By Jeff White
BALTIMORE — On a charter bus headed back to Virginia from Long Island last weekend, Rob Emery was directed to look out the window and take in Manhattan’s majestic skyline.
“That’s what I’m talking about, Emery — New York City!” shouted one of his fellow passengers, a native of the Empire State.
Emery, a graduate of St. Ignatius in San Francisco, has grown accustomed to such barbs from his UVa lacrosse teammates.
“They’re just messing around, and being the kid from the West Coast, it’s kind of expected,” Emery said Friday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium. “I think it’s humorous, and I laugh at it.”
Senior goalie Adam Ghitelman, who’s from Long Island, said the team’s veterans mess with all the first-year players, and Emery is “a pretty boy from California. We like to poke fun at him, but he’s a great guy, and he takes it well.”
On a team stocked with players who grew up on this side of the country, Emery stands out, and not only because of his San Francisco roots. With All-America midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton no longer on the Cavaliers’ active roster, the 6-3, 195-pound freshman has assumed a starting role this postseason.
Emery, whose father played lacrosse (and three other sports) at Amherst College, hasn’t looked out of place. That he’s a precocious talent has been clear since his first practice with the Wahoos in the fall.
“It didn’t take long to realize that the kid could play,” Ghitelman said. “He’s got one of the best shots on our team. It’s not just the speed, it’s the form and the accuracy he has on his shot that really makes him special as a shooter. From Day One, he was putting shots past me, right by my ear.”
Emery has 12 goals and 6 assists for seventh-seeded Virginia (11-15), which meets sixth-seeded Denver (15-2) in the first NCAA semifinal Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium. By comparison, Shamel Bratton had 14 goals and 4 assists as a freshman in 2008, and his twin, Rhamel, had 10 goals and 6 assists.
Is this more than Emery expected to contribute as a freshman?
“Entirely,” he said. “Coming in, I was just hoping to get on the field, whatever way possible. If that was just stepping on and helping clear the ball or something, I would have been happy. Being able to do this is a dream come true, and I’m happy to fill that role and do whatever I need to do to help the team.”
There was a time in his coaching career, Dom Starsia acknowledged this week, when he might have been skeptical if told that UVa’s starting offensive middies would one day include a San Franciscan.
“I’ve been saying for years and years that as the game has grown, we’re getting more athletic kids from these other areas, the Midwest and the West and places like that, but that the skilled kids were still basically East Coast kids,” Starsia said.
“Rob Emery is someone who begins to sort of change that paradigm a little bit. He’s an athletic kid who’s just got wonderful skills. He shoots the ball on a very, very high level.”
The rosters of UVa and Denver reflect the dramatic growth of lacrosse. At Virginia, players from the sport’s traditional hotbeds, New York and Maryland, still abound, but Florida, Illinois and North Carolina are among the other states represented in Starsia’s program. Moreover, the recruiting class that signed with UVa in November includes two players from Colorado.
Denver has players from such states as Colorado, Minnesota, Kentucky, Arizona, California, Missouri and Florida.
“I think if you’re looking to build a team, you can now find a great one from anywhere,” Pioneers coach Bill Tierney said. “We’re going to add to our 20-state coffers next year with a kid from Indiana and a kid from Tennessee as well.”
Virginia attackman Chris Bocklet, who’s from New York, has seen the future of the game.
“Everyone’s going to be picking up lacrosse,” Bocklet said. “It’s a fun sport. We can’t hide it forever. All the New York and Baltimore guys, we’re going to have to give it up eventually. It’ll still be going strong in our areas, but it’s moving West.”
When he first saw Emery on the field, Bocklet recalled, “I said, ‘This guy should be a D-I football quarterback.’ He’s tall, he’s fast, and he’s one of the most athletic kids on our team. But that’s what’s going to happen now. Now that the sport’s growing, these kids are going to be popping out, these kids with these big, athletic builds that are going to be playing lacrosse. Maybe I lucked out a little bit, because I’m a 6-0, 175-pound guy who’s managing it. I’m just excited to see that the sport’s growing, and I’m really excited to meet the [recruits] that are coming in from Colorado. It’s awesome.”
In the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic, Virginia beat Cornell 11-9 at M&T Bank Stadium in March. That game drew about 17,000 fans. The crowd Saturday afternoon may be close to three times that size.
“It’s incredible just looking out there and imagining what it’s going to be looking like tomorrow filled up with however many people,” Emery said Friday after practice at the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium. “It’s going to be a lifetime experience, something you remember forever.”