By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa has faced Syracuse six times in the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament. In each of those years, the teams also met during the regular season. In three of those years, the regular-season loser avenged that defeat in the NCAA tourney.
“So the result of this game is not going to tell you anything, really,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said on the eve of his team’s visit to the Carrier Dome.
“I’ll be honest, the years that [UVa and Syracuse] have played in May, you hardly ever considered what happened back in March.”
That said, these perennial powers typically produce an entertaining display of high-octane lacrosse when they meet, and there’s no reason to believe that will not be the case Friday night.
In a game that ESPNU is televising, Syracuse (2-0) hosts UVa (4-0) at 6 p.m. The Orange is ranked No. 1 nationally in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse media poll. The Wahoos are No. 1 in the USILA coaches’ poll.
Virginia leads the series 14-12, and Starsia’s team has won its past six regular-season games with the ‘Cuse. The Orange, however, has won two of the past three NCAA titles.
“This game doesn’t mean too much in the grand scheme of things,” said junior attackman Steele Stanwick, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer this season with 23 points.
“But with all the tradition, I think the guys kind of put a lot of pressure on themselves [to play well against Syracuse]. We’re just excited for the opportunity.”
So is Virginia’s Hall of Fame coach, no matter how little bearing Friday night’s result may have on what happens two months from now.
“We make a big deal of it in the recruiting, but I honestly also feel privileged to be part of this rivalry, part of this game,” Starsia said. “For a college lacrosse player, this is a moment you’re going to remember for a long time, win, lose or draw.”
A single goal has decided each of the teams’ past four meetings. A season ago, UVa won 11-10 at Klöckner Stadium. In 2009, the ‘Hoos prevailed 13-12 at Syracuse.
“We beat them up in the Dome, but they went on to win [the NCAA championship],” Stanwick said. “Again, it doesn’t mean that much, but you can kind of measure yourself, where you are in the season, when you play a team like Syracuse this early in the season.”
Starsia said: “What this game is, really, is an indicator of where we are right now. It’s a stern test against a top opponent in a frenzied atmosphere. I’m hoping that our freshmen will emerge from this a little more mature.”
Still to come for UVa are visits to Johns Hopkins and to Duke, the defending NCAA champion. After playing at the Carrier Dome, Starsia hopes, his team will head into those games feeling “like, ‘OK, we’ve been through this once before and can handle the atmosphere.’ There’s great value in that.”
Virginia was short-handed in its two toughest games to date. Senior goalie Adam Ghitelman, an All-America candidate, was held out of the opener against Drexel because of what Starsia called a “team matter.”
A week later, a violation of team rules kept All-America midfielders Rhamel and Shamel Bratton off the trip to Long Island, N.Y., where UVa, with Ghitelman in the cage, edged then-No. 5 Stony Brook 11-10 in overtime. Moreover, high winds caused travel delays that kept the team in the Charlottesville airport for about seven hours the day before the game.
“The games we’ve played so far have kind of tested our mettle a little bit,” Starsia said.
Much work remains. “I don’t think we’ve put together a full 60 minutes yet,” Stanwick said. “Our practices have slowly but surely gotten better. I think we’re playing better, but I think there’s a lot more ways we can improve.”
Virginia is expected to have a full complement of players at the Carrier Dome. The ‘Hoos may bolt to an early lead Friday night, or they may fall behind. Either way, it’s critical that UVa’s players remember that “until that final whistle sounds, this game is not over,” Starsia said. “The game is 60 minutes long, and there is an ebb and flow to it.
“Syracuse is one of the few teams that has such supreme genuine confidence in themselves. They just don’t believe they’re going to get beat. You have to be prepared to play a full 60 minutes, not 59 minutes.”
The Orange is especially confident at home, playing in one of the sport’s storied venues.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Stanwick said. “I can still remember my freshman year there. It was one of the more memorable experiences I’ve had since being here at UVa. Playing at the Carrier Dome, there’s a lot of tradition there. The atmosphere is great. The fans are pretty rowdy, but it’s always fun. It’s a cool feeling going in there with 40 guys and trying to get a victory.”