By Jeff White
BALTIMORE — He may never be considered lacrosse’s version of Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, but Dom Starsia has probably shed his longtime aversion to zone defense.
Virginia, which beat Maryland 9-7 for the NCAA title Monday, closed the season with five consecutive victories. During that run, the Cavaliers primarily played zone, a defense that until this season held little appeal to Starsia.
In recent days, Starsia said Monday evening, he has found himself “thinking, ‘What the heck? Why haven’t we been doing this more often in the past?’ I’ve been doing this for a long time, and my teams have always been, ‘Let’s get up the field as quick as we can and strike quickly on offense,’ and when that happens, the ball often turns and goes the other way. We put our goalies in precarious situations. We get ourselves stretched out sometimes.
“I always felt like we needed to build teams that [on defense] could go out and pressure people and get the ball back. I don’t hear anybody giving us too much credit for playing defense, but I’ll take a little, and I give an awful lot of credit to John Walker, a young assistant coach. When things were going bad, I made him the defensive coordinator, which was probably the smartest thing I did all year. I can’t take [that title] back now at the very end here. He deserves a lot of credit for what we were able to accomplish this year.”
The switch to the zone, Walker said, was “just a matter of necessity,” as Starsia has noted. After losing its best defenseman, Matt Lovejoy, to a season-ending shoulder injury in early April, UVa wasn’t experienced enough or athletic enough to effectively play man-to-man against its powerful ACC counterparts.
“There’s nothing you could really do to stop them,” Walker said, “so that was the only way we could think of to slow them down and at least make them earn every goal with a lot of ball movement.”
In the NCAA title game at M&T Bank Stadium, Virginia played zone defense about 85 percent of the time, Walker said.
“And also,” he said, “you can just run man at [an opponent] for a little while, and once you start switching back and forth, you create a little doubt, and it changes what they’re doing on offense, and they have to think instead of just going and attacking. That really plays into our hands and plays into the personnel that we do have. We have some slick sticks and guys who are actually more effective [back in a zone], and it just actually made us an overall better team defense, because it made us communicate and support each other more, even when we’re playing man.”
UNSUNG HERO: In January, Peter Krawczyk was named operations assistant for the men’s lacrosse team. That freed Walker from the administrative tasks that occupied much of his time last season.
“My job was 100 percent different this year,” Walker said Monday. “My job was being a lacrosse coach versus a travel agent, for the most part, especially at this time of the season. Your whole day is monopolized with team travel, because you turn it around in such a quick period of time, and Pete just took all that load off my plate.”
Krawczyk, who served as a team manager in 2010, graduated from UVa with a degree in religious studies that year. He played lacrosse at Gonzaga College High in Washington, D.C.
THE BEAT GOES ON: After two years in Baltimore, the NCAA is taking its lacrosse showcase north to New England in 2012. Don’t be surprised if UVa is one of the four Division I teams in Foxborough, Mass., next season.
Starsia will have to replace such departing seniors as defenseman Bray Malphrus, faceoff specialists Garett Ince and Brian McDermott, midfielder John Haldy and goalie Adam Ghitelman, but plenty of talent is expected back.
Cavaliers with eligibility remaining include attackmen Steele Stanwick, Chris Bocklet, Nick O’Reilly and Connor English; midfielders Rob Emery, Colin Briggs, Matt White, Mark Cockerton, Matt Kugler and Pat Harbeson; long-stick midfielders Chris Clements and Wyatt Melzer; defensive middies Chris LaPierre, Blake Riley and Bobby Hill; and defensemen Scott McWilliams, Harry Prevas and Matt Lovejoy.
Stanwick, a junior, was named to the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association’s All-America first team this month. Briggs, a redshirt junior, was a second-team pick, and LaPierre, a sophomore, made the third team, no small feat for a player at his position.
“For a kid early in his career, who really hasn’t spent a time in the offensive box, to get noticed by my peers says a lot about Chris and what he brings to the team,” Starsia said.
ON THE MEND: Lovejoy, a redshirt junior, played in 10 games this season before a shoulder injury sidelined him. He’s eager to resume his college career in 2012.
“It’s really hard being on the sideline, but [the NCAA title is] an incredible feeling,” Lovejoy said Monday night. “It’s such a team effort for us, coming through everything that we’ve been through in the past few years, all the expectations that we had coming in as a class. To go out like this, I couldn’t be happier for the guys and for myself. Everybody did a really good job of really making me feel like a part of things.”
