Starsia, Players Reflect on Championship
May 28, 2003
The journey to the 2003 national championship began over a year ago for the Virginia men’s lacrosse team. After UVa fell to Syracuse 12-11 in double overtime in the 2002 national semifinals, the players and coaches committed themselves to not only returning to the Final Four, but to leaving as a champion.
“Once in awhile you feel like things work out the way they’re supposed to and I feel like it did with this team,” head coach Dom Starsia said. “You’ve got to get a bunch of guys who have made a commitment. As a coach, as someone who is sort of a mentor a little bit, you are so afraid of coming up short and having them feel like maybe it wasn’t worth the ride. But when you have a moment like this it certainly proves out that making a commitment to something is well worth it.”
This season’s ride included a school-record 15 wins. Virginia’s only two losses were 8-7 defeats to Johns Hopkins and Maryland in back-to-back weekends during the regular season. In each of those losses, the Cavaliers were held scoreless for 33 minutes. Senior midfielders Chris Rotelli and A.J. Shannon ensured a similar offensive drought would not happen against the Blue Jays a second time. Rotelli opened the scoring and contributed four assists in the championship game. Meanwhile, Shannon scored a team-high four goals, including a tally with only five seconds left in the third quarter that put the ‘Hoos ahead 8-5.
“I was just shooting as hard as I possibly could to different areas of the net and I thought if he [Johns Hopkins goalie Rob Scherr] stops it, more power to him,” Shannon said. “I just had that feeling that he couldn’t keep up with it today. You just get that feeling, you get a hot stick. I scored a right-handed goal and that usually doesn’t happen too often. Maybe I had a little bit of luck today”
The talk of championship weekend was the play of junior goalie Tillman Johnson. The first-team all-American and the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player tied a career-high with 18 saves in Saturday’s 14-4 win over Maryland. Johnson was equally spectacular against the Blue Jays as he recorded 13 stops.
“We’ve been playing very well defensively for the last couple of weeks and certainly it starts with Tillman [Johnson],” Starsia said. “He might not have had as many saves as he had on Saturday, but there were different points in the game when I think Hopkins may have been a little bit more poised to come back on us and Tillman seemed to come up with a save when we had to have it.”
“I wanted to enjoy it out there because you don’t get this opportunity very often and I think that was key today,” Johnson said. “I had fun. It wasn’t a situation where I was stressed out and saying, ‘I need to win this thing.’ I was just enjoying it out there and I think that’s when I play my best.”
Sophomore Jack deVillers was another key to Virginia’s championship run. The face-off specialist won 12 of 19 draws against Johns Hopkins’ three-man rotation at the X.
“Jack [deVilliers] was tough the whole day and I thought in the fourth quarter when we absolutely, positively needed to win a couple face-offs, he won a couple of face-offs for us,” Starsia said. “That’s what I’ve been harping on the whole time is making that play in crunch time when the game is being decided. Whether it’s in an extra man opportunity or a man-down or a face-off and I thought Jack battled all day.”
A year ago, deVilliers won less than 50 percent of the draws and he was often pushed around by stronger, more experienced opponents. During the offseason, deVilliers gained 20 pounds as part of an intense strength and conditioning program. His commitment is just one example of the effort put forth by each member of the 2003 national champions.
“This happened because a nice bunch of kids decided that they wanted to make a commitment to each other,” Starsia said. “They did that and I don’t know as a coach if you can really ask for anything more. I’m proud for the University of Virginia that we were able to win the championship.”