George Gelnovatch understands the expectations that surround his soccer team at Virginia entering this season.
But that doesn't mean he likes them.
"I actually prefer not to be (considered a strong national title contender)," Gelnovatch, entering his 19th season as head coach of the Cavaliers, said with a chuckle after Monday morning's practice.
"I prefer to keep the guys hungry and motivated, and working hard, and doing those things," said Gelnovatch. "But I will say these guys have stayed focused."
Coming off a 2013 season that included an 11-game unbeaten streak and a run to the ACC Championship game, and ended with a 2-1 loss to Maryland in the NCAA College Cup semifinals, UVa will enter this year ranked third in the country, and on Tuesday the Wahoos were picked to finish second in the ACC behind reigning national champion Notre Dame.
And Gelnovatch's players are more eager to embrace those expectations.
"Obviously we want to win a national championship," junior midfielder Todd Wharton said Monday. "Only two games away last year, bringing most people back, they should be nothing less than a national championship. Obviously that's the goal every year, but it's a really tangible goal this year."
UVa has seven starters back from last year's team that finished 13-6-5. That doesn't include junior midfielder Marcus Salandy-Defour, who will likely miss the upcoming season after suffering a knee injury over the summer.
UVa opens the regular season at Klöckner Stadium on August 29 against Old Dominion. The Cavaliers lost last Saturday's exhibition game against Rutgers 2-1, and Tuesday night's scheduled exhibition against St. John's was cancelled and replaced with an intrasquad scrimmage.
"I mean, we talk about it all the time," said Wharton. "Just saying how cool it would be to do what 2009 did, win the ACC Tournament and the national championship. And even our coach is saying it. He goes, "We can't just be content with getting to the finals this year. We can't be content with going to the College Cup. We need to go there and beat the teams, and win them."
"We're going to have a target on our back," said senior goalkeeper Calle Brown. "Everyone knows we were a College Cup team last year, but we still have something to prove because we didn't win. So I think that gives us a little edge, and gives us a little motivation to play this year out."
Veterans like Brown have been pushed this summer by a group of freshmen that comprised the No. 14 recruiting class in the country. Gelnovatch said Monday that some of those first-year players are already pushing to crack the starting lineup.
"It's really important, as far as getting as the season goes along," Brown said of the competition this preseason. "And I think we showed that last year, because we got better as the playoffs came around. And it was due to everyone pushing each other during practice, during the year."
"That's how it always is," said Wharton. "Our coach is never afraid to play freshmen, so they're always coming in, competing for jobs. And that keeps the older guys on their toes. They're trying harder, playing harder, practicing harder."
"We bring great players in, year in and year out," said Gelnovatch. "And as a veteran guy, whether you started last year or the year before, you've got to make sure you show up here and are doing all the little things right."