By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In NCAA men’s lacrosse, Syracuse and UVa lead the list of programs that traditionally have favored a freewheeling, run-and-gun, entertaining style of play.
Unlike the Orange, however, the Cavaliers will look to slow the pace this weekend. Top-seeded Syracuse meets Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals Sunday at Foxborough, Mass. No. 7 seed Virginia takes on second-seeded Cornell in another quarterfinal Saturday afternoon on Long Island, N.Y.
If the Cavaliers advance to the NCAA semifinals for the fourth straight season, they are likely to do so with a strategy that many longtime fans will struggle to recognize.
“We are now a team on offense that needs to be more efficient and perhaps a little bit more deliberate,” Dom Starsia said. “Certainly more patient.”
In his 19th season as the Wahoos’ coach, Starsia has not suddenly scrapped the offensive philosophy that is his trademark. This change was born out of necessity.
On the eve of its regular-season finale last month, Virginia lost senior midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, who had combined for 37 goals and 13 assists this spring. The twins’ extraordinary speed and quickness allowed them to shed defenders and create offensive opportunities for themselves and for teammates.
Shamel, a first-team All-American in 2009 and ’10, was dismissed from the program for violating team policies. Rhamel, a second-team All-American in 2010, was suspended indefinitely. He has yet to be reinstated and won’t play Saturday against Cornell (14-2) at Hofstra University.
Without the Brattons, UVa (10-5) has little depth and considerable inexperience in the midfield. The starters now are senior John Haldy, redshirt junior Colin Briggs and freshman Rob Emery, who have combined for 40 goals and 25 assists. Briggs, an All-ACC selection, leads the group with 23 goals and 12 assists.
Behind the first line is perhaps the least experienced second midfield in Division I: freshmen Pat Harbeson and Mark Cockerton (a converted attackman) and junior Matt Kugler.
Fortunately for Virginia, the coaching staff has “had some time to work through this over the past couple of weeks,” Starsia said. “So it’s not like we arrived here all of a sudden, short some guys.”
In its NCAA tournament opener, Virginia rallied from four goals down in the second half and beat Bucknell 13-12 in overtime Sunday at Klöckner Stadium.
“I think it was early in the fourth quarter, and I looked up at the scoreboard and the shots were 34-18, Bucknell,” Starsia said. “I was stunned to see that statistic. We’re a team that’s used to generating 50 shots in a game.
“As we’ve had to adjust a little to all this, we’re playing at a more deliberate pace than we would be otherwise. We just can’t fly up and down the field the same way.
“We can’t generate opportunities as we could have before. It doesn’t mean we can’t get it done, but we have to work a little harder to get it done right now.”
Early in the Bucknell game, Briggs said, UVa “might have been forcing it a little too much. I think we just need to take our time on offense, especially in the beginning. Get settled into the game and really spin the ball around and try to work for that shot, give our defense and [All-ACC defensive midfielder Chris] LaPierre time to rest, and also just make it so it’s not a back-and-forth battle up and down the field.”
Starsia rotated four players in the two defensive midfield slots: Briggs, freshman Bobby Hill and sophomores LaPierre and Blake Riley. Briggs wasn’t used in that role often during the regular season, but Starsia needed to give No. 44 a break.
“To me, LaPierre looked gassed early in the game,” Starsia said. “It’s been a long, hard season for him, and he’s a warrior, obviously. He’ll give you everything he’s got, but [rather than] asking him to work harder, I’m just trying to get him to feel pretty good on game day.”
Starsia said he won’t hesitate to use Briggs on defense, and Emery may be another option there.
“We can leave him out there,” Starsia said. “Most of the time we have pretty good two-way middies, so we’re not afraid to leave those guys on the field. We have had to go a little deeper in the roster to put some people out there, and guys for the most part have stepped up and made some plays.”
Bucknell dominated possession for most of the game, so “I wasn’t crazy tired from playing offense,” Briggs said. “I was able to get a couple runs in on defense, hopefully to maybe get some transition out of it, and I felt comfortable doing it.”
Starsia is unlikely to play his second midfield extensively Saturday, which means Haldy, Emery and Briggs will again be asked to carry a heavy load.
“We don’t try to conserve [energy],” Haldy said, “but what we do try to do is get really valuable possessions. So that’s what myself, Colin and Rob Emery try to do whenever we’re out there together: try to get really long possessions, get the ball through the attack and get it back up to the midfield.”
This will be the Cavaliers’ second game against the Big Red this season. In the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic, March 12 in Baltimore, Virginia rallied to beat Cornell 11-9. Rhamel Bratton scored two goals that day, and Shamel contributed a goal and an assist.
Statistically, these teams appear similar offensively. Cornell averages 12.9 goals per game; UVa, 12.7. In the rematch, though, the Big Red is likely to be the team pushing the pace.
“They’ve been very aggressive offensively,” Starsia said. “They will get after it and stay after it.”
As unthinkable as it may seem, given the Cavaliers’ tradition, they may need to keep the game in single digits to win Saturday, Starsia said. Without question, he said, the ‘Hoos need to shoot well.
“We’ve got to capitalize on whatever opportunities we can generate,” Starsia said, “because we are simply not going to generate the same number of opportunities.”