A big man with a big smile, Jon Belskis was the happiest man in Richmond before his Wisconsin Badgers had even played a game.
The goalkeeper, who stands 6-4 and weighs 215 pounds, entered his junior year with a media guide bio that reads: "1994 -- Did not see action.... 1993 -- Did not see action ... 1992 -- Walk-on ... red-shirted."
He had considered quitting several times.
"The reason I didn't may have had to do with my family," Belskis said. "My parents came to every game, even though I never played."
This year, he watched starting keeper Todd Wilson play 22 games, until Wilson went down with a dislocated elbow in a 1-0 win against William & Mary. Belskis played the final 26 minutes. Then he got his first collegiate start and shut out SMU in Dallas in a 2-0 quarterfinal game his parents missed.
They came to Richmond and watched Belskis notch two more shutouts as Wisconsin beat Portland 1-0 Dec. 8 before downing Duke 2-0 in the final two days later.
After the Portland win, he simply said, "It was good. It means I get another start."
Before the Portland game, he was simply having the time of his life. He celebrated the cold weather.
"We heard the schools were closed today in Richmond and laughed," he said. "We saw an inch of snow on the ground. We had a foot of snow in Wisconsin and still had classes." At the Soccer America FanZone, he handed his camera to friends to get photos of him with Scooby-Doo and Yogi.
Now he has photos of himself lifting the NCAA trophy. The nice guy who finished first grabbed high crosses in both games like he was he snatching balloons away from children.
And when Duke got its best chance of the game, he threw his huge body at the feet of Josh Henderson and hugged the ball.
"It was him and it was me, and I thought, 'Oh, God!" Belskis said.
The final marked Wisconsin's fifth straight shutout in the NCAA tournament, as the Badgers became only the second team to keep a clean sheet throughout the tournament. The San Francisco Dons did so for four matches in 1976.
Of this year's four finalists, no team conceded as few goals as Wisconsin's 11, but Portland, Virginia and Duke all scored significantly more.
The media concluded Wisconsin must be defensive-minded, and coach Jim Launder had to explain before the Portland match that the Badgers weren't.
In their warm-ups before the semifinal, one saw a clue to the Badgers' low output of 44 goals in 23 games: The Badgers' shots were flying everywhere but in the goal. One knocked down a walkway barrier and stunned an elderly usher.
After the Portland game -- when Wisconsin showed the key to its defense was an ability to keep the ball to itself -- a young boy pointed out to Portland coach Clive Charles that his squad looked much better in the warmup.
"That's right, we were the better team in the warmup," Charles said.
During the game, Wisconsin squandered numerous chances, but when Mike Gentile knocked a sharp ball from the endline onto Lars Hansen's leg, it flew into the net that keeper Todd Lawton had vacated to cut off Gentile.
It was the only goal the Badgers needed to book a final date with Duke, which dethroned four-time defending champ Virginia 3-2.
Duke had scored 60 goals going into the final. Brian Kelly had notched 16 and Jay Heaps, 15. No Badger scored more than seven.
Gentile, a wonderful passer of the ball, had scored only five. And it was Gentile who demanded respect after the Badgers downed Duke with Chad Cole's first goal of the season and Hansen's fifth.
"Don't call us a fluke," he demanded. "Don't call us a Cinderella team."
Usually a humble, soft-spoken figure, Gentile even uttered a mild profanity in his admonishment of those who called his team defensive.
"We've been attacking all year," he said.
Launder said, "He's soft-spoken until he has something real important to say."
The Badgers were the least-heralded of the finalists. Virginia had its 33-game undefeated streak. Its five titles in six years. Its national team stars and Bruce Arena, the Olympic team coach whose future -- probably in the pros -- is a constant topic of conversation.
Portland also has a celebrity coach. Charles -- also the assistant U.S. national team coach -- grabbed the spotlight by flying more than 15,000 miles during the playoffs while leading the school's men's and women's teams to their respective final fours.
Then Duke hogged headlines off the upset of the decade.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin quietly worked toward the goal it had plotted since the season started. Since the preseason, the Badgers believed its squad of seven starters would make it to the final four.
