By Jeff White
BALTIMORE — Dom Starsia, a man rarely at a loss for words, paused for what seemed an eternity Saturday night in the interview room at M&T Bank Stadium.
He’d been asked for an opening statement, and even now, some 25 minutes after the final horn had sounded in an unforgettable NCAA men’s lacrosse semifinal, UVa’s Hall of Fame coach struggled to articulate his thoughts.
Finally he spoke, softly, the fatigue palpable in his voice.
“These are hard when they end like this,” Starsia said. “It’s been a fairly extraordinary spring in so many different ways.”
Off the field, UVa’s lacrosse programs were staggered by the death of women’s player Yeardley Love and the arrest of men’s player George Huguely, whom police charged with her murder.
On the field, the UVa women advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals before falling. The men lasted a week longer, but they bowed out with a 14-13 loss to their nemesis, Duke, in a game that wasn’t decided until the final seconds.
“It’s two great teams,” Virginia midfielder Brian Carroll said. “I wouldn’t have expected the game to be anything but down to the wire.”
A first-time NCAA champion will be crowned Monday when fifth-seeded Duke (15-4) meets unseeded Notre Dame (10-6) for the title at 3:30 p.m.
The top-seeded Cavaliers led 7-5 at the half and 8-5 early in the third quarter Saturday night, but their inability to win faceoffs let Duke back in the game. Give All-America attackmen Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani enough opportunities, and they’ll punish an opponent. And that’s what the Duke seniors did to UVa (16-2), as they have so often over the past few years.
The Wahoos didn’t go quietly. With 11 minutes to play, trailing 12-8, they mounted an inspired comeback that electrified the crowd of 44,389.
It started at the 10:36 mark with a goal from junior midfielder Rhamel Bratton, off a feed from Carroll. That made it 12-9, and the ‘Hoos had new life. They weren’t perfect, committing costly turnovers late in the game, but they kept battling and pulled even at 13-all on goals by sophomore attackman Steele Stanwick and Carroll in the final two minutes.
“Momentum was on our side,” Carroll said. “I never thought we were out of the game, but once you tie it up at the end, you’re really feeling good about it.”
In the end, though, the Achilles’ heel for Virginia this postseason — faceoffs — proved decisive again. The Cavaliers headed into the NCAAs having won 56 percent of their draws, but they won only 5 of 23 in a 10-9 quarterfinal win over Stony Brook, and only 11 of 30 against Duke.
“I thought going into the game it would be the difference in the game, and maybe ultimately it was,” Starsia said. “I never felt like we got a handle on it.”
No faceoff was more significant than the one with 1:21 left, after Carroll’s third goal had made it 13-13. Virginia’s Garett Ince and Duke’s CJ Costabile met at midfield, with most in the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium aware that whichever team won the draw was likely to win the game.
Alas for UVa, that’s how it played out. Neither Ince nor Costabile controlled the faceoff cleanly, and the ball popped loose. At one point, UVa defenseman Ryan Nizolek appeared to have it in his stick, but teammate Bray Malphrus, unable to stop his momentum, collided with Nizolek. The ball rolled free, and Duke called time out after gaining possession.
Behind the goal, playing a cat-and-mouse game with goalie Adam Ghitelman and defenseman Ken Clausen in the final 30 seconds, Crotty twice came perilously close to stepping in the crease, a violation that would have given the ball to UVa. He may actually have done so each time. No whistle was blown, however, and Crotty eventually found a cutting Quinzani with a pinpoint pass in front of the cage.
Quinzani, a half-step ahead of Nizolek, did the rest, firing a shot past Ghitelman to make it 14-13 with 12 seconds left. The goal was Quinzani’s fourth and sent the Devils, the only team to beat Virginia this year, to the title game for the third time in six seasons.
UVa got the ball back with 8 seconds left after a Duke turnover and called a timeout. With three-quarters of the field separating the Cavaliers from the tying goal, they needed something close to a miracle. Instead, they turned the ball on an offsides violation by Carroll, closing with a loss in the NCAA semifinals for the third straight season.
