By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BALTIMORE — For the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team, a season that began with frigid late-winter practices will end with a nationally televised game played in scorching heat.
“It’s been quite a ride for us, and I give our guys a lot of credit,” UVa coach Dom Starsia said.
Along the way, the Cavaliers have encountered numerous obstacles, some of their own making. There have been injuries, suspensions, dismissals, long travel delays. But perseverance and resiliency have become the trademarks of this team, and now UVa has an opportunity to win the fifth NCAA championship in program history.
“No matter what your name is, what position you are on the bench, you gotta be ready to play,” senior midfielder John Haldy said. “You got a Virginia jersey on, you gotta be ready to play. And that’s kind of the mentality we’ve been having.”
At M&T Bank Stadium, where the game-time temperature is expected to approach 100 degrees, seventh-seeded UVa (12-5) will meet unseeded Maryland (13-4) for the NCAA title at 3:30 p.m. Monday. ESPN will televise the game.
After bowing out in the NCAA semifinals in 2008, ’09 and ’10, Virginia finally broke through again Saturday with a 14-8 rout of sixth-seeded Denver.
This is the 19th season at UVa for Starsia, and he has won three NCAA titles (1999, 2003 and 2006). Still, the notion that this team, which stumbled through most of April, might contend for a national championship in May struck many as far-fetched when the NCAA tournament began.
And so this Final Four “just feels vastly different than the previous couple years,” Starsia said. “I’m really proud of these guys, and it’s been quite a journey to get here.
“We’re really grateful that we have this opportunity, and look forward to playing in this thing. I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning, frankly, but this is still very special.”
Maryland advanced with a 9-4 thrashing of defending NCAA champion Duke. The Terrapins, who are chasing their first NCAA title since 1975, have had a painful spring, too. Maria Young, the mother of senior attackman Ryan Young, died April 17 after a four-year fight with pancreatic cancer.
“You think of some of the things that [the Terps] had to get through this year, and some of the things that we’ve had to get through,” Starsia said at a press conference Sunday. “I’ll be honest with you: It’s why you guys are in this room and why we’re sitting up here. Participation in sports seems to provide a different storyline week in and week out.”
One of the major storylines in this game is obvious to even a lacrosse novice: Virginia’s high-scoring offense versus Maryland’s suffocating defense.
In their three NCAA tournament games, the Wahoos have scored 40 goals. The Terps have allowed 15 goals in their 180 minutes of tournament play.
“It could be a little low scoring [Monday],” Starsia said, “but I don’t think it’s going to be for a lack of action out there.”
In freshman Niko Amato, Maryland has an outstanding goalie, and he’s surrounded by experienced defensemen and long-stick midfielders, including seniors Brett Schmidt and Brian Farrell.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us generating opportunities,” Starsia said, “so there may be less of them than we’ve been able to generate in the past couple of weeks. We’re going to really have to make the most of what we’re doing offensively and be very efficient at that end of the field to score enough goals to win this thing.”
When these teams met April 2 at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers managed only two second-half goals against the Terrapins and lost 12-7. UVa’s All-America attackman, Steele Stanwick, limped through the game on an injured right foot and contributed only one point: a first-quarter goal.
That was also the game in which Virginia’s best defenseman, redshirt junior Matt Lovejoy, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and a game that All-America midfielder Shamel Bratton, whom Starsia later dismissed from the program, missed for violating team policies.
“I would say that game in some ways was sort of the low point for us,” Starsia said Sunday.
Haldy agreed. He’s one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with Stanwick, defenseman Bray Malphrus and goalie Adam Ghitelman.
“We were definitely hurting a little bit after the last time we played Maryland,” Haldy said.
UVa has changed in significant ways since that humbling defeat. The Bratton brothers, midfielders Shamel and Rhamel, are no longer in uniform, and the offense now runs through a healthier Stanwick.
In the regular-season finale, an 11-2 win over Penn, the junior from Baltimore tied his career high with five assists. In the NCAA tournament, Stanwick has nine goals and 11 assists.
“On this stage, in this setting, at this level, at this time of the year, you need your big boys to step up and play,” Starsia said, “and he’s obviously one of our best guys.”
Virginia’s other weapons include junior attackman Chris Bocklet, who leads the team with 44 goals this season, and junior midfielder Colin Briggs, who has 24 goals and 12 assists. Briggs was held out of the Denver game for disciplinary reasons but will be available against Maryland.
The loss of Lovejoy led Starsia to retool a defense that had struggled even with Lovejoy. Malphrus, the starting long-stick midfielder, and Chris Clements, a starter on close defense, switched positions. Equally important was the decision of Starsia, a devotee of aggressive man-to-man defense, to have his team play zone for extended stretches.
“Obviously Matt was a great defenseman, and it was huge losing him,” Clements said Sunday. “We knew we had to change our identity a little bit.
“The zone helped take away a lot of the problems we were having off-ball … The zone just made us more effective as we got better with it, to cover some teams that would have given us problems previously.”
Malphrus, for one, hated the move to zone, and he didn’t hesitate to share his feelings with UVa’s defensive coaches — Starsia and assistant John Walker.
“It was brutal,” Malphrus said Saturday. “I was at Coach Walker’s throat every day in practice … I really doubted it at first. But he pulled me aside one day and he’s like, ‘Just believe in me and believe in what I’m doing.’ And I had a similar talk with Coach Starsia, and he was just like, ‘You’ve got to believe in us.’ ”
The mohawked Malphrus smiled.
“At this age, you think you know everything, but you’re really still pretty young, dumb and stupid, and Coach Starsia’s been doing this for his life, and his livelihood’s resting on this here,” Malphrus said. “I think he knows a little bit more about it than I do.”
Starsia’s first season as a head coach was 1983, at Brown, his alma mater. With 328 career coaching victories, Starsia is the all-time leader at the Division I level. He’s seen an explosion of interest and participation in lacrosse, and he knows that when the No. 7 seed ends up facing an unseeded opponent for the NCAA title, it’s worth noting.
“It’s a very exciting time in our sport right now,” Starsia said. “We would have said before this tournament started that there were eight or nine teams that had a crack at this thing realistically. We’ve never really believed that before, and it’s played out just that way.
“Denver being here, that’s a huge statement for our sport. Michigan adding lacrosse: huge statement for our sport. It’s what has sort of attracted the national attention to men’s lacrosse, that it’s a sport on the move.
“It may take a little longer than we all think or hope for Michigan to be playing USC in the Rose Bowl in a lacrosse game, but people are dreaming that that’s possible some day. It’s why I think that this whole thing kind of jumps off the page at you this year, because there are a lot of interesting things that have happened across the board.”