The record books will show that Santa Clara and Virginia shared the NCAA men's soccer championship after an hour of overtime had failed to resolve a 1-1 tie. But that's only part of the story. The real winner on Sunday afternoon at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., was the brutal weather.
When the game started at 12:30 p.m., the temperature was 21°, which with the windchill factor made it feel like 10° below zero. And that was before an arctic wind swept in and froze the ground solid. It was so cold, in fact, that Cavalier striker John Maessner joked that he was glad when he got kicked because it gave his legs a warm glow.
The memory of that afternoon is guaranteed to give Virginia sweeper Curt Onalfo chills for a long time. Throughout most of the game he played a pivotal role in helping Virginia cling to a 1-0 lead. Then, with 6:23 left in regulation, he picked up the ball 15 yards from his own goal and inadvertently hit it to Santa Clara midfielder Paul Holocher. Holocher, in turn, knocked it to midfielder Jeff Baicher, who netted the tying goal and sentenced both teams to another hour in the New Jersey tundra.
As he froze on the bench, Cavalier coach Bruce Arena must have recalled his lighthearted words of the night before, after a 3-0 win over Rutgers in the semis. When told about the vile weather forecast, he said, "We'd play for the national championship in a parking lot. We're just here for the party."
Some party it proved to be. Beforehand, Sunday's game looked like an intriguing matchup. Rutgers coach Bob Reasso had expressed a nearly unanimous view when he said, "Man for man, Virginia has the most talent in the country, and that's been the situation for the last 10 years." What he failed to mention was that the Cavaliers had reached the Final Four only once before, in 1983.
Santa Clara didn't appear to be a pushover, either. The Broncos' campus is on the outskirts of San Jose, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, and at first glance, they resembled a team that had been engraved on a microchip. They marched like robots across the room at the Final Four banquet, perfectly in step in their scarlet-and-white sweats. Santa Clara's game plan, which was based on zone defense rather than man-to-man, seemed just as robotlike. To penetrate it, boasted coach Steve Sampson, "You must have players who can beat two or three others on the dribble. You must have a side that can swing the play across the field fast. Not many college teams can do that."
Some at Rutgers Stadium wondered if the Broncos were really that good. Sure, they had a 29-game unbeaten streak. But some of those wins looked gift-wrapped: 10-0 over San Jose State, 8-0 over Cal State-Stanislaus. The cynics, however, were silenced when the Broncos overcame a 2-0 deficit against defending NCAA champion Indiana in the semis to win 4-2. Apparently, robots had hearts also.
Heart was what they needed once again on Sunday, when, 26:48 into the game, Virginia midfielder Richie Williams retrieved a corner kick and flicked the ball over to midfielder Drew Fallon, who scored with a right-foot stab. That appeared to be enough.
In the second half Virginia switched into siege mode, confident in its defenders and goalie Tony Meola, the NCAA Player of the Year. Meola was tested more often than he had been in his four shutouts for the U.S. national team in this year's World Cup qualifying round, and he met every challenge except the final, impossible one from Baicher. So the game went into that hour of frigid overtime and ended in the first divided championship since Maryland tied Michigan State 2-2 in 1968.
Afterward, only Sampson seemed pleased. "We're the Number One team in the country," he said a tad shamelessly. "We're the only undefeated team and tops in both of the polls."
The ever-urbane Arena made no such claims, but he expressed pride in what the Cavaliers had accomplished this year. "We played the toughest schedule in the country," he said. "But we made one mistake in the back."
Soccer, he might have added, can be as brutally unforgiving as the weather was on Sunday.
Baicher's dazzling footwork enabled him to elude the Cavaliers and score the tying goal.