By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Heading into Memorial Day weekend, he qualified as little more than a minor character in the tale of the UVa men’s lacrosse team’s tumultuous 2011 season. Then came the Final Four in Baltimore, where Mark Cockerton stepped out of the shadows and helped the Cavaliers capture the NCAA title.
He wasn’t through. In August, Cockerton starred for the team that won the coveted Minto Cup in Alberta, Canada, which means he’s soon to be sporting two championship rings.
“He’s had a pretty good couple months,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “The Minto Cup is a huge deal for those kids. If we had told him that if he played in the Minto Cup he couldn’t come back to school, I’m not sure he would have come back to school. I’m serious. Those players are not going to walk away from their town teams. Because that’s what it is: towns and locales. It’s their national championship.”
For those unfamiliar with the Minto Cup — that would be most people in the United States — it’s the trophy awarded annually to the top junior (ages 21 and under) men’s lacrosse team in Canada.
“Back home, I guess it’s pretty much the same as winning the NCAA,” said Cockerton, a second-year student from Oshawa, Ontario, about an hour drive from Toronto.
The NCAA championship trophy goes to the top team in what’s known as field lacrosse. This version of the sport, most popular in the U.S., is played outdoors, with 10 players on a team and a 6-foot by 6-foot goal at each end.
More popular in Canada is box lacrosse, which is played indoors on hockey rinks, with the ice removed or covered. There are six players on a side, and the goals are 4×4. Like their counterparts in ice hockey, goalies wear big, bulky pads, and so box lacrosse demands special skills from shooters.
“The goalie takes up 90 percent of the net,” said Cockerton, 20, whose older brother, Matt, also plays for Virginia. “You gotta shoot post. In field, you can aim like two feet inside the net and still score.”
Starsia has coached several Canadians during his long tenure at UVa, Garrett Billings and A.J. Shannon among them. Virginia’s Hall of Fame coach marvels at their stick skills and shooting technique.
“When you watch Canadian kids score, when you see their skill level around the cage, you wonder to yourself, ‘Jeez, are we teaching kids [in the U.S.] the wrong things?’ ” Starsia said.
“They’re more effective, they’re more efficient around the goal than we are. But I would say that it’s just the culture of the game of box lacrosse. Almost every shot you take in box lacrosse there’s a goalie in the goal, and those goalies are so padded up. So every time a Canadian kid takes a shot on a goal that’s smaller to start with, he’s shooting in the most realistic manner possible.”
Americans tend to focus on “velocity and accuracy when we’re talking about shooting,” Starsia said. “I remember when [Canada native and former Syracuse great] Paul Gait came and spoke to our team one time, and he talked about velocity, accuracy and thinking, deception. There’s just another piece to the puzzle that the Canadian kids learn that our kids don’t spend a lot of time on.
“Surrounded by some of our guys, these Canadian kids can just be great [in field lacrosse]. They bring such a special skill. If you have a guy that knows how to get himself open a little bit, your players develop the confidence to throw him balls that they wouldn’t throw to other guys. Their skills in close quarters are uncanny.”
Cockerton said: “Playing box, I think, makes you an overall better lacrosse player. That’s why I encourage guys on our team now to come stay with me for the summer and play box. It really helps your game. After shooting on a 4×4 net, coming back and shooting on a 6×6, I think it’s easy.”
A 5-10, 175-pound left-hander, Cockerton picked up box lacrosse when he was 8. A couple of years later, he began playing field lacrosse, too. He didn’t have to look far to find a role model, indoors and outdoors.
His father, Stan Cockerton, was a legendary box player in Oshawa who also starred in field lacrosse at NC State. He made the All-America first team three times and scored 193 career goals — an NCAA record until 2008, when another Canadian, Duke’s Zack Greer, passed Cockerton.
Mark Cockerton arrived at UVa last summer as a heralded recruit, and he was expected to contend for a starting spot on the attack. But he had been forced to sit out the box season in Canada because of recurring problems with his right shoulder, and when he dislocated it again early in fall practice at Virginia, doctors decided Cockerton needed surgery.
He had an operation in October and didn’t resume practicing with the team until mid-February. Cockerton started four games on the attack during the regular season but wasn’t especially effective.
Had All-America midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton remained in good standing in the program, Cockerton might well have been relegated to a secondary role in the NCAA tournament. But the Bratton twins’ departures before the regular-season finale prompted the coaching staff to move two attackmen, Cockerton and Matt White, to the midfield, and both flourished there.
For the season, Cockerton totaled 13 goals and four assists. Six of those 17 points came at the Final Four. In Virginia’s semifinal rout of Denver, Cockerton had three goals and an assist. In the championship game, he contributed two assists as UVa avenged its regular-season loss to ACC rival Maryland.
“I would certainly like to think that people only just saw the tip of the iceberg last spring on the final weekend,” Starsia said. “He brings an awful lot to the table. I think as much as anything, he just hadn’t played a lot of lacrosse for about two years because of the shoulder. It took him a while, half the spring, to get up to speed. We’re the kind of team that can really take advantage of his skills, and I think he’s got a lot to add to what we do.”
Cockerton plays box lacrosse for the Whitby Warriors, an exceptionally tight-knit group. “Everyone on our team I’ve really been playing with since I was, like, 8 years old,” he said. “It makes it even better.”
The Minto Cup title was Whitby’s first since 1999. In the best-of-three championship series, Cockerton scored four goals in the third game to help the Warriors beat the Coquitlam Adanacs 12-7 in Okotoks, Alberta. His teammates included such college players as Denver’s Mark Matthews, Johns Hopkins’ Zach Palmer and Cornell’s Dan Lintner.
In box lacrosse, Cockerton’s position this summer was one that required him to play both offense and defense, and he’s likely to stay at middie for the Wahoos. He’s eager to play a significant role from Day One as a sophomore.
“Last year I really didn’t do that much until the Final Four,” Cockerton said. “This year, after playing lacrosse all summer, I feel a lot more comfortable and more confident that I can have a pretty big impact on the team this year.”
OFF AND RUNNING: Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at UVa, opens fall practice every year with a conditioning test, a 300-yard run that reveals which players took their offseason training seriously.
This year, Starsia said, “four of the top six fastest guys were [junior Chris] LaPierre, [sophomore Rob] Emery, [senior Colin] Briggs and [freshman] Ryan Tucker. So when your four biggest, strongest middies are also your best-conditioned, fastest kids, you feel like that’s a good sign.
“So that was encouraging. I think this is as well-conditioned a group as we’ve had at this time of year. I’m not going overboard, but I think we start off from a pretty good place. I think the kids came back ready to go.”
Virginia’s first fall scrimmage is Oct. 6 at Lynchburg College. On Oct. 15, the Cavaliers will take part in the Play for Parkinson’s fund-raiser in Northern Virginia. UVa will have two scrimmages — one against Army and the other against Princeton — at Episcopal High School in Alexandria.