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ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESSVirginia wide receiver Joe Reed (2) celebrates his touchdown during the Orange Bowl against Florida on Monday at Hard Rock Stadium.

The Cavaliers walked off the field, disappointed.

Richmond came into Scott Stadium and whooped Virginia, exiting with a 37-20 triumph on Sept. 3, 2016.

The Cavaliers walked off the field, disappointed.

No. 9 Florida escaped Hard Rock Stadium, edging Virginia 36-28 on Dec. 30, 2019.

Virginia’s seniors ended their college football careers the same way they started: with a disappointing defeat. But those losses, and the years in between, tell the story of a program that’s come a long way.

The first loss of the seniors’ careers wasn’t just a loss, it was an embarrassment. Richmond, an FCS program, wasn’t even the best FCS team in Virginia that season, but the Spiders steamrolled the lowly Cavaliers.

In 2016, Cavaliers limped to a 2-10 mark in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season, including the season-opening loss to Richmond. The freshmen on that team, who are now seniors, were quickly humbled.

As the seniors prepare to clean out their lockers and move into the next stages of their lives, they’re leaving the Virginia football program in a much better place than when they found it.

After the 2-10 season in 2016, the Cavaliers finished 6-7 in 2017. Then Virginia went 8-5 with a Belk Bowl win in 2018. This season, the seniors became the first group to beat Virginia Tech since 2003. They also earned the program’s first ACC Coastal Division championship.

“I’m thankful to the senior class,” Mendenhall said. “Those that came, most of whom I didn’t select but honored their commitments when I came to the University of Virginia, that started with a 2-10 season and now find themselves on the verge and a great chance to have won the Orange Bowl and set a foundation, and I consider them a legacy class in terms of establishing what UVa football really is.”

The final loss of the seniors’ careers wasn’t just a loss, it was a competitive showing in the program’s first Orange Bowl appearance. Fans, alumni and recruits watched as the Cavaliers looked the part of a Top 25 football program. Virginia had chances in the second half to beat a Florida team that only fell to No. 1 LSU and No. 5 Georgia.

When Mendenhall came to Virginia and the 2019 seniors were freshmen, a disappointing loss came against decent FCS teams. With the group, now seniors in Mendenhall’s fourth year, disappointing losses come against top-10 teams in postseason play.

“Those seniors taught us so much,” junior receiver Terrell Jana said. “I learned so much from those guys. What they’ve set and the kind of culture they’ve set has been steadfast. It’s the foundation of what we’ve done to get here.”

There’s clear growth within the program, and much of that can be assigned to the seniors. While Bryce Perkins came to Virginia as a redshirt junior, he led the offense the past two seasons. The Cavaliers wouldn’t be where they are without Perkins.

Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed were two of Perkins’ favorite targets, and their ability helped Virginia’s offense excel at the end of the season when the Cavaliers needed to keep winning to stay alive in the Coastal Division chase.

Other seniors, such as Bryce Hall, Eli Hanback and Jordan Mack helped carry the load defensively, both this season and in previous years.

The seniors on UVa’s roster are the reason the Cavaliers earned their spot in this year’s Orange Bowl. Their careers end with another defeat, but it’s a different kind of loss. It’s one dripping with pride.

Even with setbacks, the 2019 senior class achieved historic success. The Cavaliers’ seniors broke the Virginia Tech losing streak. They became the first UVa team to win the Coastal Division and play in an Orange Bowl.

They’ve set the foundation for years to come, and they’ll always hold a special place in Virginia’s football history. Losing stings just like it did back in the fall of 2016, but there’s a sense of accomplishment among this group that didn’t exist back then.

“It’s very sad,” Hanback said of losing the Orange Bowl. “I came in the locker room, had some tears. I’ll probably have more later. It’s been an honor and a blessing to have an opportunity to play here. I hope I left it better than I found it. I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life for the opportunity I had to play football here.”

Virginia’s seniors started their careers with a loss. Their careers ended with a loss. The first and last chapters of the book show losses, but the pages in between tell just one truth: Virginia’s 2019 seniors were winners.

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