"We were something of a well-kept secret," Launder said. "We knew we were capable of going to the final four."
In the two playoff games they hosted, the Badgers drew only 606 and 572 fans. The Milwaukee newspaper sent a reporter to cover the Badgers in Richmond, but the Madison paper did not.
The crowd of 21,319 at Wisconsin's semifinal win over Portland was larger than the combined attendance of 20,915 for the Badgers' previous 23 games of 1995.
In the final, Wisconsin went ahead early. Hansen, the Norwegian who grew up in the port city Bergen watching telecasts of Liverpool, redirected Travis Roy's shot into the net in the eighth minute.
Then the Badgers proved unshaken by the Blue Devils' break-neck speed and matched their hard-tackling. It seemed like a slide-tackle per minute in a game that didn't live up to the quality of either semifinal.
"From an artistic standpoint," Launder said, "the semifinal against Portland was a nicer game. We had to cope with Duke's frenetic pace."
Cope they did. Brian Kelly couldn't find any room down his left wing after a few good first-half runs. Henderson could no longer overcome his sore ankles. Heaps didn't find the gaps he usually exploits with darting runs.
In the second half, Cole finished off a goalmouth melee that included a clearance off the line by Duke defender Evan Whitfield.
Hansen had two chances to score when Duke keeper John Morton was stranded, but lobbed both attempts over the goal.
Wisconsin had stolen the show and that was clearly evident to midfielder Shea Huston. He grew up in Batavia, Ill., with Virginia's Mike Fisher, the leading Player of the Year candidate, and Duke defensive midfielder Michael Dunne.
The trio played at the same high school and with the same club.
Fisher had a regulation-size goal in his front-yard. "It had an orange net and took up almost the whole yard.," Huston said.
And Dunne made his goal on the side of his house.
"It was indoor size," Dunne said. "I dug holes, poured cement, and used two-by-fours."
Dunne said he chose Duke because he wanted to help build a national championship team rather than to arrive at one. He was close to Fisher growing up, but now, he said, "I want to kick his ass."
But unsung Huston came out on top in the rivalry between friends.
"I was speechless after the final," Huston said. "He [Dunne] is a good friend, a nice guy, a great player. I was overcome by the emotion of winning. At the same time, I felt bad for him. I know that Duke has all its players back next year, so I finally said, 'Good game. You have next year."
Wisconsin has now. When they arrived at the Madison airport 200 supporters welcomed them and they got a police escort to campus.
"The escort was just for fun," Launder said.
Winning is fun. Just ask Belskis.
After Duke beat Virginia, coach John Rennie said their frequent encounters with the ACC rival ensured that they would not be awed by the Cavalier mystique.
In fact, Duke's win marked the Cavaliers' 10th lose in five seasons and Duke had inflicted four of them. In 1992, Duke snapped Virginia's 32-game win streak.
This season, the teams played to a 3-3 tie before Virginia crushed the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament.
Virginia looked to have an obvious edge. The Cavaliers were playing in their own state, and had the stronger fan support. Pre-teen Virginia fans in the stands did Arena imitations in the stands in between their cheers.
But Duke took an early two-goal lead. Heaps blasted a shot from 15 yards out after a failed Cavalier clearance bounced to his feet. Defender Sam Smith poked in a loose ball following a corner.
Virginia would outshoot the Blue Devils 15-7, but with less accuracy. Tim Prisco missed a golden opportunity late in the first half.
"The bottom line was today was our day," Rennie said. "Virginia is a great team, but you have to score goals and today we did that."
Duke scored a third goal -- through Craig Jeidy on a low 17-yard shot -- 15 minutes after Sean Feary pulled the Cavaliers within one in the 55th minute.
Fisher moved from the frontline into the midfield for most of the second half, but saw little of the ball. Damian Silvera had plenty of it, despite the swarm of Blue Devils who followed him.
Matt Leonard gave Virginia hope by heading a goal with 12 minutes left, but the Blue Devils survived Brandon Pollard's dangerous crosses from the left wing. Prisco headed high on a last-minute opportunity.
Thus the end of an era.
