Boyds, Md. – There’s no doubt that playing for the men’s team at Virginia comes hand-in-hand with high expectations.
A program that has won five national titles, competing on an annual basis is almost something that’s taken for granted in Charlottesville.
And coping with those expectations is going to be a big challenge this year for a very young Virginia team. This was evident after the team lost its opening game of the season in cruel fashion, 2-1 in overtime, against a very experienced Georgetown side.
After conceding a goal in the game’s first minute, the Cavaliers were undone when freshman Scott Thomsen headed a cross into his own goal in the first overtime period.
“Two tough plays for two young guys,” Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch told TopDrawerSoccer.com after the game. “First 30 seconds of the game, a pretty big young mistake and another mistake to basically end the game.”
The game summed up the challenge Gelnovatch has on his hands this fall. Opening up against the Hoyas, he started four freshmen – attackers Marcus Salandy-Defour and Darius Madison, with Zach Carroll and Thompson in the back line.
Complicating matters was the absence of senior forward Will Bates, who was out with a bone bruise, leaving Ari Dimas as the only fourth-year player getting the nod. The amount of inexperience on the field had a notable impact on the team.
“To be honest with you, you could tell in the first 30 seconds how nervous they were,” Gelnovatch said. “It was pretty evident.”
And while the Cavaliers struggled through much of the first half, the age of the group forced Gelnovatch to tweak his approach at the break.
“Normally, at the halftime of the game, if that was an older, more experienced team, I probably would have gone crazy on the team in the locker room,” he said. “But I actually had to try and get the them to believe in themselves, that they’re good, that they can pass the ball, can play.”
Whatever he said ended up working. Because while the team may not have the most experience in the league, the talent was evident throughout the game, and for stretches, the youth of Virginia forced Georgetown onto its heels.
Chris Somerville, a sophomore starting in Bates’ spot along the forward line, gave Georgetown’s defense fits at times, as did Salandy-Defour, Madison and Ryan Zinkhan from off the bench.
Carroll, making his college debut after a starting role with the U.S. U17 men’s national team at last summer’s World Cup, was also impressive along the back line, and his long-distance effort tied the game in the second half.
That’s why Virginia remains confident about being able to toe the line between youth and experience and remain competitive this season.
“These guys have played at high levels,” sophomore goalkeeper Spencer LaCivita told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “I know it’s not college, but they’re coming from big clubs, national team players. I think it’ll take only a game or two or three to get them really acclimated to the pace, speed and physicality of the college game. I think we’ll be fine once we get rolling.”
Of course, adding a player like Bates is sure to help to. The forward scored 14 goals in 15 games last year before a knee injury prematurely ended his season. He’s expected to return shortly, and is sure to inject a bit more self belief – not to mention physicality – to a very talented squad.
“He’s an experienced guy that scores goals,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s one of our captains, he’s big, he’s strong. That’s another thing out there, the physical part, you could tell, we’re young and not as strong and filled out as [Georgetown].”
And while there was a tinge of disappointment with the loss, the head coach is confident that the team will end up being better off with that type of experience.
“I am convinced that we’re walking off the field thinking we could have and should have won the game,” he said. “I feel like as that game went into overtime, I think we felt like we were going to win the game.
“We’re leaving here really disappointed that we didn’t at least get a result and a tie against five, six seniors – I’ve got all freshmen and sophomores out there…I know they’re good, we’ve just to keep working, keep playing.”