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By: Cayce Troxel
In the world of intercollegiate athletics, the concept of “family” has become somewhat of a cliché. Coaches often use the term as a motivational tool or even a recruiting device, boasting of the bond between current and former players as what sets their program apart from others. In reality, however, teammates’ relationships tend to break down over time-whether as a result of time or distance-and are only remembered by storytelling and waxing nostalgic of playing days gone by.

The Virginia lacrosse family, head coach Dom Starsia insists, is an exception.

“I know that there’s some programs who use the word family a lot,” Starsia said. “Even at our school, one of the other programs had ‘family’ written across the seat of their practice shorts, and I used to joke all the time-even to the players-that’s not how you define it. You define it by the quality of the relationships, and I think we have something very unique here.”

If the program’s most recent act of goodwill towards one of its own is any indication, Starsia’s claim appears to be well-founded.

James King, a former Cavalier defensemen and a member of the 2006 national championship team, served in the ROTC program during his time at Virginia, and upon graduating in 2007 with a degree in history, entered the Marine Corps officer training program. Since then, King has been promoted to lieutenant and just recently embarked on his second deployment to Afghanistan.

“James was just always a patriotic kid, and he was always talking about stuff like politics and the possibility of him going into the army,” remembered senior midfielder Max Pomper, who played alongside King for two years. “It seemed like it just happened very quickly that James went from being a senior on our lacrosse team to shipping out overseas to fight the war. It was an incredible transition for him, I’m sure.”

Helping to smooth that tumultuous change in environment is where the Virginia lacrosse family came into play.

Miles Kass, the brother of former Virginia player and 2005 graduate Hunter and a Georgetown goalkeeper from 2005-2008, also happened to be serving in King’s regiment, and his mother, Barclay, approached Starsia asking if the team would be interested in sending care packages to the men overseas. Starsia, who has kept in regular contact with King since graduation – even attending his wedding a year ago – immediately agreed. From there, the Virginia lacrosse family took over.

“We have a very generous and active parents’ group, and they just ran with it,” Starsia commented. “The parents just dove in headfirst, and after the first mailing, I got a letter from James just saying they were starting to get overwhelmed by all the stuff they had been receiving.”

Covering everything from socks and batteries to hot chocolate and candy, two shipments of care packages have made their way to King and, by extension, the 110 Marines in his command since Christmas.

“We’re proud that he’s serving our country, and the little bit that we can do to help him out and make that time a little more comfortable-I think everybody was happy to pitch in,” Starsia said. “I don’t feel like this thing with James with the care packages is work.”

Meanwhile, Starsia continues to post King’s letters from Afghanistan, as well as his contact information in case players would like to correspond with him, on the team bulletin board.

“You want people to understand there’s a larger world than just what happens in a college athletic locker room,” Starsia commented. “I want our guys to know what someone standing in that locker room a few years ago is involved in now.”

Not that forgetting the alumni responsible for building Virginia into a perennial lacrosse powerhouse is something current players would ever do-or could do, for that matter-thanks in large part to the establishment of the Virginia Lacrosse Alumni Network. Founded by 1994 graduate Drew Fox, the VLAN not only bridges the gap between past and present Cavaliers, but also ensures that players are well prepared for life after lacrosse through the help of the association’s mentoring program.

Upon entering the University, each team member is matched with two former players according to their major and career interests; the sponsors then offer guidance to his assigned student-athlete during their time on Grounds, providing invaluable assistance in areas from course selection to internships. When it comes time for graduation, mentors often lend a hand in navigating the job market.

“The family helps its own, even when it comes time to find a job,” said Pomper, who is currently working with Fox himself in pursuing a possible career in finance. “It makes the experience that much more special for us knowing that we have guys that graduated ten or fifteen years before us that are still very, very into in what we’re doing. Every time we put on a jersey, we’re not only doing it for ourselves but we’re doing it for the guy who’s graduated and used to wear that number and the guy before that.”

“[The alumni] are just so anxious to do it,” Starsia added. “I certainly don’t take anything that’s going on here for granted.”

Neither do the players, who have in turn shown their appreciation for the opportunities afforded to them through Virginia lacrosse by reaching out to the greater Charlottesville community, sponsoring such events as the Special Olympics 10K and this fall’s Mustache Madness challenge, aimed at raising prostate cancer awareness.

“I just think it says a lot about my teammates that we’re willing to do that, where a lot of people-a lot of teams-wouldn’t be willing to do the same,” Pomper said.

Whether on the practice field or on the streets, however, family still remains the driving force behind it all.

“I don’t mean to be too melodramatic, but you just feel like once you’re involved with Virginia lacrosse, you’re in it for the long haul,” Starsia said. “I think it sounds a little schmaltzy, but it really is ‘once you’re in, you’re in all the way.’ You can never escape from Virginia lacrosse.”

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