By Jeff White
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — It occurred to UVa coach Dom Starsia on Saturday morning that if his team lost to Cornell that afternoon, the next nine months might well grow tiresome for him. Between now and the start of the 2012 season, Starsia would have to hear and read, time and again, that he was still one win shy of the career record for victories by a Division I men’s lacrosse coach.
Congratulations will be coming Starsia’s way now, thanks to a splendid performance by his team in a nationally televised NCAA quarterfinal. On a field not far from the Long Island town where Starsia grew up, the Cavaliers reminded the lacrosse world that, short-handed or not, they remain formidable.
At Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium, seventh-seeded UVa overwhelmed second-seeded Cornell 13-9. The victory was the 327th of Starsia’s Hall of Fame career and gave him sole possession of the record he shared with Jack Emmer for about a week.
More important to Starsia, the win sends the Cavaliers to the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season and means he’ll have another week with his team.
“What a remarkable day, really, in so many ways,” said Starsia, whose record in 29 seasons as a head coach is now 327-118.
After falling behind 4-1, the Wahoos (11-5) closed the first half with nine unanswered goals. Nine unanswered goals. That run stunned even the most optimistic UVa fans in the capacity crowd of 13,447, not to mention the favored Big Red (14-3).
The ‘Hoos scored seven times in the second quarter, with junior attackman Steele Stanwick collecting four assists and a goal in a span of about eight minutes.
“It’s been a while since we’ve played a quarter like that,” said Stanwick, the ACC player of the year.
The Cavaliers weren’t as sharp in the second half, but Cornell never got closer than four goals in the final 30 minutes. And when the final horn sounded, Starsia’s players swarmed around him in a frenzied celebration.
“It’s just been a remarkable run these last few weeks,” Starsia said later, “and I’m really pleased that we’re still playing.”
Virginia will meet sixth-seeded Denver (15-2) in Baltimore on Saturday. The Pioneers knocked off third-seeded Johns Hopkins in the second quarterfinal at Hofstra. UVa has won four NCAA titles — in 1972, 1999, 2003 and 2006. Denver will be appearing in the Final Four for the first time, but its legendary coach knows his way around the game’s big stage.
Bill Tierney won six NCAA championships as coach at Princeton, UVa’s nemesis early in Starsia’s tenure in Charlottesville. The Tigers beat the Cavaliers for the title in 1994 and ’96, winning each time in overtime.
Like Cornell, Princeton is a member of the Ivy League. So is Starsia’s alma mater, Brown, where he spent his first 10 seasons as a head coach, compiling a record of 101-46. In 19 seasons at UVa, he’s 226-72, with three NCAA titles and scores of memorable victories.
Few wins, though, have been as satisfying for Starsia as the one his team earned Saturday. His seniors, a class that includes team captains Bray Malphrus, Adam Ghitelman and John Haldy, won’t forget it, either.
“It’s an honor, and I’m grateful that I was a part of it,” said Malphrus, a defenseman who helped hold attackman Rob Pannell, perhaps the nation’s best player, to three goals — the last of which came with the outcome effectively decided — and no assists.
Ghitelman, who’s from nearby Cold Spring, sparkled in the cage against an explosive team that came in averaging 12.9 goals. He made 13 saves, including several spectacular stops.
With 48 career wins, Ghitelman now ranks fourth among goalies in NCAA history.
“Credit to him,” Cornell coach Ben DeLuca said. “He made all the saves you’d expect your goalie to make, and stole a couple from us as well.”
Ghitelman, a four-year starter, has “become a leader on the field,” Starsia said. “He knows what we’re trying to get done defensively as well as [the coaches] do, and he helps direct traffic out there as much as anything else. And then when we had to make a couple changes and kind of retool in the middle of the field, his role became even more paramount.”
Another Long Islander, Nick O’Reilly, came off the bench to give Virginia an enormous lift. The sophomore attackman, whom Starsia and associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale did not use in UVa’s first-round win over Bucknell, had two goals and an assist against Cornell.
Matt White started on attack, alongside Stanwick (three goals, four assists) and junior Chris Bocklet (three goals), but moved to the midfield in the first half.
