By TRAVIS CLARK
Back in 2008, University of Virginia forward Brian Ownby enjoyed a strong start to his collegiate soccer career. Earning significant minutes as a freshman, Ownby chipped in 5 goals and 4 assists, while starting 14 games for the Cavaliers.
But thanks to U-20 World Cup duty, as well as niggling injury problems to his groin and hip, Ownby's 2009 never got off the ground. Not only did he miss a significant chunk of the season because of the month-long tournament in Egypt, but he also returned and battled injuries through the rest of the season. This limited him to short appearances, usually as a substitute, stifling his scoring productivity and playing time.
"He was with the 20s for a month, and he was hurt the whole year," Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch said. "He didn’t play much for us — he came in for 15 or 20 minute spells. We haven’t had him play with us full time for two years."
Ownby only made six starts last year, appearing in a total of 15 games. He did score a golden goal against Wake Forest to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament championship game — that UVA went on to win — a positive experience in a season where it was difficult for him to play significant minutes.
"That felt really good," Ownby said. "I could only play 10, 15 minutes a game, then I'd be in a lot of pain and felt ripping. When Jonny (Villanueva) played me that ball, I was like 'this is our one chance so we don't have to go to PKs.' I just focused, hit it in, and was just happy to get my team there and they did the work in the final."
Gelnovatch believes that a healthy Ownby could help Virginia enjoy similar success in 2010.
"He’s capable of scoring a lot of goals, that’s what he does best, by running at defenses, causing problems," Gelnovatch said of Ownby. "He could be one of the best players in the country."
Since the end of the season last December, the striker has endured three surgeries — two on his groin muscle last winter, then one again in May. The recovery process has been a long one, carrying over into this preseason, and Ownby is yet to reach peak fitness.
"A month ago I hit a spell where I was still sore and didn't know what was going on, and then I just started practicing and getting used to it and I think my groin and my hip got used to the level of play and the movement," he said. "It's not really bothering me other than being a little sore after games. I'm probably 85 percent back and doing well so far.
His coach hopes to have him fit and ready for the majority of the 2010 season.
"This year, the hope is just to have him," Gelnovatch said. "This is a year we could really use him — he’s close to 100 percent, but not at 100 percent yet, so I think it’s going to take a little time."
During last year's U-20 World Cup, Ownby started two games for the U.S. side that failed to make it past the group stages, scoring a goal against Cameroon in the team's only win. Less than one year later, he is trying to pass along that experience to the rest of his team.
"It's a lot faster pace, and I've seen how much different it it is than college soccer," Ownby said of his U-20 experience. "So coming back here I try to help my team and get everyone to play quicker. There's not many other teams that can play like that, other than Akron and Wake Forest, and we saw that at the NCAAs last year where they were knocking the ball around."
Through three weeks of training and three preseason games, Ownby has slowly but surely been nursed back to health, with Gelnovatch casting a close eye on his junior striker. He appeared in all three preseason games, though without going a full 90 minutes.
"So far, so good, and if we can get him to where he was a freshman two years ago, he was one of the most dangerous guys in college soccer," the coach said. "If we can get him healthy, I think he can pick up from where he left off."
Depending on the tactical approach Gelnovatch adopts, a healthy Ownby would be a possible attacking partner for sophomore forward Will Bates. As a freshman, Bates led the Cavaliers in scoring with 12 goals, and has earned numerous preseason accolades, dotting several All-American squads. The two played on a club level, and Ownby hopes to spend more time on the pitch with his teammate this year.
"[Bates] has grown up and matured a lot more since freshman year, and he even performed well then too," Ownby said. "I think he's going to do a lot better this year, and having me back with him, we know how to play well with each other, so it'll help out a lot."
Gelnovatch thinks both are capable of doing big things this season, but for Ownby, the key remains to stay healthy and on the field. He'll be eased back into playing early on, and as the season progresses will look to add to his work load.