By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A story published in a Maryland newspaper on May 31 — the day after the UVa men’s lacrosse team won its fourth NCAA title under Dom Starsia — declared that speculation was rampant that the Hall of Fame coach’s retirement was imminent.
“I’ve been hearing that for two years,” Starsia said with a smile Tuesday in his McCue Center office. “People said that at the press conference [after Virginia’s NCAA semifinal loss in 2010] they expected the next words out of my mouth to be, ‘I’m done.’
“I got a call from [Bryant coach] Mike Pressler last Tuesday after the championship saying, ‘Dom, would you please put this to rest?’ “
The past two seasons have been extraordinarily trying at times for Starsia, 59. His father passed away in May 2010, days after one of Starsia’s players, George Huguely, was charged with the murder of Yeardley Love, a member of the UVa women’s lacrosse team.
This year, Starsia’s team struggled for much of the regular season, losing four of five games during one stretch, and by the time the NCAA tournament started, All-America midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton were no longer in uniform for the Cavaliers.
“With everything that’s gone on, and my age, I can understand [the speculation],” Starsia said. “I’m not offended by it. It was never my intent [to step down]. There were times when I felt like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I never felt like I’ve had enough of this.”
On his office desk is a blue lacrosse helmet, sent to him by Cascade, with the number 329 on the side. That’s how many games Starsia’s teams have won during his tenure as a head coach, a record at the Division I level.
The previous record of 326, held by Jack Emmer, fell May 21 when seventh-seeded UVa whipped second-seeded Cornell 13-9 in an NCAA quarterfinal in Hempstead, N.Y., not far from the Long Island town in which Starsia grew up, Valley Stream.
Next up for the Wahoos was the Final Four in Baltimore. UVa destroyed sixth-seeded Denver 14-8 in the NCAA semifinals and then, two days later, beat ACC rival Maryland 9-7 in the championship game at M&T Bank Stadium.
That made Virginia (13-5) the lowest seed ever to win the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament. The ‘Hoos also were the first five-loss team to be crowned. Starsia’s other championship teams — in 1999, 2003 and 2006 — had finished 13-3, 15-2 and 17-0, respectively.
“It’s still almost like a dream, this past season,” Starsia said. “People want to give me too much credit for what happened: ‘Dom, great scheme. Great plan.’ There were many days when we were simply trying to put one foot in front of the other. There was a lot of heartache this year, but I do think that in athletics what we’re always looking for is the team, or the guy, that gets up off the canvas. It’s a more compelling story than 2006, 17-0, No. 1 wire to wire.”
He laughed. “People say, ‘You did your best coaching job.’ Well, I did a good job in 2006. I got out of the way,” Starsia said.
“You’re always trying to do your best coaching job. With this one, there was more compelling stuff going on, and I understand why that captured everyone’s attention.”
Starsia’s coaching career began at his alma mater, Brown University, where he had played football and lacrosse. After a two-year stint as Brown’s head women’s soccer coach, he was an assistant coach in men’s lacrosse and men’s soccer before taking over the men’s lacrosse program in June 1982.
In 10 seasons at Brown, Starsia went 101-46. In 19 seasons at UVa, his record is 228-72.
“I don’t mean to sound boastful, but [the record is] a meaningful accomplishment, because it’s something that’s happened over so much time and has involved so many folks,” Starsia said. “I don’t think I’d have to work hard to convince anybody that this is not a one-man operation.
“I’m not playing tennis or golf or anything like that. I’m involved in a team sport, and I’ve had a lot of help along the way. Again, I think people can imagine the sacrifices my family’s had to make for me to be able to do this for this period of time.”
Starsia and his wife, Krissy Lasagna, have a son, Joe, and three daughters: Molly and twins Maggie and Emma.
“They all bought into this 34 years ago, when Krissy and I got married,” Starsia said. “But I missed both Molly and Joe’s college graduations [because of coaching obligations], and those kind of sacrifices have had to be made along the way, and everybody’s sort of pitched in and allowed me to be able to do this. It’s very much been a labor of love at home, but at the same time everybody’s had to make some sacrifices in order for us to do this.”
The Ivy League, Starsia realizes, is not typically a breeding ground for athletic coaches.
“People used to say that to me all the time when I first started,” he said. “I never thought I was going to stay in coaching. I always thought I was going to be an administrator.
