CHARLOTTESVILLE -- All season, the Virginia soccer team has remembered its NCAA tournament disappoinments the past two seasons with extreme distaste. Now, the Cavaliers say it's time to forget.
"We've had something to prove the last two regular seasons," senior forward Jay Del Carmen said. "We had to show the NCAA losses were flukes. Obviously, that kind of thinking didn't help us when the tournament came around again, so now we just have to put the past out of our minds and worry about this week's game."
But even Sunday's matchup with George Mason in the first round of the NCAA tournament conjures up some ghosts. Two years ago, the Patriots ended the Cavaliers' season with a 1-0 opening-round upset in Charlottesville. Last year, Virginia, ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time, fell at home to Loyola in the first round, also by 1-0.
"I'll say it until the day I die: We were the best team in the country last year," Cavaliers Coach Bruce Arena said. "We just didn't prove it in the tournament."
Postseason frustrations are nothing new to the Cavaliers. Since Arena began to put Virginia on the soccer map nine years ago, the Cavaliers have exited in the first round in five of their seven NCAA appearances, each time by a one-goal margin. All this after breezing through the regular seasons at a near-.800 winning pace, with three Atlantic Coast Conference titles in the past four years.
The Cavaliers are the only team to finish in the top 10 in the ISAA coaches' poll each of the past five regular seasons. Last year's quick NCAA exit was the most shocking. Virginia entered the Loyola game with a school-record 16-game winning streak and an 18-game unbeaten string.
"We were just starting to peak," said Del Carmen, a second-team all-ACC selection this year. "We had just been No. 1 for about two weeks, the defense looked like it would never give up a goal and then it came crashing down."
This season, with five starters and most of its offensive strength graduated, Virginia wasn't expected to be that good. But behind junior all-America midfielder John Harkes and senior goalkeeper Bob Willen, the Cavaliers opened with 14 consecutive victories. After spending most of the season atop the rankings again, Virginia stumbled late to finish 16-2-2, ranked second in the final ISAA poll.
"On paper, there was no reason to expect that we could reach No. 1," Arena said. "There's no way we're on equal terms with last year's team."
The emergence of Harkes as a scorer was a major factor. The ACC player of the year and a leading candidate for the Hermann Award as national player of the year, Harkes led his team with 15 goals (including eight game-winners) and four assists for 34 points.
When opponents began to mark Harkes with two or three defenders, freshman forward John Maessner emerged as an effective counterpunch with seven goals and three assists.
As Virginia's offense seached for ways to complement Harkes' scoring, the Cavaliers won with defense. Virginia shut out 10 straight opponents in September and became the first ACC team to hold all six regular season conference opponents scoreless. Willen's career 0.33 goals-against average is the second-best in the history of U.S. collegiate soccer.
But the Cavaliers' NCAA tournament stigma remains. Arena thinks his team's late-season problems, including a 3-0 loss to North Carolina in the inaugural ACC tournament last weekend, will help the Cavaliers.
"I think it was good to realize that we aren't unbeatable, to have some weaknesses exposed now while there's still time to fix them," he said. "The last couple years, it seems like our first bad game has been our last."