Heading into the 1997 season, head coach Dom Starsia and the Virginia lacrosse team had one primary objective: win a national championship. With three first-team All-Americans and a host of other talent returning, the Cavaliers were eager to avenge a sudden-death loss to Princeton in the 1996 NCAA Tournament finals.
Unfortunately, UVas pursuit of a national title ended prematurely with an emotional 10-9 loss at Maryland in the 1997 NCAA quarterfinals. I really like my team, said Starsia afterwards. Its a terrific group of kids who worked hard all year. The loss doesnt diminish the quality of their effort and the quality of who they are.
With so much emphasis on winning it all, it is easy to lose sight of everything the team accomplished. Consider: Virginia finished 11-3 overall (3-0 ACC) against one of the nations toughest schedules; UVa overcame early one-goal losses at Syracuse and Princeton to win its final 10 games of the 1997 regular season; the Cavaliers captured their first-ever ACC Tournament title, rolling past North Carolina 17-13 in the semifinals and defeating Duke 12-6 in the championship game.
UVa set school marks for scoring for the fourth consecutive season and went undefeated at home (7-0). The team also led the country in scoring for the second straight year, averaging 18.2 goals per game. Virginia extended its string of double-figure scoring games to 44 (unprecedented in ACC history), only to see the record snapped in the seasons final game.
The 1997 season was also characterized by tremendous individual performances. Two of the best players in collegiate lacrosse history, attackmen Doug Knight and Michael Watson headlined an outstanding senior class that was responsible for a school-record 631 career points. Knight led the ACC in scoring with 72 points, including 39 goals and 33 assists. He set UVa career standards with 165 goals (second in ACC history), 249 points (third ACC) and 47 consecutive goal-scoring games. Watson was Virginias second-leading scorer last season with 62 points, including 32 goals and 30 assists. He finished his UVa career ranked second in school history with 142 career goals (fifth ACC), third in points with 240 (fifth ACC) and sixth in assists with 98.
Knight and Watson were named first-team All-Americans for the second year in a row in 1997. Joining them on the first team last spring was midfielder David Curry. Transferring from Gettysburg in 1996, he finished among the leading goal-scoring middies in the nation last season with 33 goals.
Junior midfielder David Wren was named a second-team All-American in 1997 while senior defenseman Tommy Smith earned third-team honors. Sophomore midfielder Tucker Radebaugh and junior midfielder Drew Melchionni each garnered honorable mention status.
Virginia swept all three of the ACCs top honors in 1997 as Starsia was named Coach of the Year, Watson the Player of the Year and midfielder Jason Hard the Rookie of the Year. UVas All-ACC selections included Curry, Knight, Smith, Watson and Wren.
Among the other Cavalier seniors in 1997 were midfielders Brian Birch (career totals: 5+2=7, 115 of 219 faceoffs) and Ben Johnson (16+8=24, 199 of 382 faceoffs), starting defenseman Darren Mahoney and attackman/midfielder Kurt Mueller (24+5=29).
Ranked second nationally in the 1997 preseason, the Cavaliers opened their campaign against third-ranked Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. The game produced all that a huge February crowd of 16,000 could ask for. Virginia spotted the Orangemen a 6-4 first-quarter lead but led 13-10 by halftime. UVa was up 19-12 with 6:23 to go in the third period before Syracuse responded with seven unanswered goals to knot the game at 19 with nine minutes left in the game. UVa led 21-19 with 7:20 to play but bowed 22-21 in the highest scoring game in either schools history (tied UVa mark). Knight (five goals, two assists) and Watson (two goals, five assists) each had big days for the Cavaliers. Freshman attackman Drew McKnight had two goals and four assists, and rookie midfielder Jay Jalbert added four goals.
The game showed that we have a lot to work on, said Starsia, but it also showed that we play hard for 60 minutes.
The Cavaliers returned home to a 27-2 romp over new Division I program Mercyhurst (Watson 4+3=7 and McKnight 2+4=6).
