some of it is a process of elimination, meaning we try this guy here, and it doesn’t work out.
"There will be a couple of young guys that didn’t play much or at all last year, and a couple of guys reshuffled from different positions. But that’s part of the job, that’s part of coaching, and we’ll keep plugging away."
That process has unearthed a freshman named Brian Span, a talented player who will look to team up early with Ownby and Bates. Span earned significant minutes during the preseason, and could contribute right from the outset much like Bates a year ago. Or, his emergence will help offset Ownby's possible absence as the striker continues to recover full fitness.
The young players will also have to cope with the pressure of being defending champions. That means every game, no matter where they play, the opposition will have extra incentive to knock off the reigning NCAA title-holders.
"The three teams that we played in preseason all came at us hard, so knowing that it was just preseason we know every season game we'll play — even it's Tuesday night, or a Friday night, ACC game, every team is going to come in and give it their all against us," Ownby said. "We're going to have to be prepared for it and match their intensity, and if we can do that I think good things will happen for us."
For Virginia, it won't get any easier as the season gets underway this weekend. A rather kind schedule sees them play only four games away from Charlottesville during the regular season, but no matter what, they'll be marked men.