The sting of last Sunday's loss to Maryland in the ACC title game may no longer be fresh for the Virginia men's soccer team. But their coach hopes it can push his team to big things in this year's NCAA Tournament.
"I think mentality goes a long, long way. I mean, gosh, to me it's most of the battle," George Gelnovatch said Friday morning following his team's practice. "The physical stuff has to come after the mental toughness, and those types of things. And I really feel like at the beginning of this week, this team had that mentality of like, "Darn it. We missed that one; missed that opportunity."
"I think it's actually already shown in training this whole week. We've really been on point this week," said sophomore midfielder Todd Wharton. "Everyone's playing hard, everyone's playing strong. I think we're really just hungry, because we were so close to getting that championship. And to me that's probably the second-best championship you can win, beside the national championship."
The Cavaliers need to win six more games to earn a national title. That run begins with Sunday's second round match-up with St. John's at Klöckner Stadium.
That match will mark the second time St. John's has visited Charlottesville this season. The Cavaliers beat the Red Storm 2-0 in early September for their first win of the season. But Gelnovatch knows his team now looks a lot different from the one he put on the field that night -- and the same goes for the Cavaliers' opponent.
"Good teams evolve. Good teams get better as the year goes on," he said. "And that means your personnel changes; good coaches make good adjustments. And so I think we've done that, but so has St. John's."
The Red Storm advanced to Sunday's second round match by beating Delaware 2-1 in overtime on Thursday night. As the No. 8 seed, the Cavaliers earned a first-round bye.
UVa followed that early September win against St. John's with back-to-back losses to Clemson and Wake Forest to open ACC play. But then came a string of 11 straight matches without a loss -- seven wins and four draws -- that included a 2-0 upset of then-No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend in late October.
Last week's run to the ACC championship game included an overtime win at Wake Forest, then another victory over the Irish -- this time in penalty kicks. So the Cavaliers believe they're battle-tested for whatever lies ahead in the NCAA Tournament.
"The ACC Tournament brought a lot of good teams to us," said junior goalkeeper Calle Brown. "And I think that helps us going into the NCAA Tournament, because those teams that we did play have a good chance of making it farther in the tournament than most."
"Especially with that long unbeaten streak we had," agreed Wharton. "We played a lot of good teams, especially in the ACC. You don't have a dull any weekend. So being able to come out of those games with no losses, and a couple big wins -- especially at Notre Dame -- I think gives us a lot of confidence that we can play with anyone in the country."
But Gelnovatch -- who has never missed an NCAA Tournament in his 18 seasons as head coach at his alma mater -- knows it takes more than confidence to advance this time of year.
"The NCAA Tournament is a whole different animal," he said. "Teams come to life. And so we've got to make sure we carry that momentum into what's really a new season."