American University soccer coach, Pete Mehlert, knows about the potent Virginia front line his defense will face in Sunday's NCAA tournament second-round game in Charlottesville.

Jeff Gaffney of Bethesda, Brian Vernon of Annandale and George Gelnovatch of Wall, N.J., combined for 41 of the Cavaliers' school-record 75 goals this season.

"If they're on, there's not much you can do," Mehlert said. "Our defensemen are working-class type players. They work hard, go home and have a beer. Gelnovatch, Gaffney and Vernon are the junior executives. In addition to being great soccer players, they're also great athletes."

To improve AU's chances against the Cavaliers, who were ranked fourth in the nation most of the season and haven't lost in 17 games, Mehlert is stressing one skill.

"Gelnovatch and Gaffney are good in the air. They run and jump better than our men. So, we're practicing heading the ball under pressure."

The responsibility of heading the ball away from the AU goal and marking the Cavaliers will fall on sweeper Paul Tarricone, stopper Glen Buchanan, left-back Greg McConnell and right-back Gary Sisto.

Mehlert also is seeking to cut another Virginia advantage he believes "will be a distinct factor in the game."

He held Tuesday's and yesterday's practices at Georgetown University stadium -- the artificial turf roof on top of Yates Field House -- so his players can become accustomed to an artificial surface, which Virginia's Scott Stadium has.

"First, on artificial turf the bounce is different," Mehlert said. "Second, the ball rolls differently. The field has quite a crown for drainage reasons. The surface is fast to begin with, but when the ball goes to the sidelines it picks up even more speed."

Because Georgetown's field is only 56 yards wide, nine yards less than the minimum required width, and because the field doesn't have soccer goals, Mehlert will hold Friday's practice at the Naval Academy "for a complete workout" before the team travels to Charlottesville Saturday.

Mehlert and AU haven't faced Virginia since 1979, when the teams met in the NCAA tournament and the Eagles won on a dramatic header by Mark DeBlois.

All this season, AU has struggled against local teams to secure its No. 3 ranking in the South Atlantic region and gain a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Meanwhile, through much of the season, Virginia maintained its top ranking while facing regional teams infrequently. Mehlert knows the scores of those games. "They beat Old Dominion, 1-0, in overtime. And they beat them, 2-1. They beat George Mason, 2-0, without Bruce Lobdell, and they had the home-field advantage. They haven't beaten our teams convincingly.

"It isn't fair, to a certain extent, that Virginia doesn't play ranked teams in our region. Virginia beat ACC teams worse than (it beat) teams in our area. That's why I'd like to see Virginia play ranked teams in our region."

But, Mehlert is ever the diplomat before his game with the Cavaliers. "For me, I don't think of it as the ECAC versus the ACC," he said. "Mostly, it's just a chance to play a great soccer team."