“Marc and I talked during the week, and we both agreed that Nick should have played a little bit last week and that we needed to look for an opportunity to get him in there,” Starsia said.
“Matt White was struggling in the first quarter to get free. Nick is a little quicker, and so we thought that maybe Nick would be able to do a better job of getting his hands free so we could use him a little bit. We couldn’t get Matt the ball.”
As a midfielder, though, White had more room to operate, and he contributed two goals, the second of which pushed Virginia’s lead to 12-7 early in the fourth quarter.
“It’s kind of who we are,” Starsia said. “We’re mixing and matching our personnel a little bit and hoping we can find somebody who is ready to make a play for us.”
These teams also met during the regular season, the Cavaliers winning 11-9 in Baltimore on a March afternoon when they got three goals and an assist from All-America midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton.
Neither has been part of this postseason run. Starsia dismissed Shamel from the program late last month for violating team policies. Rhamel was suspended at the same time and hasn’t been reinstated.
Less, it turns out, has been more for Virginia. In his past two games, Stanwick has totaled nine assists and six goals. Without the Bratton twins, “I think [the Cavaliers] share the ball a lot more,” DeLuca said. “I think the ball is in Steele Stanwick’s stick a little bit more, which benefits their offense.”
Stanwick didn’t have a goal or an assist in the regular-season game against Cornell.
“No offense to the Brattons,” DeLuca said. “I think they’re wonderful players, and they cause us headaches in preparation for them as well, in terms of their dodging ability and their ability to break down a defense. But I think [UVa’s] role players really stepped up and were empowered by the absence of the Brattons. They share the load a little bit more.”
For UVa, the win over Cornell was one of the few high points of a tumultous regular season that included one-sided losses to Maryland and Duke (twice). Even so, Starsia said, the “core group of this team stayed together the whole time. We practiced well throughout. It was a joy to be on the practice field on a daily basis, and then it required that we make some changes in terms of who we were on the field.
“It just took us a little bit to get that done. I think these past couple of weeks we’ve kind of blossomed a little bit. I don’t think we’re fooling anybody. We’re not the team we were six weeks ago, physically, but we’re kind of come to terms with who we are, and we’re better at being who we are than we were a month ago.”
The loss to graduation of defensemen Ken Clausen and Ryan Nizolek from last year’s team meant UVa would have to rebuild at that end of the field. Then in early April, Starsia lost his most experienced defenseman, Matt Lovejoy, to a season-ending shoulder injury.
Sophomore Harry Prevas replaced Lovejoy in the starting lineup, and Starsia made other changes. Malphrus, who had been starting at long-stick midfielder, switched places with close defenseman Chris Clements. Moreover, Starsia began mixing zone defense in with his trademark man-to-man.
That combination proved as effective against Cornell as it had been April 30, when the ‘Hoos closed the regular season by pounding Penn 11-2 at Klöckner Stadium.
“Switching in and out of different defenses, I thought, at least slowed them down a little bit,” Starsia said. “It kind of took the edge off Pannell a little bit and gave us a chance to get organized defensively and helped us overall.”
The Cavaliers’ top defensive midfielder, All-ACC selection Chris LaPierre, is also a threat with the ball. And with Cornell up 4-1 and threatening to pull away in the first quarter, the 6-2, 215-pound sophomore made a game-changing play, catching a pass from classmate Blake Riley on a fast break and firing a shot past goalie AJ Fiore.
“The ball wasn’t really rolling our way early in that first quarter,” Stanwick said, “so to get a goal like that in transition from a guy like Chris, who just always leads by example, is always huge, and I think the team kind of rallied behind that. We needed someone to make a play, and Chris sure enough stepped up and made a huge play.”
Plays such as LaPierre’s ensured that Starsia would get his record-setting victory this year — on his native Long Island, no less — and not have to wait until next season.
“It’s very special,” Starsia said. “To have it be at this moment, in this game, against that opponent, in this location, in the NCAA quarterfinals, it really couldn’t have been a better setting for all of this.”