By Jeff White
BALTIMORE — Bray Malphrus generally avoids Internet message boards devoted to UVa lacrosse. In the middle of the season, though, when the Cavaliers were struggling, he couldn’t help himself.
Malphrus, a team captain, logged on to a popular website and, incredulously, read what some UVa “supporters” had posted.
“It was brutal,” Malphrus, a senior defenseman, recalled Saturday. “They wrote, ‘This season, it’s been a nightmare. I can’t wait for it to be over. I’m already looking forward to next season.’ And I was just like, ‘Wow. That’s great. This is awesome.’ “
Malphrus’ sarcasm was not lost on his audience at a postgame press conference at M&T Bank Stadium. If a segment of the fan base stopped believing, though, the UVa players never did. Nor did coaches Dom Starsia, Marc Van Arsdale and John Walker. And the Cavaliers’ collective persistence continues to be rewarded.
Virginia added another chapter to its remarkable 2011 story Saturday. In the NCAA semifinals, seventh-seeded UVa destroyed sixth-seeded Denver 14-8 before a crowd of 45,039. The ‘Hoos led 9-2 at halftime and 13-4 after three quarters.
“They were fantastic,” said Denver’s second-year coach, Bill Tierney, who knows something about fantastic teams, having won six NCAA titles during his illustrious tenure at Princeton.
And now the Cavaliers, who have won three NCAA crowns under Starsia, the most recent in 2006, will try to add another. UVa (12-5) meets ACC rival Maryland (13-4) in the championship game Monday at 3:30 p.m.
The unseeded Terrapins ousted defending NCAA champion Duke 9-4 in the second semifinal Saturday. Maryland, which has advanced to the title game for the first time in 13 years, has not won the NCAA championship since 1975.
In their regular-season meeting, Maryland rallied to beat UVa 12-7 at Scott Stadium on April 2. To Starsia, that was probably the low point of the season. His team was outhustled in the second half and appeared badly out of sync.
April brought two more losses — both to Duke — and UVa had to deal with the loss of starting defenseman Matt Lovejoy to a season-ending injury, the dismissal of All-America midfielder Shamel Bratton and the suspension of his twin, Rhamel, who hasn’t played in the NCAA tourney. Through it all, though, the other players persevered.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the 40 kids on our team,” said Malphrus, a senior who moved from long-stick midfielder to close defense last month. “They’ve done a great job remaining coachable. They’ve bought into all the schemes that the coaches have implemented. They’ve come out and executed on a daily basis. And so it’s really a testament to our team and willingness to change and believe in the coaching staff.”
On the day when his twin daughters, Maggie and Emma, turned 26, Starsia saw his players celebrate something special too. A week after pounding second-seeded Cornell 13-9 on Long Island, N.Y., the ‘Hoos were even more dominant against Denver. If you think Starsia is enjoying this season, you’re correct.
He coached teams that were more talented in 2008, ’09 and ’10, but Virginia lost in the NCAA semifinals in each of those seasons. This team, for all its flaws, has become the first from UVa since 2006 to reach the NCAA title game.
“I try not to be prone to hyperbole, but I’m not sure I’ve had a group that has played as close to its potential as this group has overall,” Starsia said Saturday. “Even when we were in some turmoil in the middle of the season, the core of this team was fun to be around.
“When you read about us from the outside looking in, you might think, ‘There’s a team that’s in a little bit of disarray,’ and it never really was the case.”
The Cavaliers faced more adversity against the Pioneers (15-3), who had hammered third-seeded Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals. Virginia was without junior midfielder Colin Briggs, a second-team All-American whom Starsia held out Saturday for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. But sophomore Matt White, who started in Briggs’ place, contributed two assists and a goal, and UVa still had junior attackman Steele Stanwick, who produced yet another gem.
“Anyone that knows enough about lacrosse to appreciate somebody’s skill level,” Starsia said, “I think everybody would say, ‘Boy, that kid has got really special skills. He’s got great hands and great eyes.’ Those are his physical skills. He’s also just a great kid, and his real skill is making the people around him better. He lifts everyone.”
Playing in his hometown, Stanwick totaled three goals and two assists against Denver. That gives him 20 points — nine goals and 11 assists — in three NCAA tournament games.
“It’s just a thrill to be back in Baltimore and to play well and get the win,” said Stanwick, the only Cavalier named to the All-America first team last week. “It means the world to me. We’ve been here two times in my career and haven’t been able to get over the hump. The job’s not done by any means, but we’re all excited, and we just couldn’t be happier for the opportunity on Monday.”
Junior attackman Chris Bocklet and freshman midfielder Mark Cockerton also scored three goals apiece for UVa. That Bocklet collected a hat trick is not surprising. After all, he leads Virginia with 44 goals this season.
The play of Cockerton, who also had an assist Saturday, was something of a revelation. He arrived at UVa last summer as a highly rated recruit, but he underwent shoulder surgery in early October and missed fall practice. Moreover, Cockerton had to learn a new position after moving from the attack late in the regular season.
“Clearly it was his high point today,” Starsia said. “For him, it’s like the beginning of the season, frankly, because he missed all of fall lacrosse, and he really hasn’t played lacrosse for a year. And so for him he’s just kind of hitting midseason form. It happens to be right here at the very end. Thankfully, with some of the adjustments we’ve had to make, we’ve had some guys like him ready to step up and do some things.
“He came in the office the other day and informed us that he wanted to do more, right off the bat. And you’re saying, ‘Well, you gotta earn your way, Son.’ But he may have done a little bit of that today.”
In a span of 37 seconds early in the fourth quarter, Denver scored three times to pull to 13-7, and UVa fans grew a little uneasy. At the 11:46 mark, though, Cockerton answered with a goal. Senior Brian McDermott won the ensuing faceoff for Virginia, and the Pioneers’ rally died there.
“You’re a little bit stuck in the second half there trying to find a balance between taking some time off the clock and being a little bit more deliberate perhaps, and also kind of keeping up the tempo as best you can,” Starsia said. “You knew that Denver was going to be able to take advantage of some of those things, but I never thought the game really got away from us.”
Denver sophomore Chase Carraro came in having won nearly 60 percent of his faceoffs this season. Against UVa, he won only 11 of 24.
“I would have liked to see us win more faceoffs,” Tierney said. “I think that was the key to the game.”
McDermott and classmate Garett Ince took the draws for Virginia, and their success made it all but impossible for Denver to sustain a rally.
“When you go up like that and you keep getting the ball back, it allows us to stay in the zone,” Stanwick said. “Like Coach said, if you could have scripted a first half how you wanted to do it, we pretty much did it. And a lot of that goes to the faceoff guys.”
Adam Ghitelman was a spectactor in this stadium in 2003 when Virginia goalie Tillman Johnson turned the Final Four into his personal highlight reel. Now a senior at UVa, Ghitelman sparkled in the cage Saturday, making 10 saves against a team that came in averaging 13 goals.
In front of Ghitelman, Virginia spent much of the game in a zone defense that, for the second straight week, seemed to confound a high-scoring offense. Junior attackmen Mark Matthews and Alex Demopoulos, who had combined for 74 goals and 52 assists through Denver’s first 17 games, had two goals and no assists between them Saturday.
“I think the zone without a doubt frustrates offenses,” Malphrus said, “especially when you go up and you have a lead and you sit back in a zone. For the opposing team, that’s pretty hard. Denver’s a great group, and they’re a classy bunch of kids, but you could hear the frustration out there, and that’s not the first time.”
The mood on the UVa side, of course, was much brighter.
“It’s a real thrill for us to consider that we’re playing on Monday,” Starsia said.