By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a Senior Day from which fourth-year midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton were conspicuously absent, the UVa men’s lacrosse team played with a passion and sense of purpose rarely evident this year.
Poor Penn. The Quakers, who in February beat defending NCAA champion Duke, had the misfortune Saturday of meeting a UVa team determined to turn around its season.
“There was a sense of urgency in the locker room,” said senior Bray Malphrus, one of the Cavaliers’ captains. “It was now or never, and we weren’t oblivious to the fact that if we’d lost this game today, it might have become debatable whether or not we’d make the [NCAA] tournament.
“We asked kids to come in on Monday and play harder in practice than they had all year long, and they did it from Monday through Friday, and you got to see what happened out here today.”
On a splendid spring afternoon, a crowd of 2,434 saw 11th-ranked Virginia close the regular season with an 11-2 rout of No. 13 Penn. Not only will the Wahoos (9-5) advance to the NCAA tournament, they are likely to play their first-round game at Klöckner.
“This is an unbelievable win for us,” said senior goalie Adam Ghitelman, another UVa captain. “We pulled together as a team, that’s for sure.”
For three-plus seasons, the Bratton twins have played leading roles in most of Virginia’s biggest wins. But one is no longer on the team, and the other is suspended indefinitely.
Coach Dom Starsia announced Friday that Shamel, a first-team All-American in 2009 and ’10, had been dismissed from the program for violation of team policies.
Rhamel, a second-team All-American last year, was not with the team for the Penn game, though he could be re-instated before the NCAA tourney.
“It’s been as difficult a week as you can imagine,” Starsia said after Saturday’s game. “No matter what, you hate to lose somebody, somebody you’ve made a great investment in and you feel like has made an investment in you. You’ve spent a lot of time together. At the same time, there’s a certain culture of a team that has to be maintained, and that’s the standard that we have to hold everybody to.”
Moving on without the Brattons was not easy, said Malphrus, who was shifted recently from long-stick midfielder to close defense. “It was hard. But we had to ask some younger kids to step up in their absence, and the younger kids did a wonderful job of doing that. Some kids who normally don’t get the opportunity to play got to play today, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Seven players had at least one goal apiece for the ‘Hoos, led by senior middie John Haldy, junior attackman Chris Bocklet and freshman middie Rob Emery with two each.
“Obviously without [the Brattons] we lose some athleticism, and they can kind of do some things other guys can’t,” junior attackman Steele Stanwick said. “But at the same time, we’ve got guys that can step up, and they did that today.”
UVa’s first-team midfield comprised Haldy, Emery and redshirt junior Colin Briggs. Starsia patched together a second midfield of junior Matt Kugler and freshmen Pat Harbeson and Mark Cockerton, heretofore an attackman.
“We are who we are right now, and we’re going to continue to work hard and see if we can continue to improve,” Starsia said. “If we can build on this performance today, we’re headed in the right direction.”
For Haldy, the two goals were a season high. Kugler and Cockerton scored one each. With Malphrus on close defense, redshirt junior Chris Clements moved to long-stick middie. Clements sparkled in that role Saturday, as did junior Wyatt Melzer.
“I think we knew that we had to get contributions from some different people,” Starsia said, “and we knew that we were going to have to play better as a whole [and not] depend on anybody to kind of carry us. Everybody was committed to that, and we got that effort all the way around.”
The ‘Hoos entered the regular-season finale having dropped four of their previous five games. Two of those losses came in Durham, N.C. Duke beat the Cavaliers 13-11 on April 16 and then, six days later, humbled them 19-10 in the ACC tournament semifinals.
Penn (8-5) got its first goal early in the second quarter to pull to 3-1. The Quakers didn’t score again for more than 35 minutes.
“Our defense hasn’t played well the last two weeks against Duke — they’ll the first ones to tell you that — and they played unbelievable today,” said Stanwick, who matched his career high with five assists. “Hopefully we can ride this wave.”
Ghitelman made 10 saves, the last coming with four seconds left, and got plenty of help from his defense. Asked to explain the team’s improvement at that end, the effusive Malphrus didn’t hesitate.
“Execution,” he said. “We respected the fundamentals of the game. Believe it or not, something as simple as moving your feet and running hard through your pass and your catch, moving hard in the clearing game, it makes a world of difference. It sounds rudimentary, but if you honor the fundamentals of the game, it’s the difference between losing to Duke by nine and winning here and only giving up two goals.”
“It was unparalleled,” Malphrus said. “You look at the Duke game, 19 goals, that’s by no means Adam Ghitelman’s fault. That’s the defense, that’s the team, that’s the offense. We break down in the clearing game and they get a wide-open goal, that’s not Adam Ghitelman’s fault. Part of Adam having such a successful game today is also the fact that the defense, the D-middies and everyone else played well.”
The 16-team field for the NCAA tournament will be announced May 8 on ESPNU. First-round games will be played May 14 and 15.
“Hopefully we’ll make a little run here,” Starsia said.
The Cavaliers have won three NCAA titles under Starsia — in 1999, 2003 and ’06 — and they reached the final four in each of the past three seasons. This team may be seeded No. 7 or No. 8, but that’s fine with Starsia.
“If we’re going to come out of the shadows a little bit this year, perhaps, and maybe sneak up on some people, that’s a luxury we don’t usually get here at Virginia, and we’ll try to take advantage of that if we can,” Starsia said. “I’m not going to get too much ahead of myself right now. I haven’t really thought much of the playoff scenario.”
As he reminded a TV reporter, Starsia wanted a few minutes to savor the win over Penn before looking ahead to the NCAA tourney. He knew how much the victory meant to his players.
“In athletics, you’d like a little validation for all the work you do, and it comes on game day,” Starsia said. “I can tell you guys a thousand times, like I have, that this team practices well and they work hard, but when the public sees us is on game day.
“As an athlete, this is the day when you want to play your best lacrosse, and it’s particularly gratifying that it happened today.”