Next came top-ranked and eventual NCAA champion Princeton. The homestanding Tigers took a 7-4 halftime lead and were up 13-9 with just six minutes to play. Then in a 3:16 blink, the Cavaliers stormed back. Watson, McKnight (twice) and Melchionni all scored, forcing overtime for the third time in the last five games in the series. The outcome proved to be the same: a Princeton win, this time by a 14-13 count. Tucker Radebaugh (1+3=4) led the scoring.
With his team off to a 1-2 start, Starsia expressed concern following the Princeton loss. We need to get better, he told reporters. This game required a certain toughness and patience that we just didnt show. We only showed anything the last five minutes and thats not good enough.
UVa responded by winning its next 10 games in a row, starting with a 17-6 victory at home over up-and-coming Ivy power Penn (coached by former UVa assistant Marc Van Arsdale, 1991-96). The Cavaliers marched to an 8-2 lead at halftime and never looked back. The offense was paced by Watson (one goal, five assists), McKnight (three goals, one assist) and Knight (two goals, two assists).
Massachusetts came to Charlottesville for a mid-March day and gave the Cavaliers fits the whole game. Virginia raced to a 4-1 lead and then got caught flatfooted as the Minutemen ran off on a 7-1 tear to lead 8-5 late in the half. UVa rallied to an 8-7 halftime deficit, and then surged through a 9-2 second half for a 16-10 final. Watson and Radebaugh each had four-goal, one assist days, while Knight led UVa with six assists and scored one goal.
Homewood Field beckoned UVa to the home of the fourth-ranked Johns Hopkins Blue Jays, who lose at home about as often Cal Ripken misses a baseball game (UVa had only won there six previous times in the 71-year old series, most recently in 1988). This time UVa played with a goalie switch. Rookie netminder Ben ONeil made his first collegiate start, playing the entire first half in place of Sanderson. With Virginia down 8-4 at halftime, however, Sanderson started the second half and posted some of his best numbers of the season (11 saves, four goals allowed). UVa ran off nine unanswered goals (from 6-10 down to 15-10 up) and physically wrenched the game away from the Jays, winning 16-12. David Currys three goals and one assist led the rally (3+2=5 for the game). Knight, who finished with three goals and three assists), established himself as Virginias all-time leading career scorer.
That was a heck of a win for us, said Starsia, whose team defeated Hopkins for an unprecedented third consecutive time. We thought at halftime we could jump-start our offense by putting Chris in, and thats one of the best games hes had.
Maryland came to Charlottesville to end March needing only to win the game to wrap up the top seed in the ACC Tournament. UVa had other ideas, but it took overtime to settle the issue as the two teams traded narrow margins throughout the game. The Terps overcame a 13-10 UVa lead with 13:31 remaining in the game to go up 14-13 with 4:09 left to play. The game went into overtime after Curry tied the game at 14 with 1:04 left in regulation. Both goalies controlled play until McKnight scored his first goal of the game 1:39 into the second overtime period on a kamikaze dive play. Watson, Wren and Curry each scored three goals for the Cavaliers. Wren also had two assists.
VMI provided a bit of a breather, and UVa travelled to Lexington for a 31-4 victory over the Keydets (Mark Murphy 4+4=8; Knight 4+2=6; David Bruce 4+2=6; Watson 2+4=6).
UVa passed April Fools Day with a 6-2 mark and a second-place national ranking. The Cavaliers faced three straight ACC weekends with confidence but a wary eye to the competition. North Carolina came to Charlottesville as the most dangerous 2-5 team Virginia has ever faced. UVa rose to the task with a 20-5 defeat of the Tar Heels, the biggest winning margin in the series since 1953. Virginia jumped out to a 6-0 lead and never looked back. Knight led the way with a 3+5=8 day (Watson 3+2=5; Curry 4+1=5; Sanderson 12 saves, 3 goals allowed) while 3,377 looked on at Klckner Stadium.