“It wasn’t our cleanest game,” Starsia said. “[The Devils] have a way of kind of turning it into an unsettled scrum, and they can make some spectacular plays when the ball is flying around.”
In a battle of first-team All-Americans, Clausen held Crotty without a point in the first half, and an ESPN2 reporter asked Starsia about that matchup at intermission.
“He said, ‘What did you do against Crotty? What did you do in the first half, and what are you going to do in the second half?’ ” Starsia recalled with a tired smile.
“I said, ‘I’m sure they’re going to start going to him more to get him involved.’ With a kid like that, you have to assume that the game is 60 minutes long, and he’s going to find his way at some point.”
For Duke, whose roster includes 17 fourth- and fifth-year seniors, the victory was its ninth over UVa in the teams’ past 10 meetings. The Cavaliers’ lone win during that span came last month in the ACC tournament semifinals, a game in which they won 22 of 32 faceoffs.
“We’re not going to run into a lot of teams that can expose us a little bit, but that’s one of them,” Starsia said of Duke.
“There aren’t a lot of teams that we run into that are as athletic as we are, and they may be more athletic at the end of the day. And in the period of time since 2005, when this has sort of started, they went from [John] Danowski and [Zack] Greer to Crotty and Quinzani, who you’d put in any group of probably the top seven or eight attackmen that have played the game in the last 20 years.
“They’ve just been very talented. There aren’t a lot of teams that are willing to attack us up and down the field. They’re one of the teams that is.”
For the Cavaliers, sophomore attackman Chris Bocklet scored four goals — he finished with season with a team-high 53 — and Stanwick added three goals and two assists. Carroll had three goals and an assist in his final game as a Cavalier.
“It’s tough,” said Carroll, who’s from the Baltimore area. “It’s your goal every year to make it to the championship, and I thought this was the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here, and it kind of seemed like everything was falling into place. But Duke’s a great team, and they pulled it off today.”
For the first time since 1998, a class is leaving Starsia’s program without winning at least one NCAA title. Among those departing are Clausen, Nizolek, twins Brian and Kevin Carroll, and midfielders Mikey Thompson and Max Pomper.
“It’s been a very emotional season for us,” Bocklet said. “This has probably been the hardest season to play in for any of us. But the thing that I feel just kept us going was the seniors this year, and that’s what makes this so hard. Because every day in practice, these guys, if you’re doing anything wrong, they’re going to get on your tail, because they want it so bad, and that’s what hurts the most, to know that we can’t be playing Monday for those guys.”
In his 18 seasons in Charlottesville, Starsia has guided UVa to three NCAA titles (1999, 2003 and 2006). Heart-wrenching losses in the final four also have marked his tenure.
In NCAA title games, Virginia lost in overtime to Princeton in 1994 and again in ’96. In semifinals, UVa lost in double overtime to Syracuse in 2002 and again in ’08.
In 2005, Virginia surrendered a goal to Johns Hopkins in the final seconds of regulation and then lost in overtime. And now the ‘Hoos have another agonizing defeat to ponder.
“Emotionally, I think it’s a lot to handle,” Stanwick said. “The season may be over, but we’re still a team and we’re going to stick together through this thing and make sure everyone’s OK.”
Starsia’s father passed away less than a week after Miss Love was found dead in her Charlottesville apartment. In his postgame remarks, Starsia thanked his wife, his children, his siblings and his assistant coaches, Marc Van Arsdale and John Walker, for giving him strength during this trying period.
“And then these kids,” Starsia said of his players. “I’m really proud of the team. The fact that we played hard and came back, had a chance to roll over and didn’t, I wouldn’t have expected any less, and the final score might be the least important part of what has transpired here throughout the spring, really and truly.”
Stanwick said: “I think it’s definitely been difficult the last month. We really have been leaning on each other and supporting each other, and playing seems to take our mind off of everything that’s happened. I’m not going to lie and say it’s been easy. It has been difficult, but I really am proud of the team. Like Coach said, we really could have just rolled over there, and I’m sure a lot of people thought we were going to, and I just think it shows a lot of character of our team and the kind of people this team’s made up of.”