By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Is it an impossible task? Logic would suggest that’s not the case.
The Duke Blue Devils have never won an NCAA championship in men’s lacrosse, and they’ve already lost three times this season. Clearly, they’re not invincible. Yet UVa, which once dominated this series, no longer can beat Duke, it seems.
Never mind that Duke has lost this year to ACC rivals Maryland and North Carolina, both of which Virginia beat. The Devils’ flaws seem to vanish when they meet the Wahoos.
So it was Saturday night at Klöckner Stadium, where a capacity crowd of 8,000 turned out to see if the ‘Hoos would end a seven-game losing streak against Duke that started in 2005.
Once again, the UVa faithful went home disappointed. Fifth-ranked Duke dominated the second half in a commanding 13-9 victory over top-ranked and previously unbeaten Virginia.
Since the end of the 2004 season, the Cavaliers’ record is 80-16. Exactly half of those losses have been to Duke.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got to do a better job of preparing my team,” said Dom Starsia, who has guided the ‘Hoos to three NCAA titles.
“I would like to tell you that [the losing streak to Duke] just doesn’t matter, that there’s nothing to it — and I don’t want to make it into anything more than it is — but it’s something.
“It’s something when you consider our record over the last five or six years and the fact that we haven’t been able to beat these guys recently. It’s pretty unique.”
The ‘Hoos have not lacked opportunities to end the streak. In each of the past three seasons, they’ve faced Duke twice, and the teams will meet at least that many times this year.
The four-team ACC tournament starts Friday at College Park, Md., and top-seeded Virginia (2-1, 11-1) meets fourth-seeded Duke (1-2, 11-3) in the 5 p.m. semifinal.
The Cavaliers say they’re eager to take on the Devils again.
“At Virginia, I don’t think we ever shy down from any opponent, and we’re definitely up to the task,” senior defenseman Ken Clausen said. “We know we need to work hard the next six days and buckle down.”
Junior midfielder Shamel Bratton said: “There’s a lot of things that we feel like we could have gotten on these guys, a couple opportunities we missed. We’re going to watch some film and capitalize on them Friday.”
At halftime Saturday night, there was no reason to think another Duke romp was about to unfold. The Cavaliers led 3-0 late in the first quarter, only fall behind 5-3 early in the second, but they closed the half with three straight goals and went into intermission ahead 6-5.
After two quarters, Duke held a slight edge on faceoffs, having won 7 of 13 draws, but Virginia had picked up more ground balls (18 to 15).
In the third quarter, though, UVa unraveled. Duke went 6-0 on faceoffs and led 9-7 heading into the fourth. That period didn’t go much better for the ‘Hoos, who won only 2 of 6 draws and were again consistently beaten to ground balls.
“I would say that the most valuable players of the game might have been their three long-stick middies — [Tom] Montelli, [C.J.] Costabile and [Parker] McKee,” Starsia said. “Even when we won faceoffs, they would get the ball back. I thought they rode us probably better than anybody has all year. We haven’t seen that kind of pressure, and we didn’t stand up to it very well.”
If time of possession were kept in lacrosse, Duke’s advantage in the second half would have been staggering. Virginia’s midfielders and attackmen went long, long stretches without the ball.
“It’s really difficult when [the Blue Devils are] winning the ground balls and they’re keeping such long possessions,” Shamel Bratton said. “Especially as an offensive player, you want to get out there. When you’re down, you want to climb back in it, but at the same time you have to get a possession and get your defense a little rest.
“They did a good job of getting long possessions and capitalizing. That was the biggest thing. They were getting long possessions and scoring goals at the end of them.”
On those rare occasions when the Cavaliers had the ball in the second half, they were trailing and so tended to force matters.
“It’s hard to be patient when you haven’t had the ball for awhile, but that’s the chore of that assignment,” Starsia said. “I remember yelling out there that we needed to have a good possession the next time we got it. That was clearly what we needed to do, but I think it was hard to do that at that point in the game.”
Fifth-year senior Ned Crotty and junior Zach Howell scored three goals apiece to lead the Blue Devils. Howell played with the Bratton twins at Huntington High on Long Island, N.Y.
For UVa, Shamel Bratton and sophomore attackmen Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet each scored two goals. Rhamel Bratton added a goal, his first point since the Wahoos’ 15-6 rout of then-No. 12 Johns Hopkins on March 27.
The Hopkins game was the start of a grueling stretch for UVa, which faced then-No. 4 Maryland on April 3 and then-No. 2 North Carolina a week later.
“I’m not bemoaning that,” Starsia said. “Believe me, that’s no excuse. But at this point in the year we don’t need to continue to be toughened up. We would have been better served if we’d had an extra week off going into a game like this.
“We’ve had enough experiences to toughen us up. We’ve been a little bit through the meat grinder. I thought we were ready to play tonight, and I give our kids credit for that, but at the end of the day we weren’t quite good enough to beat this team.”
Starsia’s players remain convinced they can beat Duke. This group of UVa players is 0-1 against the Blue Devils, not 0-8, Clausen said.
“Everything else is irrelevant,” he said. “I think we’re excited to be playing them again, and we’re looking forward to that.”
It’s not often that a lacrosse team faces its nemesis twice in less than a week. Might that benefit UVa?
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that exactly,” Starsia said. “We talked a little bit earlier about playing them twice in a row and whether or not losing the first one was going to help us on the next one, whether or not this one was less important than the next one.
“None of that mattered to me. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I wanted us to play well tonight. I don’t think we played our best, and I think Duke had a lot to do with that. They’re a team that kind of presses the issue and makes plays, and when they had opportunities they were able to capitalize on them.”