By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If not for a conflict with a world-famous track meet, the UVa men’s lacrosse team would be getting ready to travel to Philadelphia for its regular-season finale.
Instead, the Cavaliers are headed to Colorado.
With Franklin Field reserved for the Penn Relays this weekend, the University of Pennsylvania men’s lacrosse team, which played at Klöckner Stadium last season, started looking for another Philly venue at which to face UVa.
The folks who run Inside Lacrosse magazine and InsideLacrosse.com had another idea: Play the game in Denver.
“They were trying to put together an event in Colorado,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “They think that there’s a market for it there. We talk to Inside Lacrosse on a fairly regular basis, and they proposed it to Penn. It was going to be OK with me if it was OK with Penn.”
The Quakers liked the proposal, too, and so the Mile High Classic was born. In a doubleheader Friday, No. 6 UVa (10-3) and Penn (3-9) will meet at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, followed by No. 4 Duke (12-3) and No. 16 Denver (7-5). Both games will be played at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the NFL’s Broncos and Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws.
“It resolves Penn’s issue in terms of a facility,” Starsia said, “and we’re going out there to play a team that’s in the same boat that we’re in, so you feel like the altitude issue and the travel issue doesn’t affect one team over the other.”
Moreover, Starsia said, UVa saves money.
“Inside Lacrosse is covering most of the costs for us,” he said. “It’s actually cheaper for us to play the game in Colorado than it would have been if we were going to Philadelphia.”
That Baltimore, Long Island and upstate New York are hotbeds for lacrosse is understood. That Denver is wild about the sport, too, may not be as well known. But Starsia’s freshmen include two players from the Denver area — goalie Rhody Heller and long-stick midfielder Tanner Ottenbreit — and two more are in the incoming recruiting class: middie Matt Florence and defenseman Tanner Scales.
Lacrosse is “growing everywhere, but Denver is one of the places that I know it’s getting big,” said UVa senior Steele Stanwick, a Baltimore native and member of one of the sport’s first families.
“From watching some of those MLL games, you know that Denver gets a great crowd all the time, and we’re getting a few guys from Denver on the team. We’re expecting a big crowd [Friday night], and it’s great that out West it’s really growing.”
Starsia said: “It really is sort of an exploding area for youth and high school lacrosse. There are lots of good players out that way, and it’s one of the places where you would like to go to play a game.”
This marks the first time in eight years that UVa will play its final regular-season game away from Klöckner Stadium. The ‘Hoos closed 2004 with a 10-8 loss at Penn State. The defeat left them with a 5-8 record and capped a disappointing season that included the Cavaliers’ first visit to Denver.
“It was a hard trip, no doubt about it,” Starsia said.
Coming off their second NCAA title under Starsia, the ‘Hoos opened the 2004 season with a 15-4 drubbing of Drexel. Then they flew to Colorado for two games in Denver. Neither went well for UVa, which lost 7-6 to Air Force and, a day later, 9-7 to Denver.
“The altitude may have been a little bit more of a factor than we anticipated, but I don’t think it really affected the way that we played out there,” Starsia recalled Wednesday. “We were a team in a little bit more transition than we probably imagined.
“We came back and we battled that season, but we had dug ourselves a hole early that we just never could get out of it.”
Only once under Starsia — that 2004 season — has UVa failed to advance to the NCAA tournament. The ‘Hoos are locks for an invitation this season, but they’ve dropped two straight games and three of their past five. Virginia sees the Penn game as an opportunity to start building momentum for the NCAAs.
After Friday night, the Cavaliers break for final exams and won’t play again until the NCAA tourney begins May 12 or 13.
“You kind of hit the refresh button,” said Stanwick, who this week was named ACC offensive player of the year.
A season ago, UVa ended a two-game losing streak by pounding Penn in the regular-season finale in Charlottesville, then won four straight in the NCAA tourney.
“This game was huge for us last year,” Stanwick said. “We got a lot of momentum going [into the NCAAs], and we were able to kind of recharge the batteries and find out who we were. It’s great, because you get back to work, you get back to ground zero and establish the foundation of what we want to be.”
If the Cavaliers are to return to the final four, they’ll have to play on the road at least once in the NCAAs. The trip to Denver should help prepare them for postseason, Stanwick believes.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a great time to get away. There are probably less distractions away. You’re just with the guys on the team, in your hotel room, kind of relaxing, focusing on the game.
“For us, it’s always nice to get out of Charlottesville for a little bit, especially when we’ve had a bunch of home games. So we’re looking forward to it. Some of our best memories have come on these road trips.”