By Jeff White
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Friday afternoon found Dom Starsia standing on the field at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium, about a 10-minute drive from Valley Stream, the Long Island town in which he grew up.
That’s the same stadium, Starsia noted, where he made his debut as a head coach, in 1983, against Virginia, of all teams. UVa beat Brown, his alma mater, 10-6 that day.
Across the street is the Nassau Coliseum, where “I actually scored my first and only goal,” Starsia recalled, “when I was playing in the National Lacrosse League, in 1975.”
For many reasons, then, his team’s next game holds special meaning for Starsia, who’s in his 19th season as UVa’s coach. At noon Saturday, seventh-seeded Virginia (10-5) meets No. 2 seed Cornell (14-2) in an NCAA quarterfinal at Shuart Stadium.
“It always strikes a chord when I come over the bridges coming in here,” Starsia said Friday after his team’s practice at Hofstra. “And it was so appropriate to have traffic at midnight last night coming into New York. I remember that phenomenon so much growing up.”
Two of his siblings still live on Long Island. The elementary school he attended in Valley Stream, Blessed Sacrament, is closing soon, and Starsia hopes to attend a final reception there next month. His high school, Valley Stream Central, wants to give him an alumni award, and Starsia might be back for that in the fall.
For now, though, his focus is on lacrosse. A win over the Big Red would send the Wahoos to the NCAA semifinals for the fourth consecutive year. That’s not all, of course. It would be the 327th career victory for Starsia — a record for a coach at the Division I level.
“Coach Starsia hasn’t uttered a word about it to us,” senior defenseman Bray Malphrus said. “I think that kind of shows how modest he is, and it’s a tribute to the type of individual he is. And he hasn’t put any pressure on us about it. Not so much as a word has been uttered about it from the administration or the coaches. We’ve kind of found out about it through other means, primarily the media.”
Starsia, who went 101-46 in 10 seasons at Brown, is 225-72 at UVa, where his teams have won three NCAA titles (1999, 2003, 2006). The Cavaliers’ first-round win over Bucknell last weekend at Klöckner Stadium moved him into a tie with Jack Emmer, who went 326-184 at Cortland State, Washington and Lee, and Army.
Emmer was part of the crew that announced the UVa-Bucknell game for ESPNU.
“I had a chance to talk to him before and afterwards, and it was a pleasure for me,” Starsia said Wednesday in Charlottesville. “I was really glad that he was there.”
In addition to offering him congratulations, Starsia said, Emmer “also appreciated that when people have asked me about it, I’ve said simply that I think anybody that knows what we do for a living would understand that I’m just a little too busy to dwell on it right now, and he said that he understood that completely.
“This is a group endeavor, as much as anything is, and this is 29 years for me as a head coach and 37 in coaching in general, and there’s so many people to thank that I couldn’t do it adequately unless I had a little more time to think about everybody that came this way.”
This UVa team, naturally, would love to be the one that pushes Starsia to the top of the list.
“I think overall I have our ultimate goal” — an NCAA title — “in my mind, but to be able to get this win for him would be one of the best things that I could have done as a player,” senior goalie Adam Ghitelman said. “So that really motivates me. I really want to win this game for him and get him that record.”
Ghitelman is one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with Malphrus, senior midfielder John Haldy and junior attackman Steele Stanwick.
Malphrus has grown to appreciate the leadership style of Starsia and Virginia’s associate head coach, Marc Van Arsdale.
“A lot of people view coaches as being disciplinarians, and [UVa’s] are when they need to be,” Malphrus said. “But at the same time they have a very open relationship with the players here, such that you could walk in at any given time and express a concern or bring up something that’s on your mind. And I think that’s something that’s very unique about this program.”
Malphrus has a close friend on the team at Johns Hopkins. With Hopkins’ famously intense coach, Dave Pietramala, it’s “his way or the highway,” Malphrus said.
Starsia’s approach is different, Malphrus said, and “I think there’s something to be said for that. You get a large amount of autonomy here, as both an athlete and just as a regular student, and I think that’s by design. Coach Starsia realizes that at the end of your four years here, you’re going out into the real world, and you have to be making decisions on your own.
“It kind of parallels what goes on on the lacrosse field as well. When you’re in a big game, whether it be the playoffs, or you’re up at Syracuse in the [Carrier] Dome, you’re not going to be able to hear Coach Starsia on the sideline yelling. It’s going to be up to you to make a call and go with it. So it serves two purposes here: It helps you on the field as an athlete, and it also prepares you for the real world.”
This has been a trying season for Starsia, on and off the field. In 2009 and ’10, Virginia entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed. The ‘Hoos began this season with two All-America midfielders, twins Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, but neither has played since the ACC tournament, and neither will play against Cornell.
On the eve of the regular-season finale against Penn, Starsia dismissed Shamel from the program for violating team policies. Rhamel was suspended at the same time and has yet to be reinstated.
Through it all, though, the other players have “kind of hung together,” Starsia said. “I think they really enjoy each other’s company. They’ve worked hard, so it’s really been an amazing year in a lot of different ways.”
Only once (1979-82) has UVa advanced to the NCAA semifinals in four straight seasons. To do so again “would be a great accomplishment,” Haldy said, “but we also set our goals a little bit higher than that. We’re not trying to focus on just the Final Four. We’re trying to go all the way. But really, right now, we’re just focusing on Cornell, first and foremost.”
The Big Red has not lost since March 12, when the Ivy League power fell 11-9 to Virginia at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, the site of next weekend’s Final Four.
“Almost the exact same guys are playing in every situation [for Cornell],” Starsia said, “but they’re playing with much greater confidence.”
In junior attackman Rob Pannell, who has 39 goals and 47 assists, Cornell has the favorite to win the Tewaaraton Award as the top player in the college game. Also dangerous are fellow attackmen Steve Mock and David Lau.
“When we played them the first time around, Lau and Mock, it was their first game back from some injuries,” Starsia said. “They weren’t big factors in that game. They’re both playing very, very well right now.”
Asked after the Bucknell game about Cornell, Ghitelman said, “Everyone knows about Rob Pannell. He’s obviously one of the best players in the country, after my boy Steele here. It’s going to be a tough test for us, and we’re excited for the challenge.”
Stanwick, with 26 goals and 31 assists, leads Virginia in scoring. He limped through the second half of the regular season on an injured right foot, but is much closer to 100 percent now.
Against Penn, Stanwick matched his career high with five assists. Against Bucknell, he totaled three goals and five assists and, as he’s done for three seasons at UVa, consistently created scoring opportunities for his teammates.
“That’s why I just love playing with Steele,” said junior attackman Chris Bocklet, who had five goals versus Bucknell. “He’s dodging, and he always has his head up, and he’s going to the cage hard, and I’m just there to try to move off ball and get my hands free and give him some help.”
Like their head coach, several UVa players grew up on Long Island. The Ghitelman brothers, Adam and Jacob, are from Cold Spring. Connor English is from Manhasset. Nick O’Reilly is from Rockville Centre and Tom Kelly from Rocky Point.
“I’ve played here numerous times,” Adam Ghitelman said Friday after practice at Shuart Stadium. “We hold our county championships here, so pretty much every year in high school we’d come and play here. In football too.
“It definitely has some extra meaning for me. I can’t say that I’m not feeling really good about this game tomorrow. I’m excited to be on this field. I have a lot of good memories here.”