Oct. 31, 2012
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Since enrolling at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2009, Will Bates has, among other things, helped the men's soccer team win a national championship, made three appearances in the NCAA tournament, earned All-ACC honors, suffered (and recovered from) a torn ACL, studied in Africa, and shared an apartment with football player Oday Aboushi.
His college experience has been a full one, "to say the least," Bates said with a smile last week. And now it's almost over.
Bates, a 6-0, 185-pound forward, is on track to graduate in December with a bachelor's degree in anthropology, after which he expects to begin his pro soccer career. First, though, he's trying to lead UVa back to the NCAA tourney.
In the regular-season finale, Virginia (8-6-2 overall, 2-4-1 ACC) meets NC State (10-8, 1-6) in Raleigh at 7 p.m. Thursday. A victory would all but assure the Cavaliers, No. 15 in the latest RPI, another invitation to the NCAAs.
If the Wahoos can get into the tournament, "I think there is definitely a run that this team can make," Bates said. "And I think there's a little something special about it, in that nobody really expects much. We're not in the polls. We're not ranked anywhere. And that's kind of a nice thing to have. We're the underdog in most games."
That wasn't the case in 2009, when UVa won ACC and NCAA titles. Bates was the only freshman to play a significant role on that team. Three years later, he's the Cavaliers' lone senior starter.
Moreover, only one junior has started as many as five games for Virginia this season, which further magnifies Bates' value to a program that's hoping to earn an NCAA tournament bid for the 32nd consecutive season.
"It's tough to imagine this young team without him," UVa coach George Gelnovatch said.
Bates will turn 22 in April. Not surprisingly, his perspective differs from that of his younger teammates.
"I know what to expect in every game," he said. "Nothing's new to me. I've seen it all, been in every kind of situation you could possibly be in in college soccer. And so I think sometimes when these guys' heads are spinning, I'm out there just like, `This is normal. This is what happens out there.' "
As a freshman, Bates played with such veterans as Ross LaBauex, Neil Barlow, Jonathan Villanueva and Diego Restrepo. Now when Bates looks at his teammates during games, he sees freshmen and sophomores.
"It's just a different vibe on the team," Bates said.
What hasn't changed is Bates' uncanny ability to put the ball in the net. He's leading the `Hoos in goals for the fourth straight season.
Of Virginia's 23 goals this year, 10 have come from Bates, who starred at Thomas Dale High School in Chester and for the Richmond Strikers club program. No other UVa player has more than three goals.
"In every sport, you just have those guys that can score," Gelnovatch said. "Some guys do it different ways. Will's not a finesse guy. He's not a guy that's going to dribble and beat you. He's a guy that's very good in the box. He's a handful in the box -- big, strong, athletic -- and he kind of has a sense of where the goal is without seeing it a lot of times."
With 44 career goals, Bates ranks seventh all-time at UVa, behind Ben Crawley (47). Fifth is Gelnovatch, who scored 49 goals from 1983 to '86.
Bates' most brilliant goal might have been the one-timer he converted Oct. 19 in the 74th minute against Virginia Tech at Klöckner Stadium. That pulled the Cavaliers to 2-2 in a game they eventually won in overtime.
"That's something you see on an EPL review show on Sunday night," Gelnovatch said.
Ultimately, though, Bates will be remembered at Virginia for more than the game-changing goals that are his trademark. He's "all in for the program, all in for the school, and it shows in how he represents all those things," Gelnovatch said.
"From a character standpoint, he's a special guy," Gelnovatch said. "If you measure character and kind of rank guys in the top 10, he'd easily be a top-five guy, in my opinion, in the history of the program."
Case in point: the resilience Bates showed in 2009 after struggling early in his college career.
"I remember in preseason he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn," Gelnovatch said. "And sometimes what happens with young guys, depending on how they deal with it, is they never get out of it. It takes them a whole season.
"But Will has this way about him, this character about him, this belief in himself. He just presses on. And whether he's having a bad game or a bad day, he just keeps pressing on. It's just a quality about him, even when he was a first-year. And even when he got hurt, he didn't feel sorry for himself."
Bates tore his right ACL on Oct. 21, 2011, against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. He missed the final three games of the regular season -- Bates was named to the All-ACC first team anyway -- and without its leader UVa lost in the NCAA tournament's first round.
"I was having probably my best season since I've been here, last year, and kind of had a plan to leave school to go pro," Bates said. "But the injury set me back at that point and made it unrealistic and really hurt my draft stock."
He shrugged. "That's just how it goes sometimes. It wasn't really something I dwelled on for long. Once it happened and it was a sure thing, I just moved on and said, `What's the next step I have to do to get back?' "
Gelnovatch said: "Things don't get him rattled. He gets up, he dusts himself off and gets on with it. As a coach, you can yell at him when he does something wrong. He can take it."
Bates said he's learned valuable life lessons at UVa, on and off the field.
For years he dreamed of turning pro early, Bates said, "but now I'm ecstatic that I'm going to be able to walk away with a degree in three-and-a-half years. It's a little bit different than I planned. Each season had a little different story to it, and you don't know what to expect. You just have to enjoy it while it is there."
After the 2011-12 school year ended at UVa, Bates spent about a month abroad, earning six credits in a interdisciplinary program (environmental science and anthropology). Called "People, Culture and Environment of Southern Africa," the course took him to Johannesburg, Mozambique and rural areas of South Africa. Bates later visited Cape Town on his own before returning to Virginia.
Back in Charlottesville, Bates moved into an off-Grounds apartment with Aboushi, a starting offensive tackle on Mike London's football team, and their dogs.
"To be honest, we never said a word to each other our first three years," Aboushi said. "I kind of met him through some friends. He was a quiet, respectful kid, and I was looking for a fourth-year roommate, because I'm leaving [at midyear], and so is he."
When Aboushi and Bates became roommates, neither was well-versed in the finer points of the other's sport.
"To be honest, I watch football for the spectacle of it, but I don't know much about it," Bates said. "So that has been one thing I've really enjoyed. I can watch the game and talk with him about it afterward and say what I saw, and he'll be like, `Yeah, that's true,' or `This is what's actually happening.' "
Aboushi is likely to land in the NFL next year. Bates expects to be playing for pay in 2013, too.
"From what I'm hearing, teams just wanted to make sure that I was back from my injury, and there's been a lot of positive feedback," Bates said. "They're saying, `Look, he's proved he can score goals again. The knee's holding up. His movements are good.'
"Every MLS team has been out to Charlottesville to see me play this year, or somewhere that we've played, and had somebody watching me. I think it's looking good. And the longer the team keeps going [in postseason], the more exposure I'll get."
The NCAA title that UVa won in 2009 was the program's sixth. Since then, the `Hoos have not advanced past the NCAA tourney's first round. Whatever happens this year, though, Bates believes a return to prominence is imminent for Virginia.
"I definitely hope so," he said. "And I tell these guys all the time, just seeing how they play now and seeing where they're at, they have so much potential, it's absurd."
Bates is taking 17 credit hours this semester, a larger-than-usual load for him. It's not that he's in a hurry to leave the University; he wanted to make sure he had his degree before pursuing a pro career.
"I may not miss classes so much, but I will miss everything else about Charlottesville, all the sporting events, all the people, the culture," Bates said.
"Yesterday I was just walking the dog and hanging on the Lawn. This is a nice place. I want to tell a lot of the young guys, `Look, once you move on past this, if you continue to play, you're going to have pressure: It'll be your livelihood, your job, how you make money.' Here, I go to class, I hang out. It's a great situation. You really gotta make the most of it."