Feb. 20, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the final second ticked off the scoreboard clock at Klöckner Stadium, Rob Fortunato’s teammates sprinted en masse to congratulate him at the south end of the field.

With UVa’s No. 1 goalie, senior Adam Ghitelman, held out because of what coach Dom Starsia called a “team matter,” Fortunato got the first start of his college lacrosse career Saturday night.

The junior from Essex Fells, Md., did not squander the opportunity. Fortunato recorded 12 saves to help Virginia, ranked No. 1 in the preseason USILA coaches’ poll, slide past No. 18 Drexel 12-9 in the opener for both teams.

“I’ve been waiting for that for a while, for the past two-and-a-half years,” Fortunato said. “Adam’s been supporting me … I don’t know the future of things, but it was an incredible feeling to know the team was going to support me. I just had to take the responsibility and man up to it.”

UVa hosts Mount St. Mary’s at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and Ghitelman may be back in the starting lineup. But Starsia knows that Drexel might well have beaten Virginia had Fortunato not sparkled in the cage.

“That was wonderful,” Starsia said. “You’re happy for a kid who needs to step in a situation like that. He certainly has worked hard for three years and paid his dues and gets a chance to play on the big stage, and he stepped up and played very well.”

The Wahoos never trailed Saturday, but the Dragons provided a stern challenge. Virginia’s longtime coach expected nothing less.

I knew it was going to be a hard game,” Starsia said. “I’ve been telling you guys that for a couple of days. I know nobody really believed me. I understand how that works. But that’s a very slick lacrosse team and a very capable team. That’s going to hold up as a [quality] win over the course of the season.”

The teams were tied at 8 after three quarters. With 11 minutes left, it was 9-9, and some fans in the crowd of 3,092 no doubt were flashing back to the 2007 opener, when Drexel rallied in the final minute to stun UVa 11-10 at the University Hall Turf Field.

With 10:09 to play, however, senior midfielder Shamel Bratton took a pass from sophomore middie Chris LaPierre and scored to make it 10-9. Bratton added an unassisted goal at the 7:13 mark. When junior attackman Chris Bocklet scored with 2:54 left, on an assist by freshman midfielder Rob Emery, the Dragons finally were vanquished.

Bratton, a two-time first-team All-American, finished with three goals. All came in the game’s final 18 minutes. Like his teammates, Bratton struggled for much of the night to get the ball past Drexel’s 6-2, 270-pound goalie, Mark Manos.

Our offense was getting good looks, but he’s a good goalie, man,” Bratton said.

Manos, the reigning CAA defensive player of the year, finished with 19 saves. The ‘Hoos outshot Drexel 47-32, and against a lesser goalie they might have put up 20 goals.

“We talked about it,” Starsia said. “We knew that [Manos] was going to be a problem for us over the course of the game, and you just gotta keep shooting. I thought Shamel stepped up late in the game and made some plays the way a player of his caliber is supposed to.”

Bocklet, who led the Cavaliers with 53 goals in 2010, led them with 4 goals on Saturday night.

“He’s just somebody that knows how to get himself open and knows how to make a good shot when the opportunity presents itself,” Starsia said. “He got a couple of big ones for us at the right moment.”

Afterward, Bocklet was more interested in praising his roommate, Fortunato, than in talking about himself.

“Rob’s always working, he’s always trying to get better, and I’m just super-psyched for him,” Bocklet said. “He finally got his chance, and he played amazing.”

From a team that fell by one goal to eventual champion Duke in last year’s NCAA semifinals, UVa lost two starting defensemen: three-time All-American Ken Clausen and Ryan Nizolek. Their replacements Saturday night were redshirt junior Chris Clements, who’s a converted defensive middie, and freshman Scott McWilliams.

Couple their inexperience with that of Fortunato, and Starsia had reason to worry about how his defense would fare against Drexel. He came away from the opener pleased.

“I thought they played well overall,” Starsia said.

Six minutes into the third quarter, with the score 5-5, Drexel had an opportunity to take its first lead. Fortunato, however, stopped two point-blank shots in a span of about three seconds, a sequence at which Shamel Bratton later marveled.

“Oh, my goodness,” Bratton said. “That one play where he made two saves in a row, I think that changed the momentum of the game. They were in it. It was a tight game, and I think that sparked us, and that got us going. A guy steps in there, and we gotta support him as much as we can, and I think we did a good job of doing that.”

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