"Virginia winning four titles in a row certainly created more interest in college soccer than we would have had if we had alternating champions," Rennie said. "Non-soccer people take notice. There wouldn't be this crowd here today. There wouldn't be as many of you folks [media] if it wasn't for the run Virginia had. They're not going to win it this year, but they could win the next five in a row."
Senior Portland defender Khary Knowles suffered a severe stress fracture midway through the 1994 season. Two days before the 1995 season, his doctor told him he would never play again.
So Knowles stopped going to that doctor.
He played 15 games this season and the NCAA semifinal against Wisconsin was his seventh start. But it was also the last of his college career.
Portland, playing without team leading scorer Davide Xausa, serving a yellow-card suspension, never had any control of the match.
Wisconsin shot at the Pilots' goal 16 times while only one of three Portland shots was a real scoring opportunity. That came when the tall Knowles' header hit the crossbar at the beginning of the second half.
"During the season, we tried to keep track of our possession," Launder said, "and we found we always had lot more ball than our opponents, even against Indiana."
But against Portland, the Badgers' finishing was atrocious and they failed on five solid first-half chances.
"We weren't getting buckets of goals during the season either," Launder said, "but we always feel that we'll get what we need."
They got their semifinal goal in 64th minute through Hansen. They played a successful game of keepaway that sometimes feature marking backs Cole and Josh Provan working one-twos near their penalty area.
So the Badgers won their first semifinal game. Until 1991, the school offered only 2.2 men's soccer scholarships. Now Launder is making good use of his full allotment of 9.9.
The program was created in 1964 as a club sport by Bill Reddan, who ran the team on a $320 budget. He became varsity coach in 1976 and changed positions with then-assistant Laundner in 1982 so Reddan could concentrate on full-time teaching.
Thirty-one years after Reddan's ground work, the Badgers have gone all the way.
"It's something you thought [then] about but never thought you'd attain," Reddan said.
by Soccer America senior editor MIke Woitalla
Dec. 10 in Richmond, Va.
Wisconsin 2, Duke 0. Goals: Hansen (Roy) 8:12, Cole 62:58.
Wisconsin -- Belskis (6), Lamphear (8), Cole (8), Provan (7), Steel (6), B.Doherty (5), Huston (5), Gentile (7), Hansen (8),
Roy (6), Grimm (6). Subs:
Broadhurst (5), Sporcich (5), Kehoe (5), Watson (-), DeAmicis (-).
Duke -- Morton (5), Jeidy (6), Whitfield (5), Smith (4), Dunne (4), Maynard (4), Stein (4), Heaps (3), Kwon (4), Henderson (3), Kelly (4). Subs: Otto (5), Moghim (5), Shattuck (4), Volpe (4), Tao (5).
Dec. 8 in Richmond, Va.
Wisconsin 1, Portland 0. Goal: Hansen (Gentile) 63:29.
Wisconsin -- Belskis (5), Lamphear (8), Cole (7), Provan (7), Steel (6), Huston (5), B.Doherty (5), Gentile (7), Hansen (7),
Grimm (6), Roy (6). Subs:
Sporcich (5), Broadhurst (6), Kehoe (5), Watson (6).
Portland -- Lawton (4), Knowles (4), Gmitter (5), Rambo (4), Gregor (4), Harrington (5), Falcone (6), Brown (4), Studley (4), Rhode (5), Cochran (4). Subs: Ganzer (5), Schantz (5).
Dec. 8 in Richmond, Va.
Duke 3, Virginia 2. Goals: Heaps 18:43, Smith (Heaps) 21:54, Jeidy (Heaps) 70:44; Feary (Pollard) 55:04, Leonard (Vermillion) 78:29.
Duke -- Morton (6), Jeidy (8), Whitfield (7), Smith (8), Dunne (6), Maynard (5), Stein (5), Heaps (8),
Kelly (7), Shattuck (6), Kwon (6). Subs:
Henderson (6), Moghim (5), Volpe (5), Tao (5).
Virginia -- Sagatov (4), Chulis (5), Pollard (8), Vermillion (8), Walsh (6), Shapowal (6), Silvera (8), Olsen (6), Feary (7), Prisco (4), Fisher (4). Subs: Fitzmaurice (8), Leonard (6).