By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Senior Day comes early for the UVa women’s lacrosse team this season. Very early.
On the final day of March, Ainsley Baker, Charlie Finnigan, Julie Gardner, Josie Owen and Annie Taylor will be honored Saturday before Virginia’s 1 p.m. game with ACC foe Boston College at Klöckner Stadium.
“It’s crazy,” Gardner, a midfielder, said Thursday. “I’ve talked to a few friends, and I told them, ‘You should come Saturday, it’s our Senior Day.’ They’re like, ‘What? Your season just started.’ ”
Indeed, four regular-season games remain for the ninth-ranked Cavaliers (7-4 overall, 1-2 ACC). But the last two are on the road, and some of the seniors’ family members would have had trouble getting to Charlottesville for Monday night’s game with Harvard. And so March 31 it is for Senior Day.
“Hopefully, if we take care of business here on our end, we should be home again in May [in the NCAA tournament],” head coach Julie Myers said. “But it’s just one of those things you can’t count on, so as you try to publicize it and you try to get all the families in, we had to go in March, which does seem crazy.”
Boston College’s leading scorer is freshman Covie Stanwick, whose brothers include Steele Stanwick, the best player on the UVa men’s team. The Eagles (5-5, 1-2) have dropped three of their past four games. Virginia has won three in a row, but Myers’ team is coming off a lackluster effort against Old Dominion (3-7).
UVa, which led 9-4 at halftime, was fortunate to escape with a 14-13 victory Wednesday night at Klöckner.
“Too close for comfort,” said Owen, an attacker who leads the Wahoos in scoring with 49 points (21 goals and 28 assists).
The Monarchs were “faster and feistier than I thought they were going to be,” Myers said. “But we gave them life. We gave them hope, and it’s really hard to beat a team with a lot of hope.”
Gardner said: “No team’s just going to fold because we get ahead by a few goals, and I think that’s something that we need to definitely remember. We need to make sure from here on out that we’re completely focused and that we understand that each game really makes a difference.”
After opening the season with three straight victories, UVa dropped four of its next five games. Then came a visit to Durham, N.C., where the Cavaliers stunned then-No. 6 Duke 14-12, a victory that might have turned around their season.
“That was kind of a statement game for us, and it was a really good win on the road,” Gardner said. “I don’t think we’ve had a great road win like that in a while. The bus ride back was so much fun. I don’t remember the last time we celebrated that much on a bus. That definitely brought the morale of the team up a lot, and I hope that feeling can kind of fuel us for the remainder of our season.”
The win over Duke, Myers said, was “totally rewarding and really motivational in terms of just trying to get back into this national picture and trying to get back to the final four.”
Virginia has been crowned NCAA champion in this sport three times — in 1991, 1993 and 2004. Not since 2007, however, have the ‘Hoos advanced to the NCAA tournament’s final four. (UVa lost to Northwestern in the championship game that year.)
“I haven’t had the chance to play there,” Owen said. “It’s huge, and there’s that urgency with this being your last year. I think we’re all feeling a little bit of pressure, but it’s a good pressure that motivates us day in and day out at practice.
“And we talk about it. We say, ‘We need to be there Memorial Day weekend.’ We really want to be there, because we know we’re good enough. And we don’t say that every year on every team. This is a different team.”
Through the first 11 games of her 17th season as coach at her alma mater, Myers has seen the Cavaliers “play great and I’ve seen us play really flat,” she said Thursday. “What we don’t have yet is a high level of consistency.
“I think both ends of the ball have had to bail each other out in different games. Like last night [against ODU], our attack bailed our defense out. Then there have been other times when the defense has bailed the attack out.
“What we need to get back to, which we had at Duke, is just a complete game by both ends: big stops defensively, fast transition runs from our middies and then some great scoring opportunities. We’ve seen it. We just haven’t seen it consistently in every game.”
A year ago, the ‘Hoos barely made the NCAA tourney, and they were eliminated in the first round. This team has a higher ceiling, Owen said, and Myers agreed.
“I think it’s really good,” Myers said of UVa’s talent level. “It’s young, so it’s a little bit unpredictable and inconsistent, but our younger players have really been the fuel for a lot of our success.”
Myers singled out such freshmen as attacker Sloan Warren and defenders Daniela Eppler and Kelsey Gahan. Warren, with 23 points, is Virginia’s second-leading scorer.
“Our first-years have done a really nice job, and Josie Owen has been the glue to everything,” Myers said. “I think Josie needs a little more help from her counterparts in the third- and fourth-year classes, and that would go a long way. But they’re trying. They’re working really hard. They’re working to do anything we tell them too. They just sometimes lose their focus a little bit.”
For Myers’ seniors, college life has brought profound sadness as well as joy. They’ll never forget the tragic loss of teammate Yeardley Love, who was found dead in her Charlottesville apartment in May 2010.
“I think they experienced more real life than most kids in this age group have to experience, where just the unthinkable happens, and the heartache and the devastation that follows,” Myers said.
“They’ve definitely been through a lot, but they’ve bonded together, and they’ve done really a nice job kind of handling some pretty adult moments, things that are really hard to put into words and to comprehend. I think in many ways it’s made them stronger, but it’s also given them more balance in life.”
“The season is huge and we obviously want to win, but I think that they appreciate the smaller things in life, too, and it’s not just about lacrosse for the kids all the time.”
Gardner said she’ll remember “what we’ve done well and what we’ve had to go through, individually, as a team, and just as people in general. I think even though we’ve gone through some really tough times, we’ve learned that sticking together will help us through anything.”