By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a freshman in 2009, Ryan Benincasa took 54 faceoffs for the UVa men’s lacrosse team. Chad Gaudet (332) and Garett Ince (64) took more for a team that reached the NCAA semifinals.

Benincasa found himself in a similar role as a sophomore. He took 132 draws, but Brian McDermott (180) and Ince (140) spent more time at the faceoff X for the Cavaliers, who again advanced to the NCAA final four.

McDermott and Ince are still in the program, but their roles have changed. Benincasa has taken over as the No. 1 faceoff man for the nation’s second-ranked team.

“He’s starting to emerge to be the kind of player that we hoped he would be,” UVa coach Dom Starsia said Tuesday.

In Virginia’s past three games — wins over Vermont, No. 10 Cornell and No. 20 Ohio State, respectively — Benincasa won has 29 of 43 draws (67.4 percent). He won 12 of 19 against the Big Red and 14 of 19 against the Buckeyes.

For the season, Benincasa has won 49 of 84 — 58.3 percent. McDermott is 24 for 60 (40 percent), Ince is 15 for 35 (42.9 percent), and Chris LaPierre is 16 for 29 (55.2 percent).

So what’s different about the 2011 version of Benincasa?

“He has sort of grown up athletically a little bit,” Starsia said. “He’s a little bit better chasing down a loose ball and picking the ball up, some things where he was getting overwhelmed.

“He always had the quick hands, but if it turned into a loose-ball scrum, he was always at such a disadvantage physically. But he’s gotten a little stronger and a little quicker over the course of two years.”

And that’s welcome news for a team that last year won only 29 of 78 draws (37.2 percent) in its three games in the NCAA tournament.

Next up for Virginia (7-1) is a clash with No. 11 Johns Hopkins (5-2) at historic Homewood Field in Baltimore. The teams meet Saturday at 2 p.m. in a game that ESPNU will televise.

Hopkins is coming off a 5-4 overtime loss to No. 1 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The Blue Jays won 10 of 14 faceoffs in that game, so a strong effort Saturday from Benincasa would improve UVa’s chances of collecting a seventh straight victory in a series that dates to 1904.

At Greenwich High in Connecticut, Benincasa had “an unbelievable senior year,” and Starsia hoped the 6-0 210-pounder would have a similar impact at UVa. But the Cavaliers’ longtime coach has learned to take a wait-and-see approach with players at that spot.

“Faceoff guys are such a crapshoot, frankly,” Starsia said. “It’s so hard to anticipate which ones are going to be special.

“I’m just happy that he’s sort of become the player that we thought he might be, and if he continues to grow and work at this — and every indication is that he will — [UVa will benefit]. We were a little slow facing off this year. I’d like to think we’re about to pick up the pace there a little bit.”

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