(May 27, 2011)

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

BALTIMORE — The stands at the Baltimore Ravens’ purple palace sat empty Friday afternoon as the UVa men’s lacrosse team ran through its last pre-Final Four practice.

M&T Bank Stadium won’t be so quiet Saturday afternoon. When seventh-seeded Virginia (11-5) meets sixth-seeded Denver (15-2) at 4 o’clock in the first NCAA semifinal, a crowd of 45,000-plus is expected.

“It’s shocking,” UVa goalie Adam Ghitelman said early this week in Charlottesville. “You never play in an environment like that, with so many people, in such a big stadium. It’s kind of jaw-dropping at first. You kind of look around and you’re like, ‘Wow!’ As a kid I was up in those stands cheering on these guys, and now it’s me playing in front of all these people.”

Until this month, Denver had never won a game in the NCAA tournament. So this is all new for the Pioneers. The Cavaliers, by contrast, are perennial powers who have reached the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year.

“You never know what’s going to happen, but it definitely doesn’t hurt having experience,” Virginia junior attackman Steele Stanwick said Tuesday in Charlottesville. “Playing in front of a crowd like that is definitely something that you’ve never experienced. Our juniors and seniors are going for the third and fourth time. It can only help us.”

That the NCAA semifinals and championship game are in his hometown for the second straight year “just makes it that much more exciting,” Stanwick said. “Being from Baltimore and a huge Ravens fan, it adds to the excitement of the whole Final Four for me. I’m just really excited to get back home, and a lot of family will be there.”

For Dom Starsia, this marks the 13th time in his 19 seasons as UVa’s coach that his team has advanced this far. The Wahoos have won three NCAA titles (1999, 2003, ’06) and been runners-up twice (1994, ’96) under Starsia.

“Every year’s a little bit different,” Starsia said Friday at M&T Bank Stadium. “And this year is a little bit special, because I think four or five weeks ago, not a lot of people except the guys in that locker room thought we really had a chance to be here.

“I often say that there’s no ‘deserve’ in the game, but this team has sort of deserved a break along the way. We’ve sort of made our breaks, but I think we’ve earned our way here, too, and I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of, just being here.”

After winning seven of its first eight games, Virginia stumbled badly. The ‘Hoos entered their April 30 regular-season finale against Penn having dropped four of their previous five games. Moreover, All-America midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton had failed to abide by team policies and were no longer playing, and starting defenseman Matt Lovejoy was out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

However improbably, the Cavaliers turned their season around. The revival started with a 10-2 rout of Penn at Klöckner Stadium. A dramatic overtime win over Bucknell, also at Klöckner, followed in the NCAA tournament’s first round, and then UVa stunned second-seeded Cornell 13-9 in a quarterfinal last weekend on Long Island, N.Y.

“Had we not won that game, I would have still said that I’m as proud of this team, I think, as any that I’ve had in recent memory,” Starsia said. “This group of kids has hung together and supported each other as much as is probably possible for a group of young men. That doesn’t mean there weren’t stumbles along the way — these are college kids — but they were trying.

“People would look at us and say, ‘Well, this team is a little bit of a mess,’ and I kept saying, ‘No, it’s not really. The core of this team is terrific.’ ”

Starsia spent 10 seasons as head coach at Brown, his alma mater, before coming to UVa. The win over Cornell was his 327th career victory and established a new record for a men’s lacrosse coach at the Division I level. Starsia and Jack Emmer had been tied for first on the all-time list at 326.

Leading up to the Cornell game, Starsia didn’t mention the record to his players. In fact, he said, “I hadn’t really thought about it very much.” At a practice early this week, though, “I told them I was really pleased that they were the group that happened to be with us when we happened to do that, because I think it makes all of this a little bit more special.”

With Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Notre Dame and Syracuse conspicuously absent, this Final Four closely resembles an ACC tournament. No. 5 seed Duke meets unseeded Maryland, the ACC champion, in the second semifinal Saturday. The NCAA title game is Monday at 3:30 p.m.

Like UVa, Denver was on Long Island last weekend. In the second quarterfinal at Hofstra University, the Pioneers hammered No. 3 seed Hopkins 14-9.

Bill Tierney’s players may be wide-eyed when they take the field Saturday, but Denver’s second-year coach is a Final Four veteran. Tierney guided Princeton to six NCAA titles, twice beating Starsia’s Cavaliers in the championship game.

“We talk about it, certainly,” Starsia said when asked if he has flashed back to Tierney’s legendary run at Princeton. “We talk about Bill’s teams and Bill’s style and things like that. I don’t think Bill Tierney is as easily pigeon-holed with a style of play as people might think. People tend to think conservative on defense and slow on offense, and that’s never really been the case.

“Bill uses his personnel as well as anybody I’ve been around.”

Starsia has shown he can adapt as well. One of the Cavaliers’ trademarks during his tenure has been aggressive man-to-man defense, but they’ve switched periodically to a zone in recent games, with some success.

“Certainly it’s different, but it tells you what a great coach Dom is,” Tierney said. “You can continue to beat your head against the wall if something’s not working, or you can just adjust to your team’s personnel. And he’s done that.”

These schools have not met in men’s lacrosse since 2006, but Tierney is familiar with at least one Cavalier. When he was at Princeton, Tierney pursued a high school phenom from Baltimore who had a distinctive first name — and an equally memorable set of skills.

Stanwick, of course, opted for Virginia, where he has lived up to his billing. He was the ACC rookie of the year in 2009 and a second-team All-American in 2010. He was named ACC player of the year last month, then added yet another honor this week when made the All-America first team.

“I don’t expect to stop Steele Stanwick,” Tierney said.

Few teams do. In his two NCAA tournament games this year, Stanwick has six goals and nine assists. For the season, he leads UVa with 64 points, on 29 goals and 35 assists. Junior attackman Chris Bocklet has been on the receiving end of many of Stanwick’s passes.

“I love playing with him,” said Bocklet, who has a team-high 41 goals this season. “He’s a team player all the way. He’s all about improving the guys’ skills around him, and that’s what he does every day.”

Never mind that Denver was awarded a better seed than UVa in this tourney. Tierney has tried to cast his team as the underdog in this semifinal.

“You don’t stop a team like Virginia,” he said on an NCAA teleconference Tuesday. “There are guys on their bench that could start for us. We know what we’re up against. This isn’t going to be: Stop Steele Stanwick or Bocklet. This is going to be: Try to control them to a point where you have a shot. If we didn’t have such a good offense, I would say to you it’s probably pretty much an impossible task.”

The Cavaliers played at M&T Bank Stadium last season, losing by one goal to eventual champion Duke in the NCAA semifinals. UVa beat Cornell at the Ravens’ stadium this spring.

“I don’t think we’ll get overwhelmed by the atmosphere of it all,” Starsia said Friday. “At the same time, I think our experience gives us the ability to understand fully that this is a precious opportunity, and who knows if you’re going to get another one? This is the one we need to take advantage of.”

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