Virginia using sports to promote inclusion after tragedy
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) A lingering shadow still looms over Virginia following the tragedy that hit the campus and Charlottesville community three weeks ago.
So the university is using sports to promote inclusion, and the effort begins Saturday when Virginia plays host to William & Mary in the season-opener for both football programs. The Cavaliers will wear a patch on their uniforms with the hashtag (hash)HoosTogether, a campaign that plays off the school's unofficial nickname.
Virginia's players are hoping to give their community something to cheer about in the wake of the white nationalist rally that descended into violence, leaving one dead and dozens more injured.
Quarterback Kurt Benkert knows the easiest way for he and his teammates to do their part: win the game.
Athletic director Craig Littlepage said Thursday all athletics teams at Virginia will wear the patch on their uniforms this season. He said the campaign is designed to promote support for love, diversity and inclusion through social media.
Benkert, one of three co-captains, said the team can best do its part on the field.
''On Saturday, I won't be thinking about it too much, to be honest,'' Benkert said when asked if the team intends to go into the game trying to become a healing agent for the community. ''Just trying to win the game, doing everything I can there. But leading up to it, I think it's always something that's in the back of our mind.''
Football hasn't offered much hope in recent years for the Cavaliers, and last year's 2-10 record was a low point.
But that's in the past, Benkert said.
''My main focus is just telling guys to look around, look at how much different we are,'' he said. ''Look at how completely different of a team we are from top to bottom. That's something I really try to focus on with those guys.
''And understand that last year happened, but that's not us. It's not us anymore.''
The Tribe, in its 38th season under Jimmye Laycock, won at Scott Stadium as recently as 2009 and had Virginia on the ropes two seasons ago, losing 35-29 after being stopped on downs at the Cavaliers' 30 with 1:27 to play.
''We've played enough of these games to know that mistakes will get magnified when you play against this kind of team,'' Laycock said.
Some other things to watch when William & Mary visits Virginia:
BEHIND CENTER: Benkert is the only Virginia quarterback who has ever thrown a pass in a college game, and his backup is freshman Lindell Stone. Second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall said Stone is progressing nicely, and it remains to be seen if he will get some game action early. Laycock said this week that he has narrowed a five-person quarterback battle down to three, but, at least publicly, appears willing to wait until Saturday to tip his hand as to who will play.
UNDERDOGS: The Tribe is still relatively young with only 10 starters back, but has a history in these FBS-FCS matchups. In the last five years, it also led West Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina in the second half.
BRONCO DOESN'T KNOW: Mendenhall was alarmed last season when his players hung their heads as they were being dominated by Richmond, and has spent the past year working to change that defeatist mentality. He says he will need to see his team in a game to know how much progress has been made.
RECEIVERS: Virginia has a number of wide receivers that have been touted as ready for breakout seasons, including a few that Benkert loves to look for deep downfield. One is speedy Olamide Zaccheaus, who is expected to play a much bigger role this season. Wide receiver is also a strong suit for the Tribe. Their group is led by two-time All-CAA pick DeVonte Dedmon, three-year starter Daniel Kuzjak and two-time All-CAA tight end Andrew Caskin.
LITTLE BIG THINGS: The Cavaliers turned the ball over seven times in their 26-14 loss to William & Mary in 2009. ... Virginia managed just five field goals last season, none longer than 36 yards. ... Laycock leads among active head coaches at the FBS and FCS levels with 243 victories. His overall record is 243-180-2.
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