When all-America Sam Sumo and high-scoring Bruce Lobdell left George Mason University's lineup, it appeared the Patriots' hopes for a fourth straight NCAA soccer tournament bid went with them.
The front-line duo combined for 50 goals in the last two years and were expected to produce most of the Patriots' offense this season. But Lobdell was ruled ineligible before the season and Sumo was slowed all year with a knee injury.
Led by sophomore Mark Pulisic, however, the 13th-ranked Patriots went 13-4-3 and will meet No. 3 Virginia (16-2-2) in Charlottesville Sunday at 1 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The winner faces either No. 12 Loyola (15-3-2) or William and Mary (14-4-2) next weekend in the South Atlantic Region final.
George Mason struggled offensively most of the year, but has been strong defensively and is playing well headed into the postseason. The Patriots have won three straight, all by shutouts.
"We're playing with a lot of confidence," George Mason Coach Gordon Bradley said. "We have a good feeling going into this game. Virginia will have to respect us and we, of course, respect them. I expect it to be a ding-dong battle."
Bradley was without Lobdell from the start of the season. But the worst news came late in September when Sumo injured his knee against North Carolina. Sumo had arthroscopic surgery and missed three games. He played the remainder of the season at about 75 percent and finished with only four goals, compared to 24 in 1985 and 10 last year.
"With Bruce and Sam out, I must say, I thought we'd have to play extremely well to have a good season," Bradley said. "I didn't think we'd do as well as we did with two prolific scorers out."
Enter Pulisic. The sophomore from Long Island took over the scorer's role and had 10 goals, including five game-winners, and three assists. In the final week of the season, he provided the only scoring in 1-0 wins over William and Mary and Maryland.
Pulisic got help this season from Ray Elsesser (five goals, three assists), Bob Lilley (five goals, one assist) and freshman Larry Tabash (three goals, four assists).
While the Patriots scored 36 goals, they allowed only 16. Sophomore goalkeeper Martin Dunphy had a .79 goals-against average and seven shutouts. There were a lot of question marks in the backfield before the season, but Lilley, Tony Walsh, Steve D'Antonio and James Harris improved steadily to alleviate that concern.
The Patriots lost to No. 6 North Carolina, No. 9 UCLA, No. 16 Clemson and American. Against tournament-bound teams, Mason was 3-3, with wins over William and Mary, Loyola and Penn State.
In 1985, the Patriots eliminated Virginia, 1-0, in the first round of the tournament. Last year, the Cavaliers won their regular season match, 3-0.
The Cavaliers' losses this season were to No. 4 Southern Methodist in Dallas and to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. But Virginia outscored its opponents, 38-9, and was unbeaten in 10 games at Scott Stadium.
All-America midfielder John Harkes, who is the favorite to win the NCAA player of the year award, had 15 goals and four assists to lead the Cavaliers.