“I actually applied to business schools. At first I didn’t think I was going to stay in athletics, and then when I decided to be a coach, I still always thought I was going to be an [athletic director], an athletic administrator at some point. People used to say to me all the time, ‘Ivy League guys don’t stay in coaching.’ I must have a gene defect. I prefer the atmosphere of a locker room to the cocktail party or those kind of settings. I still enjoy this as much as I ever have.”
Starsia played for and then coached under Cliff Stevenson at Brown before succeeding him as head lacrosse coach.
“I certainly learned a lot from him,” Starsia said. “I’ve had a lot of guys I’ve looked up to over the years. People have asked if there’s been a single influence, and I don’t know that that’s been the case. Frankly, I think I kind of grew into the profession. I had to kind of come to terms with my father’s asking me, “When are you going to get a real job?’ “
Later, Starsia said, other people would ask why he was still coaching or why he hadn’t moved into athletic administration.
“Along the way, I had to come to terms with what I do and knowing that this is what I love. This is probably who I am,” Starsia said.
“I’ve been very blessed. I tell people I feel like when I made this decision, I wasn’t choosing a job, I was choosing a life. This is the life that Krissy and I have chosen. It’s not without its complications and heartache, but certainly on balance it’s been a wonderful ride.”
Starsia’s second family consists of the players he’s coached and the men who have worked with him, including current assistants Marc Van Arsdale and John Walker.
Van Arsdale, Virginia’s associate head coach and offensive coordinator, spent six seasons on Starsia’s staff in the ’90s and then returned in July 2001.
“It starts, first and foremost, with Marc,” Starsia said. “There just couldn’t be a finer man and a finer coach. And it’s such a rare advantage for me for us to have been together all this time. I think for somebody like John Walker, it’s a little intimidating, because Marc and I, we now think alike without talking, and so John’s standing around and things are getting done, and he doesn’t realize how decisions were made, really. To have the utmost confidence in Marc, to be able to count him as a friend, is just a real joy for me in every way.
“I think of Chris Colbeck and Peter Lasagna and Hannon Wright and Mike Caravana, and then all the guys that have been the [No. 2 assistants] — John Walker and Doug Knight and Tucker Radebaugh, Conor Gill, David Curry. Such a who’s who of Virginia lacrosse and college lacrosse, all those guys are such great guys and have had everything to do with whatever success I’ve been able to have in my life.”
More success seems likely for Starsia at Virginia. He’ll have to replace several seniors, including defenseman Bray Malphrus, goalie Adam Ghitelman and midfielder John Haldy, three of the team’s four captains. But among the players with eligibility remaining are 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 first-team All-American and UVa’s other captain, last week received the Tewaaraton Trophy, given annually to the top player in the college game. Briggs, the most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament, was a second-team All-American, and LaPierre made the third team.
“We got a bunch of good kids coming back,” Starsia said.
In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, Starsia addressed a number of topics. Some of the highlights follow.
JW: Disciplinary issues kept the Brattons from playing in the NCAA tournament. Was it bittersweet to celebrate a national championship without them?
Starsia: “I don’t want to appear as if we’re beating up those boys in any way. I feel badly that they weren’t with us at the end of the year. People are talking about lessons learned and things like that, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here.
“Some of the personnel decisions we had to make brought me no joy. The fact that it worked out the way it did in the end was quite remarkable, really. There was a great personal investment in all these young guys, and you hate to have it not work out for anybody.”
JW: You’ve said that a number of the moves made by the coaching staff, including the switch to a zone defense, were born of necessity after the team lost the Brattons and [starting defenseman] Matt Lovejoy. Do you expect to adopt the same strategies in 2012?
Starsia: “I’ll be honest with you: When I look back at it, if you had offered me, let’s say, Ryan Flanagan of North Carolina, maybe one of the best defensemen in the country, if you’d offered him to me at the end of the season, I don’t think I would have [taken him]. We had the right blend of personalities and plan. If we were slightly more talented, that might not have worked.
“When we said to everybody on the team, ‘Every possession has to go through Steele’s hands,’ if one guy had said, ‘Wait a second, what about me?’ then it doesn’t work as well. The zone defense worked because we were scared [witless] that we couldn’t stop anybody. And so everybody said, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ If we’d replaced Harry with Ryan Flanagan or [former UVa star] Kenny Clausen, we’re not as good, frankly. We were the right combination of factors that came together. We had a plan that worked with the people we had. It doesn’t always work that well in athletics, but in this case it did.
