By Jeff White
DENVER — University of Virginia men’s lacrosse coach Dom Starsia remembers standing on the field at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, site of last month’s Face-off Classic, and doing an interview with a sports talk host on a radio station about 1,700 miles away.
“And the guy said to me, ‘So give me some indication of how the game has grown over the last 10 years,’ ” Starsia recalled Thursday night.
“I said, ‘I’m standing on the Baltimore Ravens’ field talking to a guy in Colorado as we’re about to play a game that’s going to be on national television.’ ”
Starsia laughed. “I said, ‘I think that speaks to the growth of the game overall.’ “
Lacrosse is no longer strictly a Northeast affair. Check out UVa’s roster, which includes players from such states as Illinois, Florida, California, North Carolina and Colorado, as well as from Canada.
More proof: In 2011, the University of Denver, coached by the legendary Bill Tierney, advanced to the NCAA tournament’s final four, where the Pioneers lost to Starsia’s Cavaliers in the semifinals.
Eleven months later, Starsia and Tierney, who won six NCAA titles as Princeton’s coach, warmly greeted each other Thursday night at the Pioneers’ Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium.
Virginia is in town for the Mile High Classic, a Friday night doubleheader at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the NFL’s Broncos and Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws. At 7:30 p.m. Eastern, sixth-ranked Virginia (10-3) will take on Penn (3-9). No. 4 Duke (12-3) and No. 16 Denver (7-5) will follow.
For the Cavaliers, the game will be their first in Colorado since 2004, when they lost to Air Force and Denver on consecutive days.
“I couldn’t be happier to have these guys out here,” Ken Clausen said Thursday night.
Clausen, who was an All-America defenseman at UVa, now lives in downtown Denver. He works in sales and marketing for the Warrior and Brine lacrosse equipment companies, which are helping Inside Lacrosse stage the Mile High Classic.
“I wish we would have come out here when I was on the squad,” said Clausen, who graduated from Virginia in 2010.
Also at practice Thursday night was Ned Bowen, a captain of the UVa team that won the NCAA title in 2003. Bowen now lives in Denver and coaches at a high school here. Other guests included two of UVa’s incoming recruits, Denver-area stars Matt Florence and Tanner Scales.
UVa already has two players from Denver: freshmen Tanner Ottenbreit and Rhody Heller.
“Lacrosse is definitely growing,” said Ottenbreit, a long-stick midfielder. “I’d say it’s growing faster than any other sport out here. We’re looking to get a bunch more Colorado guys out East playing D-I.”
This is the final regular-season game for UVa, the defending NCAA champion. Win or lose, the Wahoos are headed back to the NCAA tournament, but the game “has some practical implications for the playoffs,” Starsia said.
A win over the Quakers would all but lock in Virginia as one of the top five or six seeds in the 16-team NCAA tournament.
“If we lost the game, we might still get a home game in the first round, but we might not,” Starsia said. “But more importantly, we want to play well. We want to finish our regular season the way that we think we’re capable of.”
Since a decisive win over North Carolina on April 7, the ‘Hoos have dropped two straight, both at Klöckner Stadium. UVa lost 13-5 to Duke on April 13 and then, a week later, fell 11-9 to UNC in the ACC tournament semifinals.
“It felt like we haven’t played our best lacrosse the last two weeks,” Starsia said. “We’ve had a good regular season, and we want to finish it the right way.”
On the Cavaliers’ disastrous trip to Denver in 2004, they faced two teams that were accustomed to playing at high altitude.
This time, Starsia said, “because we’re playing a team that’s in the same boat as we are, we decided we weren’t going to make a big deal of it because Penn’s in the same situation we are, basically.”
That said, UVa’s players have consumed more water and Gatorade than usual this week. Starsia’s assistant coaches include John Walker, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
According to Walker, Starsia said, one “of the things they say in the Army is, ‘Hydrate or die.’ So we’ve used that as a little maxim for the week.”
Virginia might make another concession to the altitude Friday.
“We think we may need to use more players,” Starsia said, and one might be Ottenbreit, who has appeared in only five games this season.
“He’s been playing better,” Starsia said. “It might be time to get him out there a little bit.”
Ottenbreit, a graduate of Regis Jesuit High School in nearby Aurora, said he has played twice at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, once in football and once in lacrosse. Most of his high school friends are away at college, but Ottenbreit will have a large cheering section of family members Friday night.
“It’s awesome to come back home,” he said.