A presence in the postseason is the new normal for UVA football, the expectation never more evident than the first Saturday of November at North Carolina’s Kenan Memorial Stadium.
The Cavaliers had just defeated the Tar Heels 38-31 to secure bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season. Players didn’t douse fourth-year coach Bronco Mendenhall with Gatorade or celebrate on the field. Reporters didn’t quiz Mendenhall on the victory’s significance.
Compare that with November 2017, when Virginia’s win over Georgia Tech ended a five-year postseason drought and prompted considerable revelry on the field and in the locker room.
Not to suggest that the 2019 Cavaliers were dispassionate. Unlocking their emotions simply required more, and more arrived on Black Friday.
UVA had not defeated Virginia Tech since 2003. The Cavaliers had never earned an ACC Coastal Division title and had not gone undefeated at home since 1998.
All that changed with a riveting 39-30 victory over the Hokies that had Scott Stadium feeling like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Fans streamed down from the hill and stands. Players and coaches cried amid long embraces.
The Cavaliers’ reward was a date with dynastic Clemson in the ACC championship game, followed by an Orange Bowl invitation to play Florida. Their defense compromised by injuries to cornerback Bryce Hall (Educ ’19), linebacker Jordan Mack (Educ ’19) and safety Brenton Nelson (Col ’20), they lost both encounters, 62-17 to the Tigers and 36-28 to the Gators, to close the season 9-5.
But the nine victories are Virginia’s most in a dozen years, and a combined 17 wins in 2018 and ’19 mark its best back-to-back seasons since 2002 and ’03. Moreover, the Orange Bowl was the program’s second major postseason appearance, joining the January 1991 Sugar Bowl.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins (Col ’19) cemented his name in UVA lore with a second extraordinary season, while Joe Reed (Col ’19) made first-team All-American as a kickoff returner. Both are seniors, but returning starters abound at linebacker and on the offensive and defensive lines.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Mendenhall said after the Orange Bowl, “the culture that we’ve established, the competitive spirit, the intensity and the camaraderie that’s displayed from beginning to end. We’re on a mission to just simply establish that you can have world-class academics and be at the top tier of college football as well. That’s what’s happening at the University of Virginia. We were a few plays short today in our execution to win the game, but it was not because of a lack of belief or confidence or ability.”
Other Fall Sports
Two of UVA’s seven national championships in men’s soccer have come on penalty kicks. The Cavaliers’ bid for an eighth title in the fall was denied in the same harrowing format.
After 90 minutes of regulation and 10 of overtime ended in a 3-3 tie, Georgetown defeated Virginia 7-6 on penalties. The setback ended a season in which the Cavaliers matched a program record with four All-Americans: first-team midfielder Joe Bell (Col ’21), first-team keeper Colin Shutler (Col ’20), second-team defender Henry Kessler (Col ’19) and third-team forward Daryl Dike (Col ’22).
Meanwhile, UVA field hockey reached its fifth national semifinal and first since 2010. The Cavaliers fell to Princeton 2-1, the fourth consecutive season they’ve been eliminated from the tournament by the Tigers.
Virginia women’s soccer spent much of the season atop the national polls and earned a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA tournament, only to fall to Washington State 3-2 in the second round.