By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The regular season ends Saturday at Klöckner Stadium for UVa’s lacrosse teams, and both are feeling the pressure.
The Virginia women, ranked No. 11 nationally, face No. 5 Northwestern (14-2) at noon.
The Virginia men, also ranked No. 11 nationally, meet No. 13 Penn (8-4) at 3 p.m.
This is Julie Myers’ 16th season as women’s coach at her alma mater, and she has guided the Wahoos to the NCAA championship game seven times. (Her Cavaliers won the national title in 2004.)
A win over Northwestern would probably assure UVa (9-7) a spot in the NCAA tournament. A loss to the Wildcats would put Virginia in serious danger of missing the NCAAs for the first time in Myers’ tenure.
The situation is not so dire for the UVa men’s team. Win or lose Saturday, the ‘Hoos (8-5) are expected to receive an invitation to the NCAA tourney. But a victory over the Quakers would strengthen the Cavaliers’ case for hosting a first-round game at Klöckner.
“We’d prefer to keep that in our own hands if at all possible,” said Dom Starsia, who has won three NCAA titles as Virginia’s coach.
This has been a trying season for Starsia, and it’s not getting any easier. He announced Friday afternoon that senior midfielder Shamel Bratton has been dismissed from the program for violation of team policies.
Bratton was named to the All-America first team in 2009 and 2010, and he’s fourth on the team in scoring this season, with 28 points. That total almost certainly would be higher had Bratton not missed the Stony Brook and Maryland games for violating team rules.
UVa also will be without Shamel’s twin against Penn, but Rhamel Bratton could be reinstated to the team before the NCAA tournament, Starsia said Friday evening.
Rhamel is a senior middie who, like his brother, was suspended for the Stony Brook game. A second-team All-American in 2010, Rhamel is fifth on the team in scoring this season, with 22 points.
The Cavaliers enter the regular-season finale having dropped four of their past five games. Two of those losses were to UVa’s nemesis, Duke, including a 19-10 rout in the ACC tournament semifinals.
“It’s humbling,” senior long-stick midfielder Bray Malphrus, one of the team captains, said Thursday afternoon.
This is the first time since 2004, when the ‘Hoos failed to make the NCAA tournament, that they have lost more than three regular-season games.
“You go into every season thinking you’re going to win every one, and there’s definitely been some trials, some ups and downs,” senior faceoff specialist Garett Ince said. “But I think we’re a very tight team, and we’re very close to one another, and I think we’re going to pull through as best we can.”
In general, Starsia said, he wants his players to approach every game with the same mindset. He likes to tell them that there are “no big games,” Starsia said, but “I talked to the players on Monday about there being important moments in a season, in a year, in a career, and I feel like this is a really important game.
“We want to be playing well just for its own sake, but [the Penn game] also has implications as we think about postseason play.”
UVa and Penn have three common opponents this season: defending NCAA champion Duke, North Carolina and Cornell.
Virginia is 0-2 against Duke, 1-0 against UNC and 1-0 against Cornell.
Penn opened the season Feb. 26 by beating Duke 7-3 in Philadelphia. The Quakers lost 12-6 at UNC on March 8 and fell 13-12 in overtime at Cornell on March 26.
“Penn’s just very solid overall,” Starsia said. “I think Penn may be a playoff team already.”
Since the NCAA expanded the men’s lacrosse tournament to 16 teams, Virginia has never had to play a first-round game on the road. In 2009 and ’10, in fact, UVa was the tournament’s No. 1 seed.
So the Penn game “is really huge for us,” said senior midfielder John Haldy, a team captain. “I kind of like it, personally. It puts a little bit of pressure on our back, which is great for us, because there is a lot of pressure heading to the postseason, so it’s a good little precursor to that.”
The second half of the regular season has “definitely been tough,” Haldy said. “I won’t lie. It’s not easy losing four out of your last five. We just try to keep it all in perspective. We still have a great opportunity ahead of us in the upcoming weeks.
“We lost four of the last five. Hopefully we’ll win our next five.”
For a program that reached the NCAA semifinals in 2008, ’09 and ’10, this is “certainly a unique position, one I never thought I’d be in,” Malphrus said. “But at the same time I’m grateful to still be here, and I wouldn’t trade this position for the world. I love the group of kids we have in the locker room, and I wouldn’t change it.”
Malphrus said Thursday that he was convinced everyone in the program shared the same goals.
“Absolutely,” he said. “There’ s no doubt, and I think the kids are very, very aware of what’s on the line this weekend.”
Virginia’s leading scorer, junior attackman Steele Stanwick, has been hobbled by a bad foot for more than a month. Stanwick no longer must wear a walking boot between games, however, and he practiced more this week than he has in some time.
“I’ll take him in any capacity, if for no other reason than he’s just such a pleasure to be around,” Starsia said. “I think he does just lift practice a little bit just with his presence.”