By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The defending NCAA champion in men’s lacrosse opened the season with a one-goal victory over an opponent that’s not ranked among the nation’s top 20 teams in the latest USILA coaches’ poll.
No. 1 UVa, which trailed 4-3 at halftime, rallied to edge Drexel 9-8 in Philadelphia last season. Don’t read too much into his team’s slim margin of victory, cautioned Virginia coach Dom Starsia.
“It wasn’t necessarily a work of art, but it was a good, solid win on the road against a team that I think is going to win some games,” said Starsia, who has guided the Cavaliers to four NCAA titles.
When the teams met at Drexel in the 2010 season opener, Starsia noted, they were tied with four minutes to play. Virginia went on to win 11-8 and advanced to the NCAA semifinals that year.
When the Wahoos hosted the Dragons in Charlottesville last year, the teams were tied early in the fourth quarter. The ‘Hoos pulled away for a 12-9 victory in the opening game of a season that ended with an NCAA championship celebration in Baltimore.
“It’s a little bit like what happens in the scrimmages,” Starsia said this week. “Drexel is a team that certainly flies a little under the radar for folks. I think our team takes them seriously. At the same time, [the Dragons] essentially have eight months to prepare for the national champion coming to their place. For us, we’re certainly focused on our first game, but it’s just invariably not going to rise to the same emotional peak that it would for them.
“You go back and look at a lot of the scrimmage scores. Almost in every instance, the team that was more excited to scrimmage kind of beat the team that was less excited to scrimmage. It would actually make me uncomfortable, I think, for us to dominate somebody in a scrimmage. I almost always come out of those things feeling we’re a little better off if we’re still a little chafed and realizing we have work to do. It’s a little easier to get their attention, and I think that was clearly the case here.”
In its second game, UVa crushed an outmatched VMI team 19-5 at Klöckner Stadium on Tuesday night. Now comes another home game for Virginia, which hosts Stony Brook (0-1) at noon Saturday at Klöckner. The game can be seen on ESPN3.
“We’ve sort of grinded it out for two games,” Starsia said. “We haven’t been as sharp overall, especially offensively, as we thought we might be early. We just need to continue to work at it.”
This marks the seventh straight year that Stony Brook has been on UVa’s regular-season schedule. The teams also met in the NCAA quarterfinals in 2010, and the Cavaliers needed an extraordinary effort to win 10-9 at Stony Brook. Virginia headed back to Long Island, N.Y., early last season and claimed another one-goal victory over Stony Brook, this time winning 11-10.
Saturday’s game may not be as close. Since finishing 10-4 last season, the Seawolves have lost their head coach — Rick Sowell left for Navy — and many of their 2011 standouts, including Kevin Crowley, Tom Compitello, Jordan McBride and faceoff specialist Adam Rand.
Stony Brook still has “a couple names that people may recognize, but it’s also a very different team,” Starsia said.
UVa, by contrast, returned numerous standouts from its NCAA championship team, including attackmen Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet, midfielders Colin Briggs, Rob Emery, Matt White, Mark Cockerton, Pat Harbeson and Matt Kugler, faceoff specialist Ryan Benincasa, long-stick middies Chris Clements and Wyatt Melzer, defensive middies Chris LaPierre and Bobby Hill, and defensemen Scott McWilliams, Harry Prevas and Matt Lovejoy.
The Cavaliers’ new starters are attackman Owen Van Arsdale and goalie Rob Fortunato. Van Arsdale, a redshirt freshman, has 4 goals and an assist this season. His father, Marc, is UVa’s associate head coach.
Fortunato, a senior, backed up Adam Ghitelman in 2009, ’10 and ’11. Through two games, Fortunato has 15 saves.
“I think that in both the games that he’s played so far, he’s been very good,” Starsia said. “He’s certainly met our expectations so far. We’re clearing the ball well, so that hasn’t been an issue, and that was something we were keeping an eye on early.”
Several freshmen are expected to contribute this season, including middies Ryan Tucker and Tyler German, faceoff specialist Mick Parks and defenseman Greg Danseglio. Overall, though, this is a veteran team. UVa’s starters include three fifth-year seniors: Lovejoy, Clements and Briggs, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s NCAA tourney.
Lovejoy missed UVa’s final eight games with a shoulder injury last season, and Starsia is delighted to have him back in the lineup.
“He’s very much a communicator back there and helps us get organized,” Starsia said. “It’s like having a coach on the field with Matt out there.”
The same is true, of course, with Stanwick, the 2011 recipient of the Tewaaraton Trophy, awarded annually to the top player in college lacrosse. After being held without a point in the opener, the 6-0, 190-pound senior from Baltimore bounced back to collect 2 goals and 5 assists against VMI.
Five players totaled at least 3 points apiece — Stanwick, Bocklet, White and brothers Mark and Matt Cockerton — for UVa in its home opener.
“Maybe last night is an indication that we’re headed in the direction that we hope to be going,” Starsia said Wednesday.
NOTE: Lacrosse fans who park in the University Hall lots must vacate those spaces by 2:30 p.m. Saturday. UVa plays North Carolina in men’s basketball at John Paul Jones Arena at 4 p.m.