By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In college lacrosse, there can be a significant reward for playing a grueling schedule. UVa’s teams will attest to that.
Neither Dom Starsia’s men nor Julie Myers’ women came close to reaching their regular-season goals. Both teams, however, are headed back to the NCAA tournament, in part because of their superior strength-of-schedule rankings.
In the 16-team men’s tourney, the Cavaliers are seeded No. 7. UVa (9-5) hosts Patriot League champion Bucknell (14-2) at 3 p.m. Sunday at Klöckner Stadium.
Virginia has played seven of its counterparts in the NCAA men’s field: No. 1 seed Syracuse, No. 2 seed Cornell, No. 3 seed Johns Hopkins, No. 5 seed Duke (twice), No. 8 seed North Carolina, ACC champion Maryland and Penn.
“I just always feel like you’re better off playing a tough schedule,” Starsia said late Sunday night after the NCAA selections were announced.
“When we’re in the middle of the schedule, sometimes it feels like a grind, but I think on balance it certainly pays off when it comes to the end and people look at the body of work and we’re in consideration for the NCAA tournament. In what was a tough year for us, I think we demonstrated that we held up over the course of three months.”
The UVa women (9-8) have played eight of the other 15 teams in the NCAA field: No. 1 seed Maryland, No. 2 seed Northwestern, No. 3 seed North Carolina (twice), No. 5 seed Duke, No. 6 seed Loyola (Md.), No. 8 seed James Madison, Princeton and Boston College.
“Definitely our strength of schedule helped,” Myers said Monday morning. “Obviously we didn’t win a ton of games, but we won enough.”
The unseeded Wahoos play North Carolina (13-5) in the first round Saturday at 1 p.m. in Chapel Hill. UNC edged the ‘Hoos 8-7 in Chapel Hill during the regular season and then pummeled them 16-5 in the ACC tournament at Cary, N.C. The Tar Heels then crushed Duke before falling to Maryland in the championship game.
“Carolina just had a phenomenal ACC tournament,” Myers said. “They caught us by surprise, and I think they caught Duke by surprise too.”
In the second game with UNC, Myers said, UVa changed some defensive assignments, and the Heels were able to exploit several individual matchups.
“We’ll do a better job with matchups,” Myers said, “and hopefully Carolina’s not as hot as they were.”
This is Myers’ 16th season as head coach at her alma mater, and never in her tenure have the Cavaliers missed the NCAAs. Under Myers, UVa has advanced to the NCAA championship game seven times, winning in 2004.
This has been a trying season for the UVa women, but all 16 teams start the NCAA tourney with a clean slate.
“That was our message to the team last night,” Myers said. “This is an incredibly hard tournament to get into. We’ve done our job and we’re in, and now everybody’s 0-0.”
UVa hasn’t played Bucknell in a men’s game since 1998, when Starsia’s team romped 27-5 at Klöckner. In February, however, the Bison took part in a three-team scrimmage in Charlottesville, along with UVa and Georgetown, and “gave us all that we could handle on our field,” Starsia said.
“I have great respect for Frank, Coach Fedorjaka, and what he does there. I know they’re a team that’s athletic, rides really well, is solid in the cage and has got a lot of guys with lots of points.”
Virginia closed the regular season with an 11-2 thumping of Penn at Klöckner. Rhamel Bratton did not play in that game, and the senior midfielder won’t practice with the Cavaliers this week, Starsia said Monday.
Bratton will rejoin the team this weekend. He won’t be on the active roster for the Bucknell game, Starsia said, but might be allowed to play in the quarterfinals May 21 if Virginia wins Sunday.
On the eve of the Penn game, Bratton was suspended indefinitely from the team. At the same time, Starsia dismissed Rhamel’s twin, Shamel, also for violating team policies.
Shamel, like his brother a senior middie, was a first-team All-American in 2009 and ’10. Rhamel was a second-team All-American in 2010.
Starsia said he has spoken to athletics director Craig Littlepage and senior associate AD Jane Miller about Rhamel’s situation, as well as to the players on the team.
In the end, though, it’s “primarily sort of my call,” said Starsia, who’s in his 19th season as the Cavaliers’ coach.
Under Starsia, the ‘Hoos have won three NCAA titles (1999, 2003, 2006). They were seeded No. 1 in 2009 and in ’10 and advanced to the NCAA semifinals each season. Not since 2001, when they were No. 8, have the Cavaliers been seeded this low. (UVa failed to reach the NCAAs in 2004.)
“It’s certainly a little different for us,” Starsia said. “I’m not even saying at this point that we’re going to sneak up on anybody, but it’s not very often that we get to step [into] the shadows a little bit.”
If his team wants to embrace the role of underdog, that’s fine with Starsia. “I don’t think it’s going to provide much of an emotional or a psychological advantage at this time of the year,” he said Sunday night.
“I told the players today on the practice field: It’s a one-game season, and that’s what it is right now. We have one game to play, and all the work that we’ve done helps prepare us to play Bucknell, and that’s the only focus for us right now. And it doesn’t feel very different right now [as the No. 7 seed], sitting here thinking about preparing to play this game.”