Virginia sophomore forward Sheldon Barnes started this year trying to shake off his injury-plagued freshman season and make up for Chris Albright's early departure to Major League Soccer. His front-line mate, freshman Ryan Gibbs, started the season as a defender, trying to get up front where he could do what he loves most, which is score goals.
Now, with the Cavaliers a game from the NCAA men's soccer final four, both have gotten their wishes. Virginia (14-8-1) plays fourth-ranked UCLA (18-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the biggest test during its late-season surge. Barnes, with nine goals, and Gibbs, with eight, are big reasons the Cavaliers have gotten farther than even Coach George Gelnovatch thought they could.
"They are a real handful," Gelnovatch said. "They're both strong and fast, which are their main physical attributes. But they've gotten better. They're combining with [midfield playmaker Kyle] Martino better, they're beating guys one-on-one."
The Cavaliers had the look of a patchwork crew most of this season after losing three starters to MLS: Albright, midfielder Jason Moore (both with D.C. United) and defender Michael Green (Kansas City). With those departures, the Cavaliers were left with several freshmen and sophomores in their starting lineup.
But after the program's worst regular season since 1980, Virginia is coming together at the right time. Since a 2-0 loss at UCLA on Oct. 31 dropped Virginia's record to 9-7-1, the Cavaliers have won five of six. The only defeat in that span was a triple-overtime loss to Duke in the ACC tournament final.
Gibbs and Barnes have developed as a unit. Gibbs was switched to forward after three games and, at first, the two clashed on the field because they often were doing the same things.
"In the beginning, we were kind of running into each other because we are very similar players," Gibbs said. "We think alike, too, which means we would make the same runs and be in the same place. Toward the end of the season we were trying to be more aware of where each other was."
Once the two learned to complement, rather than duplicate, each other, the goals started coming. The two have scored or assisted on six on the Cavaliers' 11 goals in their recent run. Even when they are not scoring, they still manage to attract enough attention from the defense to open room for the team's skilled midfielders--Martino, junior Ryan Trout and sophomore Steve Totten.
"They're a defense's nightmare," said Martino, the ACC rookie of the year.
Barnes and Gibbs's similarities go beyond the field. Both are quiet and funny, and describe themselves as studious. Barnes is an engineering major, giving him a heavier course load than many of his teammates. Gibbs is enrolled in Virginia's prestigious Commerce School.
Although they're alike on the field, their backgrounds are vastly different. Gibbs, from West Chester, Pa., learned his trade in suburban club teams and rose through the ranks of U.S. youth national teams. Barnes was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and played soccer in the streets before moving to Florida at age 10. He holds dual citizenship and has not decided which national team he will play for if given the opportunity.
"I am just having a lot of fun right now," Barnes said. "Sometimes, I look at the hell Ryan and I are causing defenses in games, and I just laugh. It's great."
NCAA MEN'S SOCCER TOURNAMENT
Virginia (14-8-1) vs. UCLA (18-2)
When: 1 p.m. today.
Where: Klockner Stadium, Charlottesville.
Tickets: $7 adults, $5 students.
Road to the quarterfinals: Virginia defeated Ivy League champion Princeton, 2-1, in three overtimes in the first round and Brown, 3-1, in the second. UCLA beat San Diego, 4-1, and third-seeded Saint Louis, 2-0.
Data: Virginia and UCLA, who have won a combined eight NCAA titles, will meet for the second time this season. UCLA won the first meeting, 2-0, on Oct. 31. The Bruins won by the same score in the 1997 final in Richmond, the only time the teams have met in the tournament. Despite finishing with one of the nation's best records and the No. 4 national ranking, UCLA is unseeded and will have to come east to Klockner, where Virginia is 18-2 in NCAA tournament games since 1992. The Bruins are led by senior MF and Hermann award finalist Sasha Victorine (11 goals, 8 assists) and junior F McKinley Tennyson (12, 6). They are the first Bruins teammates to reach the 30-point mark since Joe-Max Moore, Cobi Jones and Zak Ibsen did it in 1991. Junior MF Ryan Trout (9, 10) leads Virginia.