March 25, 2012

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The rain passed, the clouds parted and the sun finally emerged at Klöckner Stadium. In the end, though, the one thing that would have made this a glorious spring day for the UVa men’s lacrosse team — a victory over longtime rival Johns Hopkins– eluded the Cavaliers.

After winning its final five games in 2011 and its first eight this season, Virginia was reminded Saturday how painful defeat can be. Second-ranked Hopkins scored with 5 seconds left in overtime to edge No. 1 UVa 11-10 before a stunned crowd of 6,899.

For the Cavaliers, the loss was their first since April 22, 2011, when Duke defeated them in the ACC tournament.

Junior midfielder John Ranagan, a first-team All-American last season, scored the game-winner for the Blue Jays (8-0), who prevailed at Klöckner for the first time since 1998. Ranagan stands 6-3 and weighs 210 pounds, and “you just can’t contain him with one guy, really,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “He’s a big horse, and they got him in the right spot, with basically no time left on the clock, with his hands free, and he makes the play.”

ACC play begins next weekend for UVa, which takes on Maryland in College Park in a rematch of last year’s NCAA championship game. Already, though, the Wahoos have faced such powers as Syracuse, Cornell and Hopkins. Each foe entered the game determined to knock off the reigning NCAA champion.

Wearing the crown has not been a burden for the ‘Hoos, Starsia told reporters Saturday, but “I think what happens is that we go play these teams, and we get everybody’s attention … When we’re going to play a team of [Hopkins’] caliber, we have to play closer to a mistake-free game than we did today.

“It’s a learning experience. We’ve been talking about this, that we haven’t played a complete game yet, and this was a team that made us pay for that.”

With 2:44 left in the fourth quarter, freshman midfielder Ryan Tucker scored to put UVa ahead 10-9, and it seemed as if the 85th meeting between these teams might have a Hollywood ending. Tucker’s mother, after all, is the women’s lacrosse coach at Hopkins, and his father was an All-American in lax at the Baltimore school.

After Tucker’s goal, though, little went right for Virginia. The ‘Hoos won the ensuing faceoff and had an extra-man opportunity after Hopkins was called for a slashing penalty, but they turned the ball over with 1:11 left in the fourth quarter when sophomore midfielder Mark Cockerton’s pass pulled senior attackman Steele Stanwick out of the restraining box.

Hopkins punished the Cavaliers for their mistake, pulling even on an unassisted goal by Lee Coppersmith with 44 seconds to play in the fourth.

The Blue Jays won the next faceoff and called a timeout. When play resumed, however, they turned the ball over and, to make matters worse for the visitors, were called for an offsides penalty. UVa opted not to shoot in the final 21 seconds and so began the four-minute overtime period with possession and Hopkins a man down.

Again the ‘Hoos couldn’t capitalize. Early in the fourth quarter, Stanwick had passed to sophomore middie Rob Emery for an extra-man goal, and now the same situation presented itself. This time, though, Emery took his eye off Stanwick’s pass, which sailed past Emery and went out of bounds nine seconds into OT.

In all, UVa had three turnovers, one penalty and, remarkably, no shots in the extra period. One of the turnovers came on a controversial no-call with 80 seconds left in OT. After spotting junior Matt White open near the crease, Stanwick fired a pass to him, but it never reached its target. The ball continued past the goal and out of bounds.

The television replay appeared to show Hopkins defenseman Chris Lightner’s stick deflecting the ball, which would have given possession back to UVa. White pleaded with the official, to no avail. The Blue Jays were awarded the ball, and their next possession ended with Ranagan’s game-winner.

“I think it was obvious,” White said. “The ball clearly changed planes. I’m 100-percent positive there was a tipped ball.”

The game did not, however, come down to one call, White emphasized. “We had a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We just gotta play better, stay out of the penalty box. We just gotta play better offensively and stick some of those scoring opportunities.”

After dropping five straight in this series, the Blue Jays beat UVa in Baltimore last year, and Saturday they retained the Doyle Smith Cup, which goes to the winner of the teams’ annual clash.

The difference between the teams Saturday was “the little things,” UVa goalie Rob Fortunato said. “You could see it right there, little things really do make a difference, and we were on the not-so-fortunate end of that today.”

Starsia said: “Clearly, we made some mistakes … I expect us to be better than that. I certainly expect us to be better than that if we get another opportunity to [face Hopkins].”

Fortunato made 13 saves on an afternoon when Virginia played well enough defensively to win. At the other end, however, only 19 of the Cavaliers’ 48 shots were on cage. Hopkins goalie Pierce Bassett stopped nine of them.

“I never felt like we were really on it,” said Starsia, whose team led 5-3 at halftime. “Even early in the game, in the first half, I thought we had a number of good scoring opportunities. I hate to lay things at the feet of the shooters all the time, but I felt like we could have buried a couple more shots early in the game that would have given us a little bigger lead, perhaps, at halftime.

“Then in the third quarter I thought we missed some ground balls, we missed some offensive opportunities and gave the ball back to them, and they capitalized on it. I felt like offensively overall we weren’t close to playing our best game.”

The Blue Jays have always been big, but they’re notable this year for their speed and athleticism, too. Hopkins’ standouts Saturday included sophomore attackman Brandon Benn (3 goals), sophomore middie Rob Guida (2 goals, 2 assists) and freshman attackman Wells Stanwick (2 goals, 1 assist).

Wells’ brother Steele, a first-team All-American in 2011, led UVa with 2 goals and 3 assists, and Emery added 2 goals an assist. Bocklet and Tucker also had 2 goals apiece.

“This was every bit of what I thought it was going to be,” Tucker said of his first encounter with the Blue Jays. “This game was amazing. Two great teams back and forth the whole game, overtime, what more can you ask?”

Overtime, of course, could have gone better for the ‘Hoos, Tucker acknowledged, but no one associated with the program is panicking. Memories of 2011 are still fresh. The Cavaliers lost four of five games during one stretch last year, yet still ended up NCAA champions for the fourth time under Starsia.

“It was a great day,” Starsia said Saturday. “The sun came out today, for God’s sakes. It’s supposed to be thunderstorms. I got no complaints about the atmosphere or the effort or the quality of the experience for everybody that was here at the park today. Obviously, we would have liked to have won this game at home, but perhaps we’ll get a chance to see the Blue Jays down the road.”