After men’s basketball survived consecutive postseason heart-stoppers against Purdue, Auburn and Texas Tech, and after men’s lacrosse prevailed in back-to-back sudden-death NCAA tournament overtimes versus Maryland and Duke, the first question for Carla Williams seems obvious.
When’s the last time you saw your cardiologist?
In her second year as UVA’s athletic director, Williams laughs before answering.
“You know what?” she says. “I’ve got to tell you, once I got past the Auburn game—so Purdue was just very nerve-racking, and then Auburn … I had this strange sense of calm for Texas Tech, and then for men’s lacrosse also. After the Purdue and Auburn games, I was a lot calmer.”
As a senior-level administrator at alma mater the University of Georgia prior to coming to UVA, Williams helped oversee 16 NCAA team championships—including in women’s gymnastics, women’s swimming, men’s golf, and men’s and women’s tennis.
“But nothing like these,” she says of the Cavaliers’ 2019 titles in men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse.
The drama in both sports—and basketball’s redemption one year after its dispiriting first-round tournament loss to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County—combined to make 2018–19 another landmark year for Virginia athletics.
UVA’s men finished atop the Capital One Cup all-sports standings, and in the Directors’ Cup—a similar ranking that combines men’s and women’s programs—the Cavaliers placed eighth, their seventh top-10 finish in the past 11 years.
The Cavaliers didn’t match their No. 3 Directors’ Cup finish of 2009–10, but 11 UVA programs placed among the top 16 nationally: field hockey, women’s rowing, women’s lacrosse, women’s golf, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s soccer, and men’s tennis, plus men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse.
Nor did the Cavaliers match their three NCAA championships of 2014–15 (baseball, men’s soccer and men’s tennis).
And their two ACC titles, in men’s lacrosse and women’s rowing, pale to the six they won in 2007–08 and 2009–10.
But 2018–19 had something those years didn’t.
“Virginia has been here before,” Williams says, “and I always give credit to Craig Littlepage, because he hired some phenomenal coaches. … This has historically been a broad-based, successful athletic program. But … winning a national championship in a sport like men’s basketball is a different level.”
The longest-tenured AD in school history, Littlepage retired in 2017 after 16 years and 13 NCAA team titles. In concert with his top aide, Jon Oliver (Darden ’14), he hired coaches Tony Bennett in men’s basketball and Lars Tiffany in men’s lacrosse.
Tiffany succeeded his mentor, Hall of Famer Dom Starsia, after the 2016 season. Virginia had not won an NCAA tournament game in lacrosse since 2011, the longest drought in program history.
But UVA has quite the history of coaches whose patience with, and confidence in, their systems paid the ultimate dividend.
Basketball’s national championship came in Bennett’s 10th season in Charlottesville. Similarly, women’s lacrosse won it all in Julie Myers’ ninth year, baseball in Brian O’Connor’s 12th, men’s tennis in Brian Boland’s 12th, men’s soccer in George Gelnovatch’s (Col ’87) 14th and women’s rowing in Kevin Sauer’s 15th.
That coaching community—Boland left UVA in 2017 for the U.S. Tennis Association and now coaches at Baylor—supported and advised one another during the good times and bad.
“It’s a close-knit family at UVA,” Bennett says, “because I think we appreciate how it has to be done [here]. … I remember when I got the job, I said, ‘What’s the key to building a program?’ And I listened to them intently about finding guys that fit your system, your culture and the culture of UVA.”
In his fourth year at Virginia, football coach Bronco Mendenhall is in that process, and the early returns are encouraging. His 2018 squad went 8-5 and earned the program’s first postseason victory since 2005, a Belk Bowl shutout of South Carolina.
The only other year in which UVA football won a bowl and men’s basketball reached at least the Sweet 16 was 1994–95, when the Cavaliers defeated Texas Christian in the Independence Bowl and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
“I actually think our bowl win gave lacrosse and basketball momentum,” Mendenhall says, “but then … their results have now generated momentum for us. … In basketball’s case, they’re farther down the road in their development. In lacrosse’s case, similar time frame, they just turned it quicker. In football, I think we’re turning it about as fast as you can.
“This year will have a lot to do with assessing and reflecting on how consistent are we, how sustainable have we become and where truly is the program after four years. I think what our team views as truly possible has been expanded because of lacrosse and basketball.”
Success, particularly in the money-making programs of football and men’s basketball, can only help UVA in its drive to raise $180 million for Williams’ master plan, a bold initiative she fast-tracked to overhaul aging facilities and enhance athletes’ college experiences through community involvement and career and leadership development.
The master plan hit overdrive on May 25, hours before men’s lacrosse defeated Duke in the NCAA semifinals, as UVA basketball icons Ralph Sampson (Col ’83) and Dawn Staley (Col ’92) helped trigger the implosion of University Hall, the demolition of which will help create space for practice fields, an Olympic sports center and a football operations complex.
Mendenhall understands that football’s success is paramount to generating enthusiasm for the master plan.
“So let’s say the growth continues in football,” he says, “and let’s say the facilities then are finished and match that. That very well could be the time where UVA football never looks back, when those two things come together. And so my job while this is all being developed and built is to continue the work of growth and progressing and doing new and better things each year to generate momentum.