A visit to Durham, N.C., against eventual NCAA semifinalist Duke was next. The Cavaliers braved soaking rain and a late Duke rally for the win. Duke tied the game at 5-5 at the end of the first period, but UVa used an 8-0 second quarter to take a 13-5 halftime lead. Seven different Cavaliers scored in the 10:40 span of eight scores. Duke did not quit by any means and the Devils ran off a 7-2 string in the rain in the third period (making it 14-12). UVa, however, recovered to score one with 16 seconds to play in the third (15-12), and that, plus two goals 24 seconds apart early in the fourth stanza left the Cavaliers with enough margin for a 17-14 victory. Knight sparked the Cavalier offense with four goals and two assists, followed by Jalbert with three goals and three assists.
Boasting a perfect 3-0 conference record, Virginia faced North Carolina (0-3 in league play) in the first round of the ACC Tournament at Klckner Stadium. Predictably, the game was much closer than the first one. UVa prevailed 17-13, but UNC had the better of most of the stats. The Cavaliers jumped out to a 7-2 lead early. UNC then rallied to tie the score at 7 before Virginia scored to go up 8-7 at halftime. From the 7-7 tie, UVa scored the next five goals to take command 12-7. The Tar Heels rallied again, however, trailing 14-12 with 10 minutes to play. UVa then scored three times in a 1:06 span to ice the victory. Knight led all UVa scorers with seven points (four goals, three assists).
Duke (8-2, ranked third nationally) had beaten Maryland by a whopping 17-10 count to advance to the ACC finals for the second time. Both Virginia (18.2 goals per game on the season) and the Blue Devils (11.6 goals per game) could score, but Dukes pride was its defense (8.3 goals allowed per game). UVa turned the tables, however, holding Duke to just one goal over the last 36:03 of the game en route to a 12-6 victory. With the win, Virginia captured its first-ever ACC Tournament championship.
UVa jumped out quickly 4-2 with two early goals by Knight, but Duke rallied to lead 5-4 in the second period. The Cavaliers led 6-5 at halftime and later made it 9-5 midway through the third period. Duke pulled to within 9-6 before Virginia notched three fourth-quarter goals to close out the scoring.
This is a great moment for our program, said Starsia. Weve had some great moments over the last couple years, some great wins, but we hadnt done this.
Knight scored four goals against the Blue Devils while Radebaugh finished with two goals and two assists. Sanderson keyed Virginias outstanding defensive effort with 16 saves. Knight was named the ACC Tournament MVP. He was joined on the All-Tournament team by Wren, Curry, Smith, and Sanderson.
Virginia closed out the regular season with a 24-4 win over Bucknell. Watson (5+3=8), Knight (3+3=6) and McKnight (3+2=5) led the offense. Sanderson picked up six saves while allowing only one goal. With the victory, UVa extended its winning streak to 10 in a row and improved its overall record to 11-2.
Virginias luck ran out at Marylands Byrd Stadium in the NCAA quarterfinals as the second-seeded Cavaliers bowed to host Maryland 10-9. Matt Hahn scored the game-winning goal with 12 seconds left to deliver the fatal blow. UVa trailed early 3-1, rallied to lead 5-4 at halftime, and then led 9-7 with 8:09 to play. The Terps scored the last three goals of the game, however, ending Virginias dream of a national championship in 1997.
Sanderson made 15 saves for Virginia, while Watson (4+0=4; and Radebaugh 1+3) led the Cavalier offense.
For members of Virginias senior class, the loss was especially disappointing. Its kind of hard since Ive been so close, said Watson, who helped lead UVa to three NCAA Final Four appearances in four years. After the game, I told [freshman] Drew McKnight not to take anything for granted.
I feel worse for them than I do for me, said Starsia. Its just a great groupthe winningest class in Virginia history. Theyve done so much for us all yearfor four years. This doesnt change anything.