By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Dom Starsia grew hotter and hotter on the UVa sideline, and not because of the sun shining down on Klöckner Stadium.
His lacrosse team ultimately prevailed in its much-anticipated showdown with top-ranked Syracuse, winning 11-10 before an overflow crowd of 7,501 on a stunning Sunday afternoon.
For more than a quarter, though, the second-ranked Cavaliers seemed determined to hand the game to the ‘Cuse, which requires no assistance in this sport. And that’s why Starsia was steaming.
The two-time defending NCAA champion Orange scored five goals in the first 16 minutes and 29 seconds. Each came with Virginia a man down after a penalty.
“I’ve never been that close to having my head pop off as it did in the first quarter,” Starsia said. “I thought we did a couple of really silly things there, took a couple of really, really dumb fouls. Older guys, and they knew it immediately.
“The one thing you don’t want to do against Syracuse is be playing man-down. They’re just so good with the ball.”
Starsia made that point to his players, not bothering to mince words, and they tightened their games. In the final 33:47, the Cavaliers committed only one penalty.
“I think we felt like if we could play them six on six we were going to have a good opportunity,” senior defenseman Ken Clausen said. “We cut down on the penalties the last three quarters, and it showed.”
Starsia said: “After we got through that first quarter, those silly fouls, I thought we demonstrated the poise that we needed to in order to win a one-game goal against Syracuse this early in the season.”
The Wahoos (4-0) opened the scoring on a goal by junior midfielder Rhamel Bratton, assisted by freshman middie Chris LaPierre, but found themselves trailing 5-2 early in the second quarter.
“We were just really shooting ourselves in the foot,” said fifth-year senior Max Pomper, one of UVa’s starting defensive midfielders. “There were a couple stupid fouls on older guys that are kind of unacceptable, myself included.”
By halftime, though, the ‘Hoos were up 7-5, thanks to an offensive onslaught led by Bratton and sophomore attackman Chris Bocklet, each of whom had 2 goals during the run.
Rhamel Bratton has sometimes been overshadowed by his twin Shamel at UVa. Shamel, also a midfielder, was a first-team All-American in 2009, a season in which Rhamel struggled with injuries and inconsistency.
In his third year, though, Rhamel has shown why he was such a heralded recruit, too. On an afternoon when Shamel, who’s been slowed by a hamstring injury, played little, Rhamel had a career-high 4 goals against Syracuse (2-1).
“I would describe his play up until today as consistent, which I have always felt like he’s needed to reach the next level,” Starsia said.
“All of the sudden today, he begins to approach spectacular. On a day like today when Shamel’s not playing and Rhamel picks up the pole, the big-boy middies in our sport are the ones that make plays when they’ve covered by [defenders with long sticks], and that’s what Rhamel did.
“I didn’t know where we were going to get offense today, with Shamel not playing, and Rhamel stepped in and filled that void for us.”
The Cavaliers, who’ll ascend to No. 1 in the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association rankings Monday, have won seven of their past eight meetings with the Orange. Games in this series, which UVa leads 14-12, are expected to be close, and the rivals didn’t disappoint Sunday.
“If I had to predict it, this is exactly what I would have predicted,” UVa midfielder Brian Carroll said. “Both teams in double figures, one-goal game, both teams went on runs throughout the game.”
Sophomore attackman Steele Stanwick’s second goal, off a quick restart in the Syracuse end, gave UVa an 11-8 lead with 7:27 left. Nobody in white doubted the Orange would rally.
“We knew that team came here to play 60 minutes,” Rhamel Bratton said, “and we knew it wasn’t over till that last horn went off.”
Sure enough, Chris Daniello scored at the 5:26 mark to pull the ‘Cuse to 11-9. Five seconds later, Jeremy Thompson made it 11-10 on an unassisted goal that followed an illegal-procedure call on UVa faceoff specialist Ryan Benincasa.
The teams traded turnovers until Syracuse took possession and called a timeout. Sixty-five seconds separated UVa and victory, and the time didn’t pass quickly.
“It feels like it’s forever, actually,” Pomper said.
The Orange, needing a goal to tie the game, never got off a shot. Long-stick midfielder Bray Malphrus and defensemen Clausen, Matt Lovejoy and Ryan Nizolek blanketed their men, and the ball ended up in the stick of Syracuse middie Josh Amidon.
He tried to dodge Pomper, who doggedly stuck to Amidon. Pomper forced a turnover with 14 seconds left, and, after a timeout, UVa ran out the clock.
“Coach Starsia had had us all week trying to force these middies to their off hand, and I just took a good angle on the approach and forced him down to his weak side, and I think he made a poor decision at the end,” Pomper said.
“I think he was actually going to shoot, and I dug my stick into his hands, and at the last second he tried to pass it away, and he made an errant pass.”
Like the Orange, UVa is known more for its offense than its defense. On Sunday, however, Virginia held Syracuse scoreless for 28:23, a decisive stretch that started early in the second quarter and ended late in the third.
“I think it’s big for our defense,” Clausen said. “We’ve caught a lot of [flak] over the years. We want to make a point that we can play with the best, we can shut teams down, and I think we made strides toward doing that today.”
Were it not spring break at Virginia, the crowd might have swelled to 8,000 on Sunday. Even without a lot of UVa students, the atmosphere was memorable for Syracuse’s visit to Charlottesville in four years.
“Absolutely amazing,” Pomper said. “I would say last year going up to the ‘Cuse is my favorite game I’ve ever played in, but today rivals that, and I think today was basically my favorite game at Klöckner.”
Starsia said: “This was just a great day for lacrosse here.”