“So to say that now we’re going to be a zone team the rest of the way, we’ll have to see what next year brings, I think, because maybe it won’t work as well with the people we have in place for next year. But we actually have enough people in place for next year that we could do exactly what we did. Offensively we could be the same team we were. We’ve essentially got everybody back.”
JW: UVa has never won back-to-back NCAA titles in men’s lacrosse. What makes that so difficult to do?
Starsia: “I think it’s just the emotional hurdles of everyone telling you how wonderful you are … I’ve read a number of coaches in other sports talking about how difficult it is to repeat. You’ve now gone through a year of people telling you how wonderful you are, and can you maintain that same edge in terms of preparation and focus and things like that?
“I listened to [Duke men’s lacrosse coach] John Danowski talk this past year about how, ‘We’re not defending the championship [that Duke won in 2010],’ and I agree with that, and I’ve said the same thing in other years. But maybe we should try to be the first team at UVa that’s ever repeated. I don’t talk a lot about winning, but maybe our theme should be, ‘Let’s do something that’s never been done around here.’
“We lose some important people, but you would look at us and say, ‘Boy, they got a chance to be pretty good.’ But the leadership of Haldy and Bray, especially, we gotta find a reservoir of that somewhere.
“I’ve often said that one player fully committed can lift a whole team, and in Bray, especially, and in John, a little more quietly, we had that, two guys that were uncompromisingly focused on what we were doing. Are we going to that same kind of attention to detail in 2012?
“When you’re looking just at personnel, you think, ‘Oh, we can replace Bray and John.’ But emotionally, that’s a lot to ask. Somebody’s going to have to step and fill that void. We got some good kids, but there’s some subtle things that John and Bray brought that we were just invaluable to this team and what we were able to do.”
JW: John Haldy finished his college career with modest statistics (30 goals and 18 assists), yet he was a central figure in the program, especially this year. What made him so valuable?
Starsia: “John’s greatest benefit may have been to soften Bray at times. Bray was sort of the hammer, and John was a little bit more the voice of reason for guys. So Bray would tell the team what they needed to hear, and John would put it in a way that they would listen to. Sort of the ying and the yang of those two had everything to do with what happened this year.
“We told John all the time, ‘You need to attack the goal the way you attacked the basket when we watched you play basketball [for The Haverford School],’ and he just never had that kind of confidence in himself. Everybody looked at him and said, ‘Look at the physical tools this kid has.’ But in the end, he had a rare career and certainly is going to go down as one of the great leaders of my lifetime.”
JW: How much does winning an NCAA title help in recruiting?
Starsia: “We’re just always trying to make the argument that if you choose Virginia, there’s a chance you’re going to play on the final day of the season. This just helps us make that argument with the kids.
“Especially in my years at Brown, when we weren’t in the playoffs or got out of the playoffs early, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to get out there and watch a lot more high school lacrosse and make some hay while those guys are getting ready for playoff games.’ You weigh that against being on ESPN on Memorial Day, the benefit of that overall, kids seeing you play and seeing a Virginia uniform on television.
“It’s why it’s so important for this program to be playing in the last 10 days of the season, when the attention paid to our sport is so disproportionate to the rest of the year. Again, it helps us legitimately make the argument that if you come here, you got a chance to be playing at the very end of the season.”
JW: How difficult will it be to replace Adam Ghitelman at goalie?
Starsia: “People are going to appreciate Adam’s ability outside the cage much more so next year, when we don’t have him there. If we were not great facing off, we got a lot of possessions back because our goalie was so good on loose balls around the goal. I think we’re going to have some kids that are going to be pretty good ball-stoppers, and we’re going to be good in the cage, but I think people are going to appreciate Adam’s field presence much more next year when we don’t have him here.”
JW: In Baltimore, Garett Ince and Brian McDermott took virtually all of your faceoffs, and they were seniors. Who fills those roles next season?
Starsia: “Every freshman midfielder that’s coming has faced off. The boy from Illinois” — Mick Parks — “was at about 85 percent the last two years. Ryan Tucker’s faced off, Tyler German has faced off. You got [rising senior] Ryan Benincasa back, and [rising sophomore] Tommy Kelly. LaPierre’s an option for us. We’ll be going into the season a little bit faceoff-by-committee again, and kind of see how it plays out.”