After Lovejoy got hurt, Starsia shifted Malphrus from long-stick middie to close defense, and Clements made the opposite move. Lovejoy did all he could to ease Malphrus’ transition to a new position, and Malphrus referred to him the other day as a “player-coach.”
Lovejoy said: “I really appreciate that. He as well as many others did a great job of really including me and letting me know that I was still having an impact, even though I wasn’t able to quite have the impact that I would like to make myself.”
PIVOTAL SEQUENCE: Against Maryland’s stellar faceoff specialist, Curtis Holmes, Starsia tried three players in the first half Monday: Ince, McDermott and junior Ryan Benincasa. All struggled, as Holmes won 7 of 10 first-half draws.
The third quarter went much the same way, and when Ince met Holmes at midfield early in the fourth quarter, the Terrapins held a 10-4 advantage in faceoffs. Of even greater concern to Virginia: Maryland had scored three straight goals to pull to 6-6.
“I just knew something needed to happen,” Ince said after the game. “I just figured I was a senior and it was time to really step up and do something for the team. I did all I could and really clawed back into it.”
Ince won the next three faceoffs. By the time Holmes finally won another draw — against LaPierre, who conceded the faceoff and retreated to prevent a transition opportunity for the Terps — the Cavaliers led 9-6, with only 1:50 to play.
“How do you figure out those faceoff things?” Starsia said. “Why did we win three in a row just there at that moment?”
Whatever the reasons, Starsia was thrilled to see Ince come through at such a crucial time.
“I think it had everything to do with it, the fact that we won a couple draws right there and had possession of the ball,” Starsia said. “Even though it might be described as a lower scoring game, I felt like we had chances to score, but we had to get the ball. Both teams had long possessions, so faceoffs became more critical, and certainly in the beginning of the fourth quarter that had everything to do with us being able to climb back in the game.”
CLOSE CALL: In 2006, when the Cavaliers finished 17-0, they won by 12 goals in the NCAA quarterfinals, by seven in the semifinals and by eight in the championship game.
Virginia’s tightest postseason game that year? Its 14-10 win over Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament’s first round. UVa’s closest playoff game came in the first round this season, too.
Bucknell led Virginia by four goals late in the third quarter May 15 at Klöckner Stadium. With three minutes left in the fourth, the ‘Hoos still trailed by two, but they rallied to force overtime and then won 13-12 on White’s goal 87 seconds into the extra period.
“We barely pulled that one off, man,” Malphrus said.
Virginia’s associate head coach, Marc Van Arsdale, said Bucknell “had a better attack against our zone, probably, than any of the teams we’ve played since. But I think it’s also that we’ve gotten better, and the confidence you get from winning a game the way that we won that game, I think, had a big impact on how we were able to play [during the rest of the NCAA tournament].”
LOGGING ON: Malphrus was looking forward to visiting TheSabre.com’s lacrosse message board, where last month he came across harshly critical posts that astounded him during a rough stretch for the Cavaliers.
“Oh, yeah. I can’t wait to get on there,” Malphrus said. “You better believe it. I want to find that guy who said, ‘I can’t wait for the season to be over.’ I want to shake his hand.”
TEAM EFFORT: Late in the third quarter, with UVa leading 6-4, Starsia put the ball in the stick of Kugler, a second-team midfielder from Northern Virginia who ran some time off the clock as instructed. At other important moments, Starsia had reserves such as Hill, English, Cockerton and Melzer in the game Monday.
“Right off the bat I would tell you that I have spent some time by myself these past few days,” Starsia said later, “wondering to myself if I’ve been doing this wrong my whole life, because things that were probably born of necessity this year just seem like the right thing to do. There are probably more kids standing on the bench that are ready to make plays and do some things than I’m ready to give credit to, and I think most coaches probably feel the same way. You feel like you’re going to put your best players out there and keep them out there as long as you can.
“But what has made this particularly satisfying is that we’ve had to turn to some different guys. They almost have always responded. They’ve had a smile on their face. It’s nice that more guys are able to share in this case than is ordinarily the case with a team like ours.”
ANOTHER GEAR: Of the Cavaliers who played significant minutes Monday, Briggs was the only one who sat out the semifinal against Denver on Saturday. He would have preferred to have played — Starsia held out Briggs over an undisclosed team matter — but the extra rest appeared to pay dividends for No. 34 on a day when the temperature on the turf climbed to about 120 degrees.
“Yeah, I guess I was fresher,” said Briggs, who scored a career-high five goals and was named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “I felt good. It was obviously [hot], so everyone was feeling it, but I definitely felt fresh. Especially late in the game, I felt like I was able to still move pretty well.”