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Outside limelight, Cavaliers thriving

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Their names are unfamiliar and send spell-check off the deep end. Their deeds rarely make SportsCenter or create traffic headaches on Emmet Street.

But these are the young men and women responsible for what likely will be, by at least one standard, the finest school year in University of Virginia sports history.

So take a bow, Dominic Inglot and Michael Shabaz. And you, too, Adams Abdulrazaaq and Yami Ayeni. Not to neglect Calle Nielson, Mei Christensen, Franco Valdes and dozens of others.

The irony here is that the Cavaliers' marquee sports, football and men's basketball, endured their worst collective seasons in more than three decades. Both programs finished with losing records for the first time since the 1976-77 academic year.

Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage forced basketball coach Dave Leitao to resign but rejected pleas of some donors to terminate football coach Al Groh. Instead, Groh was coerced into staff changes, most conspicuously at offensive coordinator, where he replaced his son Mike with Gregg Brandon, a former Bowling Green big whistle.

Amid the pitchforks-and-torches unrest, many questioned Littlepage's leadership, and in some instances, rightfully so. Yet thanks in part to his sage coaching hires for non-revenue teams, Virginia in 2008-09 is poised to reach the department's stated goal of ranking among the top 10 in the Directors' Cup.

Based primarily on NCAA tournament performance, the Directors' Cup standings are an intriguing though imprecise measure of an athletics department. The Cavaliers are top-30 staples but have cracked the year-end top 10 only once — they were eighth in 1998-99.

When the standings were last updated, May 27, Virginia was 10th. But with points still to be awarded for baseball — U.Va. plays Mississippi today for a berth in the College World Series — and track, a top-five finish for the Cavaliers is possible, if not probable.

(Stanford appears cemented at No. 1 for a 15th consecutive year; North Carolina is second, Duke ninth, Virginia Tech 52nd.)

Not surprisingly, Virginia's national success is rooted in its ACC efforts. For the second straight year, the Cavaliers equaled a school record with six conference championships.

The sources ranged from the usual suspects to the completely unexpected.

Coach Mark Bernardino's men's swimming team won its 11th consecutive ACC title, his women a second straight; Brian Boland's men's tennis squad, undefeated until an NCAA quarterfinal loss to Southern California, ruled the league for a third consecutive year, the men's cross country bunch for the second time in three seasons.

The stunners were baseball and, especially, men's outdoor track.

Thanks to individual titles by Abdulrazaaq in the high hurdles and Ayeni in the discus, rookie Jason Vigilante coached Virginia to its first league title, tying traditional power Florida State. And spare us any Lou Dobbs-like rants about foreign mercenaries — Abdulrazaaq was born in Richmond and attended Highland Springs High; Ayeni was born in Nigeria but went to high school in New Jersey.

Last month, Brian O'Connor's team became the lowest seed (sixth) to win the ACC baseball tournament. With Valdes, a junior catcher, earning MVP honors, the Cavaliers then survived an NCAA regional for the first time, defeating No. 1 UC Irvine twice on the Anteaters' field.

And it hasn't just been the conference kingpins. Hall of Fame coach Dom Starsia guided the men's lacrosse team to the NCAA semifinals after stumbling in the ACC tournament; led by Nielson, the women's golf squad placed eighth at nationals under second-year coach Kim Lewellen after struggling to fifth place at the conference tournament.

Lewellen is among a group of quality coaches Littlepage and his staff have discovered over the years. The run of impeccable hires began in 1993 when, as an assistant athletic director, Littlepage helped pry Starsia from Brown, the latter's alma mater.

Since, Littlepage and Co. have unearthed coaches from institutions renowned (O'Connor from Notre Dame, and Vigilante from Texas) and undervalued (Boland from Indiana State, and Lewellen from East Carolina). As important, when others attempted to poach its coaches, Virginia retained them.

In turn, the coaches have recruited and developed talents such as Inglot and Shabaz, who last month won the doubles at the NCAA tennis championships, one year after Somdev Devvarman captured his second consecutive singles title.

Also: Christensen was the ACC women's swimmer of the year after setting six records, two individual and four relays, at the conference meet. She later finished fifth in the 100-yard backstroke at the NCAA meet to earn All-America honors.

Household names, no. Rather, the cornerstones of sweeping excellence.

Not a bad trade.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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