As the Maryland kicker stepped up during the ninth round of penalty kicks, UVA keeper Ryan Burke (Col ’07) knew the direct shot on goal could go in any direction—and with it the 2003 ACC men’s soccer championship. Already, UVA and Maryland had battled through 90 minutes of play, ending with a 1-1 tie, and two scoreless 10-minute overtimes to determine the ACC title.
Burke, who had replaced the ’Hoos’ injured starting goalie earlier in the season, had trained for this moment but understood his chances. “It’s almost an educated guess,” he says of saving penalty kicks.
Burke also knew a lot was on the line. In November 2003, UVA’s storied soccer program—then with five NCAA championships and 12 ACC championships—had wrapped up its regular season in an unusual place: as underdogs. The young team with 14 new players appeared poised to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 23 years. “We kind of took on this us against the world mentality,” says midfielder Will Hall (Educ ’08).
But, against all odds, that mentality—along with some guts, says head coach George Gelnovatch (Col ’87)—netted the team two big wins during the ACC tourney, that seemingly elusive NCAA berth and, finally, a trip to the ACC title game with Maryland in Cary, North Carolina.
UVA had already lost to the Terrapins on the road, and the hostile Maryland fans who had taunted Burke then were back at the tournament with constant heckling. By the time the penalty kicks started, players were exhausted. Hall’s legs felt like cinder blocks, he recalls.
But the team’s youth, Gelnovatch says, was an advantage. Because of it, “they had no fear,” he says of the team’s performance in the tournament.
Most of the kickers, alternating between UVA and Maryland, made their shots—first UVA’s Matt Oliver (Col ’05, Educ ’05), then a Maryland kicker, followed by Hunter Freeman (Col ’06). After four misses, nine more kickers took the slow walk up to the penalty spot and made consecutive goals.
Then came the ninth round.
UVA’s Kirk Dinnall (Col ’05) made his shot. But Maryland’s kicker went low to Burke’s right and so did Burke, who dove and swatted the ball away.
The immediate feeling was elation. Burke ran toward the heckling Terp fans with his teammates piling on top of him. It was the beginning of more big wins for the team, including advancing to the third round of the 2003 NCAA championship, the 2004 ACC title and a trip to the 2006 NCAA Final Four. But on that field in 2003, it was all about what they’d just proved. “It was this great moment of ‘Look at us,’” says Burke, the tournament’s MVP. “We came out of nowhere.”