By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In less than three weeks, the UVa men’s lacrosse team will open the season at home against the Drexel Dragons.
Practice has been under way long enough for Dom Starsia to get an early read on the 19th team he has led at Virginia. So what’s new as the Cavaliers prepare for their Feb. 19 opener?
“It’s been quiet, thankfully, so I’m very pleased to announce that I have nothing to announce,” Starsia said Monday in his McCue Center office.
In reality, of course, there have been some developments in the Cavaliers’ program. Redshirt junior defenseman Matt Lovejoy has been slowed by a back problem, freshman attackman Mark Cockerton is ahead of schedule in his recovery from Oct. 8 shoulder injury, redshirt junior Chris Clements has moved from the defensive midfield to close defense, sophomore defenseman Howie Long won’t be with the team this season. But Starsia likes what he’s seen from a team ranked No. 1 in the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association’s preseason coaches’ poll.
“I think guys have been working hard, and I got no complaints right now,” said Starsia, whose record at Virginia is 215-67.
As is the case virtually every year at UVa, expectations are high for Starsia’s team in 2011. In each of the past three seasons, the Wahoos advanced to the NCAA’s final four. Each time, they were ousted in the semifinals. A season ago, eventual NCAA champion Duke edged Virginia 14-13 in Baltimore.
For the celebrated recruiting class that entered UVa in the summer of 2007, this season will be its final opportunity win an NCAA title. Seniors such as the Bratton twins, Shamel and Rhamel, Adam Ghitelman, Bray Malphrus and John Haldy know that.
So does their coach. But his “job is to deflect that,” Starsia said. “I don’t need to add to that. They wouldn’t be the first great class that didn’t win a national championship. I would quarrel with anyone who has a problem with three final fours and an ACC championship and the number of games that we’ve won over the years during the course of their careers.
“And I would tell you too: Are Rhamel and Shamel as good as [former UVa greats] Michael Watson and Doug Knight? Because they didn’t win a national championship, either, and they had great careers. So we have to be able to define ourselves by something other than just that one piece of business. Because at the end of the day, we don’t have absolute control over that final result.”
Equally important, Starsia said, are the answers to these questions that will be asked of his seniors: Are you growing up? Are you becoming a good citizen?
“Ten of those guys came in [in 2007],” Starsia said. “One transferred. My goal would be, first and foremost, that nine of them get their diplomas on graduation day.”
That said, Starsia would be happy to win his fourth NCAA championship at Virginia this year. The ‘Hoos clearly are talented enough to do so. From a team that finished won the ACC championship and finished 16-2 last season — both losses were to Duke — UVa returns 11 of its top 12 scorers.
Also back are Ghitelman in the cage, Malphrus at long-stick midfielder, Lovejoy on close defense, and faceoff specialists Brian McDermott, Ryan Benincasa and Garett Ince.
On defense, the holes are bigger. Starsia must replace starters Ryan Nizolek and Ken Clausen, the only player in the program’s history to be named to the All-America first team three times. Candidates to fill those starting jobs include Clements, sophomore Harry Prevas and freshman Scott McWilliams.
Clements missed last season with a knee injury. He has recovered, and his position change “gives us another experienced hand back there at the defensive end of the field,” Starsia said.
On offense, the only significant loss was midfielder Brian Carroll, the team’s fourth-leading scorer and a second-team All-American in 2010.
UVa returns such weapons as attackmen Chris Bocklet (team-high 67 points), Steele Stanwick (61), Matt White (33) and Connor English (11), and middies Shamel Bratton (41 points), Rhamel Bratton (31), Chris LaPierre (19), Haldy (16) and Colin Briggs (12).
Shamel is a two-time first-team All-American. Stanwick and Rhamel were second-team All-Americans last year.
“Brian Carroll was a special player with special skills,” Starsia said. “We miss him a lot. But programs of this caliber graduate good kids, and you hope you have other ones ready to step in and do the job. I think Steele’s going to be better, I think Bocklet’s going to be better, I think the third attack spot’s going to be better, I think Rhamel’s going to be better. And so everybody’s going to pick up a little bit of that slack, and it’s not going to fall on John Haldy’s shoulders, if he happens to be running in that spot, to have to score  goals the way Brian did.”
Cockerton, whose brother, Matt, is a sophomore attackman on the team, should be available, if not for the opener, then early in the season, Starsia said. Inside Lacrosse ranked the younger Cockerton third among recruits in the Class of 2010.
“Very slick” is how Starsia has described Mark Cockerton, whose father, Stan, scored 193 goals and was a third-time first-team All-American at N.C. State.
The ‘Hoos averaged 13.4 goals per game in 2010, and they may well be more potent this season. Virginia is exceptionally athletic in the midfield, and Stanwick is a rare talent on the attack.
As a sophomore in 2010, Stanwick had more assists (32) than goals (29). If anything, Starsia said, Stanwick has been too unselfish at times.
“The truly great ones are complete players,” Starsia said. “They can get to the corner. There are days when there’s no magic in the air, and somebody’s gotta run by somebody, and Steele needed the confidence that accompanies that.
“We’re always talking about the really good offensive players — not just in this sport, but in other sports — they’re a little selfish. They know when they gotta take things into their own hands. Steele is so thoughtful and respectful that he’s had to be prodded in that direction a little bit.”
With so much firepower, the “concern for me offensively is that we exercise some patience, that we don’t look for the first opportunity that arises in every instance,” Starsia said. “We’re not going to be a team that indiscriminately holds the ball, certainly, but we’re good enough to create good opportunities, and we need to be able to differentiate between any opportunity and creating a good one. And so I can already hear myself telling guys to be a little bit more patient offensively.
“There is an excitement on the practice field right now about attacking the cage and making things happen, and we need to be able to make sure we strike that balance.”
For the second straight year, the NCAA’s final four will be held in Baltimore, where the Cavaliers won the national championship in 2003. But their Hall of Fame coach doesn’t want his players worrying now about the postseason.
“As I get older, I have come to appreciate how fast it all goes on,” Starsia, 58. “So you try to slow the whole thing down. I want these guys not to be obsessed about the last game of the year. I would like them to enjoy this trip along the way. All these moments are what’s really important about this.”