Commentary

UVa redeems soccer tradition with title

Cavaliers win their first men's soccer national championship since 1994

Updated: December 13, 2009, 8:32 PM ET
By Anna K. Clemmons | ESPN.com

CARY, N.C. -- Blair Gavin lay on the WakeMed Soccer Park field late Sunday afternoon, legs sprawled out to both sides, head buried in his hands.

Seconds earlier, the junior midfielder for Akron shot a national championship-deciding penalty kick that sailed over the net, ending what many had called a season of destiny for the top-seeded, undefeated Zips. Following a scoreless draw through regulation and two overtimes, No. 2-seeded Virginia defeated Akron 3-2 on penalty kicks for the Cavaliers' sixth national title.

[+] EnlargeBlair Gavin
Scott Bales/YCJ/Icon SMIAkron's Blair Gavin and C.J. Kaufman showed their disappointment after Gavin's missed penalty kick.
Akron, which defeated North Carolina 5-4 on penalty kicks Friday in the semifinals, had set numerous school and national records in the regular season. The Zips (23-1-1) entered the College Cup determined to be the first team to ever win a title in Akron's sporting history.

But the Cavaliers (19-3-3) had come a long way, as well. They began their season with what coach George Gelnovatch called a "grind" -- three straight exhibition losses -- and Gelnovatch said their turning point didn't come until almost two months into the season. Yet Virginia's swarming, steady defense -- which led the nation in fewest goals allowed per game this year -- coupled with key stops by goalie Diego Restrepo and the offensive leadership of senior midfielder Jonathan Villanueva, eventually brought Virginia its first men's soccer national championship since 1994.

"I knew this day would come," Gelnovatch said in the press tent after the game, as his team's celebratory cries echoed in the background outside. "It's not a matter of if but when."

The 41-degree afternoon brought intermittent spurts of driving rain, and players on both sides found themselves sliding and falling on the field. While Virginia jumped out to an early offensive charge, Akron dominated first-half possession. But by the half, Virginia had a slight numbers advantage in almost every statistical category, including six shots to Akron's five and even seven fouls to Akron's five.

Virginia defender Mike Volk, who often matched up one-on-one with Hermann Trophy finalist and Akron's leading scorer Teal Bunbury on Sunday, played in a style indicative of the Cavs' strong defense as he cleared numerous balls and stopped several drives.

"I think it's safe to say that that's the most pressure we've seen all year," Volk said. "But with each game, we've gotten better and better and we continue to get better. Even after the elite eight and the final four -- we never really hit the peak, we just kept going up."

Indeed, the same could be said of the Cavaliers' season. Entering the title game, their last goal allowed was on Oct. 17 in a 3-1 victory over Virginia Tech that Gelnovatch cited as the season's turning point. He credited the defense, particularly Restrepo, for guiding the team this season in its second-half surge.

[+] EnlargeDiego Restrepo
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeDiego Restrepo's 16 shutouts for UVa this season is a school record.

Restrepo transferred to Virginia last spring from South Florida, where he registered 10 shutouts in two seasons. Sunday's shutout was the redshirt junior's 16th, a school record.

"This has been the biggest roller coaster for me," said Restrepo, who entered the game ranked first in the nation in goals-against average (.294) and save percentage (.896). "It's been a very tough year gaining the respect from these guys, coming to Virginia and working hard every day."

Restrepo was so absorbed in his net duties during the penalty kicks that he didn't realize Gavin's miss sealed the victory.

"I thought we had another kick," Restrepo said, "and then when I was walking back everyone was running and I thought, 'Oh wow.'"

"I haven't seen Gavin miss a kick since I've coached him," Akron coach Caleb Porter said. "He never misses."

That miss, coupled with a missed shot by Kofi Sarkodie on Akron's third chance that bounced off the left goal post while Restrepo dove to the right, handed the Zips their first loss of the season. In a twist of cruel irony, they left the field without allowing a single goal in all of tournament play, but without the championship title.

"It's tough to lose that way, and I've been a part of a team that's won that way, too," said Porter, the MAC Coach of the Year for the past three seasons. "I have to credit Virginia for putting up a very good fight. They played us as tough as any team played us all year."

Still, the Zips appeared stunned with the results. In addition to Gavin, several players lay or crouched on the field in disbelief as the Cavaliers celebrated with their fans only a few feet away. Senior Ben Zemanski, the lone player for the Zips in postgame news conference, looked sullen and stunned as he answered questions.

"Second place hurts worse than any of the others because you get so close you can taste it," Porter said. "We had 19 shutouts [this year], gave up the least number of goals in the country, set program milestones and broke almost every record. Those are the things that I'll remember and that this team should be proud of."

[+] EnlargeUVA Soccer
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeChase Neinken, right, Hunter Jumper, left, and the Cavs won 16 straight games en route to the title.

The Cavaliers' sense of pride was stirred, in part, by the program's dynasty of almost two decades ago. Two weeks ago, Virginia reserve forward Chase Neinken wrote his teammates a message on a white board inside their locker room: "15 YEARS." Neinken was reminding his teammates of the many seasons during which players passed through the program without a championship.

"Everyone comes to this school because of tradition and the pride we get in putting on this jersey," Neinken said at Saturday's news conference. "It's taken a while to get back to the point we're at today, so we want to carry that as well as create some tradition of our own."

After defeating Wake Forest 2-1 in the semifinals, the Cavs accomplished that goal Sunday and will soon add their team photo to the championship shots that line the walls of their locker room. They celebrated with friends, family and fans on the field for almost 20 minutes afterward before carrying their celebration into the stands.

Five Cavaliers were named to the All-Tournament team: Restrepo, Villanueva, Brian Ownby, Volk and Tony Tchani. Villanueva was also named Most Outstanding Offensive Player while Restrepo was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player. But even those who earned individual accolades pointed to the collective team effort, including key minutes from several bench contributors, as the success story behind what started as a slow, unpredictable season.

"There's a lot of individual stories on this team that are great," Restrepo said. "We just came together. And we're now national champions."

Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.