By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2010, Matt White started 13 games and finished fifth in scoring, with 33 points, for the UVa men’s lacrosse team, which entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed and advanced to the Final Four.
A year later, as No. 7 seed Virginia prepares to face second-seeded Cornell in the NCAA quarterfinals, White has 18 points. That’s a dramatic decline in production, but the 6-1, 188-pound attackman from Ridgefield, Conn., is finishing his sophomore season better than he began it.
“For whatever reason, it just has taken him a while,” Cavaliers coach Dom Starsia said.
In UVa’s past three games, White has totaled six goals. The most memorable, of course, came against Bucknell in Virginia’s NCAA tournament opener Sunday evening, when White struck for the game-winner in overtime at Klöckner Stadium.
“Matt clearly was not playing great early in the year,” Starsia said, “but he’s continued to work. He did not get discouraged. His play in practice has been terrific for a couple of weeks now, and it’s nice to see him get a little reward for that.”
That juniors Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet would start again for the Wahoos this season was never in doubt. The identity of the No. 3 attackman, however, was unclear, especially after White was held out of fall lacrosse because of what Starsia called “a team issue.”
“To be honest with you, I thought it was going to be Mark Cockerton,” Starsia said.
But Cockerton, a left-handed freshman from Ontario, had surgery in October to repair a dislocated shoulder, and he didn’t start practicing with the team until mid-February. Cockerton started four games on the attack during the regular season but recently moved to the midfield to bolster a position at which Virginia last month lost two All-Americans, Shamel and Rhamel Bratton.
In all, Starsia has tried four attackmen alongside Stanwick and Bocklet this season: White, Cockerton and sophomores Nick O’Reilly and Connor English. They have combined for 46 points.
Stanwick and Bocklet have combined for 100.
“If you’d asked me back in January, I would have said that that third spot’s going to be a strength, going to be better than it was a year ago,” Starsia said. “And it’s just taken a while to settle down.”
White started only two of UVa’s first 13 games this season. But after White came off the bench to score three goals against Duke in the ACC tournament, Starsia put him on the first attack for the regular-season finale against Penn.
In the Cavaliers’ 11-2 rout of the Quakers, White played well and contributed a goal. He started again against Bucknell and had two goals.
Asked Sunday night about his struggles this season, White said, “I think there’s plenty of different factors that contributed to that. I was mostly afraid to make a mistake. The effort was always there with me, but I just didn’t always have my head completely in it. But I just slowly tried to work at it, and I’ve been playing pretty well lately.”
Starsia said: “He’s just playing with a little more confidence now, and a little bit more enthusiasm. It’s not anything that anybody else has done as much as he has just stepped up and sort of seized that role.”
Virginia trailed Bucknell 10-7 heading into the fourth quarter Sunday. Stanwick passed to White for a goal that made it 10-8 with 11:34 remaining. About two minutes later, though, White turned the ball over, and the Bison eventually capitalized with a goal that made it 11-8.
UVa responded with back-to-back goals by Bocklet, but another White turnover gave the ball back to Bucknell, which scored with 4:00 remaining to go up 12-10.
“Having those turnovers in the fourth quarter kind of hurts your confidence,” White said, “but I think it speaks to the leadership of the coaches and the captains and the older guys on our team, to kind of give me a pat on the back and say, ‘Hey, make the next play,’ and luckily I was able to do that today.”
In overtime, Bucknell won the faceoff, but UVa defensive midfielder Blake Riley forced a turnover. The ball went to Stanwick behind the Bison’s cage, and he fed White for the goal that ended the game 87 seconds into OT.
Stanwick finished with three goals and five assists, and Bocklet had five goals. The ‘Hoos no longer can send the Bratton brothers at opposing defenses, and so they’ve had to change their tactics. The attack must carry the offense now.
“We can’t go by you as quickly as” when the Brattons were in the lineup, Starsia acknowledged last week. Overall, though, the offense is operating more efficiently.
“We’re moving the ball a little bit better than we have, probably, in a while,” Starsia said. “Some of that is just born of necessity. We need that to be a strength, and I think it’s begun to show itself up more consistently in practice than it did in the Penn game, and that’s going to be who we are. We’re not as deep and we’re not as athletic as we were a couple of weeks ago. We may not be playing the game quite as quickly or may not be attacking the goal in the first moment of each possession.
“That’s not a bad thing at the same time. I think we’re quite capable offensively, and I think we’ve looked really good in practice, but our personality is a little bit different than it would have been otherwise.”