By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He arrived at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2008 as a highly regarded recruit from Essex Fells, N.J.
Three-and-a-half years later, goalie Rob Fortunato’s time has finally come in the UVa men’s lacrosse program. After three seasons as a backup — the past two as Adam Ghitelman’s understudy — Fortunato has moved into a starting role this season. The early reviews have been overwhelming positive.
“He’s doing an amazing job,” defenseman Matt Lovejoy said Saturday. “He’s seeing the ball really well, and we have so much confidence in him. I was asked earlier about the transition from Adam to Rob, and there hasn’t been a transition. We picked up where we left off.”
Lovejoy’s comments came a few minutes after top-ranked UVa wrapped up a 12-5 win over Stony Brook before a crowd of 2,221 on a chilly, blustery day at Klöckner Stadium. Before heading to the sideline with 85 seconds left, Fortunato made a career-high 14 saves to help the Cavaliers improve to 3-0.
On an afternoon when senior attackman Steele Stanwick became only the third player in school history to record 100 career goals and 100 career assists, and fifth-year senior midfielder Colin Briggs had a career-high 7 points, Virginia coach Dom Starsia gave the game ball to Fortunato, a 6-1, 200-pound senior who wears jersey No. 18.
“It’s early in the season, but already he’s played more lacrosse than he has in the first three years of his career,” Starsia said. “And to have him step up and play very well today, as a coach these are some of the most gratifying things that happen, when a player has put his time in and then finally gets rewarded for it. It doesn’t happen all the time, but he has earned this opportunity and he’s making the most of it.”
With Ghitelman in the cage, UVa advanced to the NCAA semifinals in 2009 and ’10 and captured the NCAA title in 2011. Many of the stars of that championship team are back this season, including attackmen Stanwick and Chris Bocklet and midfielders Briggs, Rob Emery and Chris LaPierre, but Ghitelman’s departure left a significant hole at goalie.
“A lot of people were talking about it like it was a question mark, but there wasn’t really any doubt [inside the program] in anybody’s mind [about Fortunato],” said Lovejoy, a fifth-year senior whose brother Ben plays for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
“He’s done a great job for us. He was lights-out today. In lacrosse, if you give up five goals, that’s more of a hockey score than a lacrosse score.”
It helps that Fortunato has a veteran defense in front of him. Lovejoy, junior Harry Prevas and sophomore Scott McWilliams started at least eight games apiece in 2011, and the team’s top long-stick midfielder, Chris Clements, is a fifth-year senior.
Asked if he ever considered leaving UVa to seek more playing time elsewhere, Fortunato shook his head.
“It was never like that,” he said. “The team comes first. It was nothing personal between us. We are best friends. In terms of waiting behind Adam, I just knew my time would come, and I tried to keep working hard, keep pushing Adam for the best of the team.
“When I was coming here, I knew we had a good goalie in Adam Ghitelman, and I did learn a lot behind Adam. Right now I just have to focus on being responsible, accountable for my actions, and keeping the ball out of the back of the net.”
Coming into this season, Fortunato had started one game for the Wahoos: the 2011 opener against Drexel. With Ghitelman serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules, Fortunato stepped in and made 12 saves in a 12-9 win over the Dragons.
“I would tell you that that game was of great comfort to me in this offseason,” Starsia said, “knowing that at least he’d had a little bit of experience and that he had stepped up and played well in that spot. Everything for him is new and first time, generally, but he’s a great kid, and he’s certainly prepared for this.”
Stanwick echoed his head coach.
“Rob has patiently waited, and it’s really, really great to see him doing so well and excelling,” Stanwick said. “Ever since Drexel last year, you could tell that he’s kind of a gamer.”
Stony Brook (0-2) got to Fortunato early Saturday, scoring the game’s first two games. But the ‘Hoos steadied themselves and unleashed a barrage of weapons that may be unrivaled in the college game.
By the time Starsia made mass substitutions in the fourth quarter, several of the Cavaliers’ starters had put up big numbers. Briggs had 3 goals and a career-high 4 assists, Stanwick had 2 goals and 3 assists, sophomore midfielder Mark Cockerton had 2 goals and an assist, and redshirt freshman attackman Owen Van Arsdale had 2 goals.
Another standout was freshman Mick Parks, who won 11 of 16 faceoffs.
“We’re going to go with the hot hand facing off, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Starsia said. “He stepped up today and did a really nice job for us. He certainly had a lot to do with us getting control of the game.”
Through three games, the Cavaliers are averaging 13.3 goals. “At the same time we haven’t been sharp enough, either,” Starsia said.
“We certainly should have had a couple more goals early today and could have gotten control of the game a little quicker. Even going into the fourth quarter, I wasn’t completely comfortable. I think in general we just need to be a little sharper. We’re working. I have no quarrel with the effort, and if it comes down to that, I like our chances. But as our schedule stiffens here, we’re also going to have to clean things up a little bit.”
Virginia visits Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday. Then the ‘Hoos will shift their focus to Syracuse, which comes to Klöckner next Sunday for a 4:30 p.m. game. ESPN will televise the latest installment of what has become the sport’s most entertaining rivalry.
UVa has plenty to play for this season. The Cavaliers have won four NCAA titles under Starsia (1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011) and five in all. Never, however, have the ‘Hoos repeated as NCAA champions.
“We welcome that challenge,” Stanwick said. “It’s hard to do. No one’s ever done it here, at a program like UVa, so it’s definitely a tough task. But to a certain extent we put last year behind us, and we’re just going out and playing. We know how hard it is to win, and we know it takes a lot of effort. And knowing what it takes, I think it gives us a little bit of an advantage. At the same time, we’re playing from the front and we’ve got a bull’s eye on our back, but like Coach said, we embrace that. It’s kind of why you come to UVa to play.”