Aug. 16, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- In a recent tweet, Sheldon Sullivan's anxiety was almost palpable in his message for former UVa teammate Jordan Allen: running the cooper today. #prayerforme.
The Cooper Test is a gauge of players' stamina and fitness used by many soccer teams, including the Virginia men. There are variations of the Cooper, but in the version UVa coach George Gelnovatch favors, each of his players -- other than the goalkeepers, who have their own conditioning test -- must run two miles in 12 minutes or less before being cleared to play in games. If a player fails to meet that standard, he tries again every few days until he passes.
The test is named for Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, who devised it in 1968 to measure the aerobic fitness of U.S. military personnel.
To pass the Cooper, players must be physically fit. But there are other hurdles to clear.
"It's mental," said Jeff Boyer, the UVa athletic trainer who works with the men's soccer team.
Senior midfielder Eric Bird, an All-America candidate who never appears to tire, has passed each time he's run the Cooper. "It's fun for me," Bird said, smiling.
He knows, though, that many of his teammates do not share his enthusiasm when they hear Gelnovatch mention the Cooper.
"I just look around the locker room, and I see everybody's heads sink down," Bird said. "And they're all like, `Oh, no.' Everyone gets all quiet, and they get nervous, and they start thinking about it."
Especially younger players like Sullivan, a redshirt freshman whose brother, Kyler, is heading into his fourth year as a starting defender for the Wahoos.
"I've heard stories of guys walking in and saying they've had nightmares about [the Cooper]," Bird said. "It's pretty notorious. It's the one run that older guys like to kind of mess with young guys and say, `This is a big deal,' and have fun with it."
Gelnovatch, a former UVa player, is in his 19th year as head coach at his alma mater. He hasn't always used the Cooper to help measure his players' fitness in the preseason, but it has become a program tradition over the past decade.
"What I find with this test is, because it's an ongoing 12 minutes rather than sprint, rest, sprint, rest," Gelnovatch said, "for 12 minutes you are put to the test psychologically. And I like the teamwork part of it."
Players who have passed the Cooper assist their slower teammates, sometimes simply with shouts of encouragement, other times by physically pushing them forward on the track.
"I would prefer that guys could run it by themselves, but the benefit is that teamwork," Gelnovatch said. "You talk about pushing each other, well that's literally pushing each other.
"To me, passing this thing is a level of fitness, but just passing this doesn't mean you're ready to play in a Division I college soccer game. This is just our basic level of fitness. And then the psychological, teamwork, those components are almost as important.
"It's almost in thirds: the psychological piece, the teamwork piece and the fitness piece. There's really three things that make [the Cooper] pretty unique."
On a recent evening, the UVa players enrolled in the final session of summer school gathered on the track at Lannigan Field, where they would run eight laps each. They divided themselves into three groups, roughly from fastest to slowest, and waited for Bill Miller, the strength and conditioning coach for men's soccer, to administer the test.
In the first group were seniors Bird and Ryan Zinkhan, sophomore Riggs Lennon, redshirt freshman Luc Fatton and freshmen Julian Cummings, Manny Scere and Fabrice Shema. As they made their way around the track, Miller periodically glanced at his stopwatch and shouted updates.
"2:30! ... 3:20! ... 3:30!"
Bird hit the halfway point first, finishing four laps in 5 minutes, 45 seconds. He continued to cruise over the second mile, and none of the other six needed a late surge to pass the test, either, though each sprinted the final 60 meters anyway.
First across the finish line was Bird (11:15), followed by Zinkhan, Lennon, Shema, Scere, Fatton and, finally, Cummings (11:38).
"That feels so good," Lennon yelled after crossing in 11:23.
Lennon ran the Cooper after enrolling at UVa last year. Shema, who attended high school in Louisville, Ky., had never attempted the test until he got to Charlottesville this summer.
"When I heard about it, the guys were like, `It's brutal' and everything, but I've got good stamina and I knew I would be fine," Shema said after finishing in 11:26. "When I first stepped out [on the track], I was like, `Oh, my God, what am I doing?' But it feels so good when you finish."
The first group's work, though, wasn't done.
"This is when it gets fun and turns into a team-bonding experience," Bird said. "The slower guys need everyone to rally around them."
Group No. 2, consisting of Sheldon Sullivan, fifth-year senior Bryan Lima and juniors Darius Madison and Todd Wharton, set off, and at the 11-minute mark, it appeared Sullivan's concerns about passing the Cooper might have been well-founded.
"They're not gonna make it if they don't pick up the pace," Miller said.
With a little help from their teammates, all four made it, with Lima (11:48) the last to cross the finish line. (Sullivan's time was a more-than-respectable 11:36). And then, aided by more pushing from teammates, so did the five players in the final group: sophomore Patrick Foss and freshmen Wesley Suggs, Liam Jenkins, Steven Gandy and Peter Pearson.
Pearson was the last to finish, with nine seconds to spare, after which he tumbled onto the track. Foss collapsed on the infield grass, exhausted.
"Somehow this group figured out how to do it without our help," Miller said.
A few mornings later, the entire team met at Lannigan Field for the rest of the players to be tested.
"Nervous?" operations assistant Oliver Gage asked Cummings.
Cummings smiled. "No, I passed it."
Asked how he expected the remaining players to fare, Gelnovatch said matter-of-factly, "There'll be one [who doesn't pass]."
To his delight, Gelnovatch was wrong. About a dozen players ran the Cooper, all in one group this time, and there was no drama at the finish line. Would a couple of the slower players have beaten the clock without help from teammates? Maybe not. But Gelnovatch wasn't complaining.
"That's the first time in 10 years, maybe ever, I can remember everybody passed the test [on the first attempt]," he said. "It's a clear sign of their fitness level, and that comes from a determination, I guess, to take care of some unfinished business."
In 2013, UVa advanced to the College Cup before losing in the NCAA semifinals. The core of that team is back -- Virginia is ranked No. 2 in College Soccer News' preseason poll -- and the veterans, as well as the newcomers, made sure to report for practice in excellent condition.
"I think these guys see something good happening," Gelnovatch said.
LATE ADDITION: Forward Sam Hayward, who played at the University of Pennsylvania last year, enrolled at UVa this week and is eligible this season.
A 6-0, 165-pound sophomore from Dallas, Hayward scored five goals for the Quakers in 2013. That tied him for second on a team that won the Ivy League title and advanced to the NCAA tournament. (Providence ousted Penn on penalty kicks in the first round.)
His twin brother, Connor, is a sophomore goalkeeper at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.
Hayward should help the `Hoos offset the loss of Marcus Salandy-Defour, who started 19 games last season. Salandy-Defour suffered a knee injury this summer and recently had reconstructive surgery that will sideline him this fall.
"He's doing well, recovering well," Gelnovatch said. "Just the ACL, no meniscus, so he should make a full and good recovery."
Salandy-Defour, who had three goals and four assists last season, was named to the All-ACC Tournament team in November. He'll have two seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out this fall.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN: Before opening the season at home Aug. 29 against Old Dominion, UVa will plays three exhibitions at Klöckner Stadium.
Each will start at 7 p.m. The first is Saturday against Rutgers, the second Tuesday against St. John's, and the third Aug. 23 against Georgetown.
Admission to the exhibition games is free.