By Jeff White
DENVER — When the game was over and its MVP, Steele Stanwick, had accepted an enormous box of chocolates from Whitman’s Sampler, title sponsor of the Mile High Classic, the University of Virginia’s majestic attackman posed for a photo with University of Pennsylvania assistant coach Doug Knight.
Nearby, Dom Starsia looked on like a proud father.
“One of the great joys of coaching is that I get to work with guys like Doug and Steele,” Starsia said later.
If Stanwick and Knight aren’t the two greatest attackmen in the history of UVa lacrosse, they’re on the short list, and they’ll forever be linked in the annals of the program.
Back when Stanwick was a young boy in Baltimore, Knight was smashing records at Virginia. In his four years as an attackman for Starsia — 1994 to ’97 — Knight totaled 165 goals and 249 points, both school records.
“He was one of my idols growing up and one of the reasons I wanted to play at UVa,” said Stanwick, who received a congratulatory text message from Knight last weekend.
Knight’s record for career goals may never be surpassed at UVa. But Stanwick broke Knight’s mark for career points last weekend, with two goals and five assists against North Carolina, and No. 6 added to his legend with another tour de force Friday night against Penn.
Stanwick, a senior, finished with a career-high six goals and added a late assist to lead the sixth-ranked Cavaliers past the Quakers, 10-8, in the first game of a doubleheader at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. (In the second game, No. 16 Denver hammered No. 4 Duke 15-9.)
“He can beat you with his stick, he can beat you with his feet, he can beat you with his brain,” Penn coach Mike Murphy, a former UVa assistant, said of Stanwick.
Similar accolades came Knight’s way during his illustrious college career. Asked afterward about Stanwick and Knight, Starsia smiled.
“Their only similarities are that they’re just two of my favorite guys in the whole world,” Starsia said. “I have a son, and he’s wonderful. If I could add two more and they would be Doug Knight and Steele Stanwick, I’d be pretty happy. It was a special joy for me tonight to have the two of them together on the sideline afterwards.”
Stanwick’s scoring spree pushed his career total to 260 points. The Wahoos (11-3) might well have lost had he been off his game Friday night. The Quakers (3-10) conceded nothing in their 2012 finale.
In a shocking upset last weekend, Navy beat Johns Hopkins, and the Mile High Classic, Starsia said, “was a similar situation, I think, for the Penn guys — a chance to go off into the offseason having a great effort in the last game and maybe take down the defending [NCAA] champion.”
The ‘Hoos bolted to a 4-1 lead, but Penn answered with four straight goals. The teams were tied 5-5 at halftime and 7-7 after three quarters.
“There wasn’t any magic in the air for us today,” Stanwick said. “We kind of had to bend our back to do the work, like Coach says.”
Virginia went ahead for good on Stanwick’s final goal, which made it 8-7 with 7:59 remaining. About four minutes later, sophomore midfielder Mark Cockerton gave the ‘Hoos what on this night passed for commanding lead, scoring an unassisted goal to make it 9-7.
With 1:14 to play, Stanwick fed senior attackman Chris Bocklet for a goal that made it 10-7, and the Cavaliers could finally exhale. Their two-game losing streak was about to end.
“Sometimes hard wins are the best wins of all,” Starsia told the team on the field afterward.
A few minutes later, at his press conference, the Hall of Fame coach praised his team’s grit.
“It just was a struggle for us, a little bit of a battle for us throughout,” Starsia said. “But the fact that we kind of hung in there and made the plays that we needed to in the fourth quarter, I think we could be proud of that, coming into this setting and this situation and toughing this game out.
“For a team that’s lost their last two games and has sort of been struggling to find our way, just a little bit, I was really pleased that we were able to get this one.”
The final statistics reflected the Cavaliers’ second-half resolve. The Quakers went into the break having won 8 of 11 faceoffs and with 13 ground balls, to nine for Virginia. UVa finished with 31 ground balls, to 27 for Penn, and with 11 faceoff wins, to 10 for Penn.
After losing 5 of 6 faceoffs in the first half, senior Ryan Benincasa won 8 of 10 in the final two quarters.
“We started off a little slow, and Coach Starsia challenged us at halftime to step up,” Chris Clements said. “They were winning the 50/50 ground balls at the faceoff and kind of taking the pace of play to us, so we knew we needed to get the ball in the second half, and Ryan Benincasa came up huge. He won the opening draw in the third quarter and just never looked back.”
Virginia played without one of its three All-ACC selections, defensive midfielder Chris LaPierre (separated shoulder). In LaPierre’s absence, Starsia asked Clements, who usually starts at long-stick middie, to play with a short stick for the first time since 2010.
“I was happy to do it,” said Clements, a fifth-year senior. “It was a little bit difficult at first, but once you get in the flow of the game you kind of snap back into it.”
The Cavaliers won’t play again until their first-round game in the NCAA tournament, May 12 or 13, and LaPierre, who didn’t practice this week, may be available by then.
“He’s got a couple weeks off now,” Starsia said. “Hopefully we’ll get him back in some capacity.
“I was saying to [Denver coach Bill] Tierney as I was walking off the field, he’s about half of our well of toughness, is Chris LaPierre. We really miss him out there.”
Bocklet finished with two goals Friday night, boosting his career total to 133, which ranks sixth all-time at UVa. Sophomore middie Rob Emery and Cockerton had one goal apiece. For Cockerton, one of the heroes in UVa’s run to the NCAA title last season, the goal was only his second in the past six games, and it was a welcome sight to Starsia.
“He’s been a little down in his confidence,” Starsia said. “I just think it’s been a little bit of a fight for him. Hopefully this will give him a little lift, and with a little time off, it’s a chance to kind of recharge your batteries a little bit.
“If we’re going to do anything in the playoffs, we need Mark Cockerton to step up and begin to make some plays for us consistently.”
Stanwick, of course, has made plays for the Cavaliers all season. So has senior goalie Rob Fortunato, who shined again Friday night. In his first year as a starter, Fortunato has been remarkably steady in the cage.
“I think it’s an unbelievable story,” Starsia said. “A kid comes to Virginia, and his friends told him not to come, because Adam Ghitelman was only a freshman when [Fortunato] was a senior in high school, and they told him he’ll never play.
“He comes to Virginia. He’s not really even very good. He’s a back-up goalie. He’s getting drilled in practice, and we don’t think he’s tough enough, so we’re trying to make him tougher. It’s a miserable life.
“He hangs in there. He just works hard, and he just gets better. And for him to step up this way …”
Starsia shook his head.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “I would have guessed in January that there would have been an occasion to use another goalie at some point, but he has just not let down the entire season. We have never for a second thought about making a change in the goal. Over the past four years we thought about doing that occasionally.
“It’s a great lesson for kids, the Rob Fortunato story.”
The Cavaliers fly back to Charlottesville on Saturday. Eight years ago they visited this city and lost twice, falling to Air Force and Denver on consecutive days. This trip will produce happier memories.
“The hospitality has been spectacular,” Starsia said. “The people at the hotel, the people in the stadium, and the people helping us out at the University of Denver [during UVa’s practice Thursday night]. They couldn’t have been more gracious.”
That said, Starsia noted that Virginia’s record in Colorado is “only 1-2. So we need to come back and get our record evened out.”