By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not since 1998 has a class left Dom Starsia’s lacrosse program at the University of Virginia without winning at least one NCAA title.
UVa’s first national championship under Starsia came in 1999, its second in 2003, its third in 2006.
Its fourth might come this holiday weekend. Nothing is guaranteed, though, and that Starsia’s current seniors could depart without NCAA championship rings is not lost on them.
Every Thursday during the season, a senior addresses the team at the end of practice. It’s a UVa tradition called the Last Word, and the Class of 2010’s title drought “often comes up in that setting,” Starsia said.
“My job is to minimize that burden,” he said.
Top-seeded Virginia (16-1) faces No. 5 seed Duke (14-4) in an NCAA semifinal Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in Baltimore. The winner will meet No. 7 seed Cornell or unseeded Notre Dame for the national championship Monday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.
History will show that, in part because of the seniors’ contributions, “we are playing in our third consecutive final four, that we won an ACC championship, that they’re probably going to be one of the winningest classes in UVa history,” Starsia said.
“No matter what happens on Saturday, I don’t want them to walk away feeling unfulfilled. I understand that they want to win a championship. I fully appreciate that. We all do. And I understand that there will be a little hole if somehow this doesn’t happen. But my job is try to help them to also grasp the bigger picture here and keep this in perspective.
“They’ve been a wonderful group, they’ve done a great job and, no matter what, they should be allowed to enjoy that at the same time.”
Virginia’s seniors include defenseman Ken Clausen, who has collected three major honors from the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association this week.
“Personal accolades are nice,” Clausen, a first-team All-American, said Friday from Baltimore, “but by no means do they compare to the ultimate goal of winning a national championship.”
If the Wahoos are to be crowned Monday, they first must get past ACC nemesis Duke, and that’s their only concern heading into the final four, Clausen said.
“I think one thing this season in particular we’ve done extremely well,” he said, “is focus in on every game itself and not focus too much on the end task.
“If you can maintain that ability to look at each game and focus on each game, then the end result should hopefully come together by the end of the season. We’re extremely focused on Duke and excited to play in the semifinal game, and hopefully things will turn out in the right direction.”
Had UVa’s game with Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals April 23 gone differently, the storyline for their final four rematch would be numbingly familiar for Starsia and his players. Why, they would have been asked time and again, can’t the ‘Hoos beat the Blue Devils?
That’s no longer an issue. Virginia ended an eight-game losing streak in the series by whipping Duke 16-12 in College Park. Two days later, UVa beat Maryland for the ACC title.
“Not that Duke’s 8-1 record against us [in the past nine games] is a lot different than 9-0 or whatever it would have been,” Starsia said. “But thank goodness we don’t have to deal with all that conversation right now.”
Of the victory over the Devils, who’d whipped the Cavaliers in Charlottesville six days earlier, Clausen said, “I think it would kind of be foolish to say it doesn’t give you a little lift.”
Clausen is a finalist for the Tewaaraton Trophy, given annually to the top player in college lacrosse. So is the attackman he’ll cover for the third time this season, Ned Crotty, who leads Duke with 82 points (22 goals and 60 assists).
Crotty isn’t the Devils’ only weapon. Duke scored 18 goals against Johns Hopkins in the NCAA tourney’s first round and 17 last weekend against North Carolina. Another Duke attackman, Max Quinzani, is a second-team All-American.
The Cavaliers’ strength on offense is in the midfield, where junior Shamel Bratton is a first-team All-American and his twin, Rhamel, and senior Brian Carroll, are second-team selections.
UVa’s attack is young — offensive coordinator Marc Van Arsdale’s rotation consists of sophomores Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet and freshmen Matt White and Connor English — but it figures to play a crucial role Saturday night.
“It has to be more than taking advantage of the opportunities,” Starsia said. “I think we need to be able to create some things. We need [Duke defenders] to drop down and give those middies a little room. We just can’t be fighting City Hall, slogging it out every step of the way, against talented poles in the midfield.
“We need to be dangerous from the attack position. I’m confident that we’ll finish the opportunities that come. We need to take the next step up to be successful.”
The Cavaliers also need to fare better on faceoffs than they did last weekend against No. 8 seed Stony Brook. The Seawolves won 18 of 23 draws, and UVa was fortunate to leave Long Island with a 10-9 victory.
In each of the UVa-Duke games in April, the team that dominated at the faceoff X came away with the victory.
Baltimore was the site of Virginia’s coronation in 2003, and goalie Tillman Johnson’s play was the talk of that NCAA final four. Seven years later, the ‘Hoos return to M&T Bank Stadium with another hot goalie.
Junior Adam Ghitelman wasn’t named all-ACC last month, but the USILA put him on All-America third team this week. Against Stony Brook, Ghitelman made 13 saves.
“Since the beginning of the year, we have been kind of quietly saying behind the scenes that the key to this season is going to be Adam’s play overall,” Starsia said.
“I think it’s actually worked out best that he has sort of grown during the season and gotten better as the season has gone on … His progress has been steady, his confidence level has grown consistently, and I think it’s helped us become the team that we are. I think we played well late in the year, and I think a lot of it was because we grew up with Adam.”
As well-stocked as the Cavaliers are at most positions, Duke remains the nation’s most talented team, Starsia believes. That’s been the case for several years, in his estimation, though the Devils have never won an NCAA championship.
This is their fourth straight appearance in the final four. After this weekend, however, the Blue Devils will have no players left from their 2006 team. The NCAA granted members of that team another year of eligibility in the aftermath of Duke officials’ decision to shut down the lacrosse program amid allegations — later shown to be false — of sexual misconduct by several players.
Crotty is among the fifth-year seniors for the Devils, who also have a strong fourth-year class.
“Clearly, this is the changing of the guard for them after this 2010 season is over,” Starsia said. “That’s not to say they’re not going to be good, because they’re going to have some great players. But people talk about our seniors and what’s at stake, and I think certainly that Duke is probably feeling some of the same.”