Consider it a case of freshman hubris: four straight NCAA championships. That's precisely what A.J. Wood, a freshman forward at Virginia, had in mind one September evening in 1991. While walking to dinner, Wood casually suggested to some of his equally callow classmates on the soccer team that they ought to think big. Very big. "That's what we set our sights on," Wood says. "We didn't expect it to come true."
So much for broken dreams. On Sunday, when Wood scored in Virginia's 1-0 win over Indiana, the four seniors remaining on the team had their clean sweep. Four seasons. Four championship rings.
Before the final, though, no commemorative jewelry was in evidence among the senior Cavaliers within the town limits of Davidson, N.C., site of soccer's final four. Wood, midfielder Tain Nix and defender Clint Peay had left their rings at home in Charlottesville. Forward Nate Friends had gone them one better, depositing his rings in a bank safe deposit box.
Keeping their rings under wraps was part of Virginia's strategy. Entering the game against the top-ranked Hoosiers. the Cavaliers, who came in ranked No. 4, wanted everyone to believe they were underdogs. We're just happy to be here. That sort of shtick. Indiana coach Jerry Yeagley wasn't buying. "I call this tournament the Bruce Arena Holiday Classic." said Yeagley, referring to his Virginia counterpart. "He's here so much, the team should rent a condo."
Not a bad idea, especially because Davidson has hosted the final four for three years. "We're like locals here," said Wood. "We've outlasted some restaurants. The place we always go to eat is a steakhouse now. Last year it was an Italian place. The year before, a sandwich shop."
Despite the fact that the Cavs were regular customers at Davidson—eggs over easy, black coffee and another championship, please—Indiana entered this year's championship game as the favorite on everyone's menu. Under Yeagley, the Hoosiers had won three NCAA titles in the '80s, including back-to-back crowns in '82 and '83. This season Yeagley seemed to have recovered the touch, in part because his son, senior four-time All-America midfielder Todd, was on Dad's side. The Hoosiers finished the regular season 19-2 and earned Soccer America's vote as top team in the country.
"Playing Virginia in the final game, I couldn't have written a better script," said the coach of the '80s after the Hoosiers beat UCLA 4-1 on Friday in one semifinal. "A dream matchup," said Arena, the coach of the '90s, following the Cavaliers 2-1 victory over Rutgers in the other semi.
There was reason to believe that the defending champions were vulnerable Virginia was without All-America midfielder Mike Fisher, who was ineligible after having received his third yellow care of the postseason against Rutgers. Furthermore, the Cavaliers no longer had Claudio Reyna, the midfield general who had dictated the tempo of the previous three championship seasons. Reyna left Virginia to play professionally in Germany and with the U.S. World Cup team.
On Sunday the Cavaliers unveiled an aggressive defense. They tackled Todd Yeagley and his fellow All-America midfielder Brian Maisonneuve relentlessly, and double-teamed whoever had the ball for the Hoosiers. "If a basketball player scores 25 points a game, you're going to key your defense around him," said Arena. What gives with the hoops reference? Well, the game was against the Hoosiers.
As for the loss of Reyna, the 1993 Player of the Year, "It was like when Lew Alcindor left UCLA," said senior forward Friends. "No one expected this team to do anything without him. Now we have stepped out of Claudio's shadow."
Indeed, Virginia adjusted to life after Claudio quite nicely this season, scoring the most goals (86) in team history, and Wood broke the individual school record for a season with 23. None of those goals, however, was more precious than Sunday's game-winner. In the 21st minute, Wood trapped a left-footed cross from Virginia defender Brandon Pollard inside the penalty box, settling the ball quickly. As soon as Indiana goalkeeper Scott Coufal committed, Wood knocked the ball into the lower left corner of the goal.
The Hoosiers had their best chance to tie the game with 4:15 left in the first half, when Maisonneuve howitzered a shot from eight yards out toward the right side of the net. En route the ball struck the forehead of Virginia midfielder Billy Walsh, who was standing on the goal line. "I don't know how I got that thing," said Walsh. "I was lucky, I guess."
"It could have gone either way," said coach Yeagley. "I told my seniors that it was the best four years of my career. It's unfortunate they couldn't get the ring."
The sense of loss was especially acute for Todd, who is a leading candidate for Player of the Year. On Saturday he and his father had talked of raised expectations. "We both felt that we would be letting the other one down if we didn't get to the final four," said Yeagley senior. "Todd said to me, 'If we would have lost to Cal State-Fullerton in the quarterfinals at home, I would have really let you down, Dad." I told him that I was hoping that as a coach, I wouldn't let him down."
As the Virginia players ran an exuberant victory lap after Sunday's final, Todd, like most of his teammates, lay inconsolable on the grass near the Indiana bench. Yeagley senior, ever the coach, went to each of his players, pulling them to their feet and thanking them for a magnificent season. At last he approached Todd, put his arm around his waist and escorted him off the held. "I love you," he whispered to his son. "You didn't let me down."
After rising to the occasion against Indiana, Wood (10, left and above) joined his fellow seniors and Arena.