“Rather than relying on [the master plan] to be the momentum, how we play has to be the momentum, and, man, when those two things come together, if we’re able to pull that off, that would be great for the institution and for UVA football. But I would also say for the commonwealth at large.”
What will the year bring?
Virginia has won multiple NCAA team championships in an academic year four times, starting in 1992–93 with men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse, followed by men’s soccer and women’s rowing in 2009–10, baseball, men’s soccer and men’s tennis in 2014–15, and men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse in 2018–19.
Could the upcoming year be as successful? Might UVA crack the top five of the Directors’ Cup all-sports standings for the third time?
Here is a team-by-team outlook.
Since winning three straight ACC championships from 2006 to 2008, Virginia has fallen behind league rivals the University of North Carolina, Boston College and Syracuse University. But with 24 NCAA tournament appearances in as many seasons under Julie Myers (Col ’90), the Cavaliers remain a postseason fixture.
First-team All-Americans Dox Aitken (Col ’20) and Jared Conners (Col ’20) headline a veteran core that figures to keep UVA nationally prominent.
UVA’s 5-11 ACC record last season—Tina Thompson’s first as coach—was its worst since 1982–83. But the Cavaliers return three of their top four scorers, led by Jocelyn Willoughby (Col ’20).
While the team suffered the early exits of De’Andre Hunter (Col ’20), Ty Jerome (Col ’20) and Kyle Guy (Col ’20), recruitment remains strong. By mid-July, sports sites 247sports and Scout ranked the 2020 recruiting class No. 1 in the nation.
With quarterback Bryce Perkins (Col ’20) and cornerback Bryce Hall (Educ ’20) returning, ACC Coastal Division contention and a third straight bowl bid seem probable.
UVA is banking that a new stadium will help fourth-year coach Joanna Hardin and the Cavaliers end a streak of nine straight losing ACC seasons.
Missing the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year was a shock for a program that reached the postseason in Brian O’Connor’s first 14 years as coach. The fix is improved pitching.
Second-round NCAA tournament appearances in each of Sara O’Leary’s two years as coach represent progress for a program that missed postseason in 2017.
ACC Coach of the Year Andres Pedroso and Player of the Year Carl Soderlund (Col ’20) led UVA to its 14th NCAA quarterfinal in the past 15 seasons.
Yet another Division I-best streak here as UVA has reached at least the Sweet 16 in 14 straight seasons. All-America defender Phoebe McClernon (Col ’20) is expected to anchor the 2019 squad.
The Cavaliers have reached 38 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the nation’s longest active streak. UVA placed a record four players on the ACC’s all-freshman team last year.
Virginia hasn’t won an ACC title indoors or outdoors since 1987 and will miss ACC champion pole-vaulter Bridget Guy (Col ’18, Educ ’19) in 2019–20.
Triple-jumper Jordan Scott (Col ’20) and javelin thrower Ethan Dabbs (Col ’22) were among UVA’s outdoor All-Americans as the Cavaliers finished 18th at nationals, their fourth top-20 finish in five years. Retiring director of track and field Bryan Fetzer earned ACC Coach of the Year honors after the Cavaliers placed second at the conference meet.
An upset of second-ranked Maryland highlighted a season that ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Princeton. The Cavaliers (9-10) return four of their top five scorers as they seek to rebound from their first losing season since 2011.
Virginia reached its 11th NCAA championship in the program’s 16 seasons and finished 14th, up eight places from 2018. All-ACC selection Beth Lillie (Col ’21) will headline the Cavaliers’ returnees.
Led by first-year David Morgan (Col ’22), the Cavaliers finished second at the ACC championship, matching their best finish in the event. They also qualified for an NCAA regional for the 12th consecutive year.
Kevin Sauer, co-dean of Virginia women’s coaches, just completed his 24th year leading a program that has finished among the top 10 in all 22 of its NCAA regatta appearances.
Women’s Cross Country
Since winning the 2015 ACC championship, Virginia has finished 10th, eighth and ninth in the event. The Cavaliers’ top four runners at the 2018 conference meet included three freshmen and a sophomore.
Men’s Cross Country
The Cavaliers were a disappointing fourth at the ACC meet but return two of their top three runners from the event, Ari Klau (Col ’20) and Randy Neish (Col ’20).
Freshman Emma Jinks (Col ’22) led the Cavaliers to a No. 11 end-of-year national ranking and reached the final of the College Squash Association’s individual tournament.
UVA finished its second varsity season at No. 12 in the national rankings, up two spots from its debut. Freshman Patrick McElroy (Col ’22) was No. 29 in the College Squash Association’s individual rankings.
Third-year coach Aaron Smith welcomes an acclaimed recruiting class this fall, and the newcomers will need to produce for a program that is 15-44 overall, 7-31 versus the ACC, in the past two seasons.
With only three seniors among its 16 competitors, UVA finished sixth at nationals. The only other season in which Virginia’s men and women were top 10 was 2010, quite the accomplishment for second-year coach Todd DeSorbo.
The Cavaliers placed 10th at the NCAA meet, their best finish in eight years, and return three of their six All-Americans.
The Cavaliers finished last among six teams at the ACC championships but return three of four athletes who qualified for the NCAA meet. Jack Mueller (Col ’20) is the headliner after a junior season in which he went undefeated until losing the 125-pound NCAA final to Iowa’s Spencer Lee.