By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Final exams end Friday at the University of Virginia. Two days later, however, UVa’s lacrosse teams will be tested again: the men in familiar surroundings, the women on the road.
The NCAA tournament fields — each with 16 teams — were announced Sunday night, and as usual Virginia is represented in each bracket.
This marks the 19th time in Dom Starsia’s 20 seasons as the men’s coach that the Wahoos have been invited to the NCAAs. No. 5 seed UVa (11-3), the defending NCAA champion, hosts unseeded Princeton (11-4) at Klöckner Stadium at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Julie Myers is 17 for 17 in NCAA appearances as head women’s coach at her alma mater. Her unseeded Cavaliers (11-7) meet ACC rival Duke (11-6), the No. 7 seed, at 2 p.m. Sunday at Koskinen Stadium in Durham, N.C.
Between them, UVa and Princeton have won 11 NCAA titles in men’s lacrosse. They haven’t met, however, since the Cavaliers’ 12-10 win over the Tigers on March 8, 2008.
“I can still remember sitting in my car when Bill Tierney called,” Starsia said on a teleconference Sunday night. “It might have been the year that they had a losing season. He just said to me, ‘Dom, I need to lighten the schedule, I need to drop some people,’ and they just dropped us.”
Tierney, who led Princeton to six NCAA championships, now coaches at Denver, which faces No. 8 seed North Carolina in a first-round game Saturday in Chapel Hill. Since Tierney’s departure, the Tigers have not challenged for another NCAA crown, and they’re coming off a one-sided loss to Yale in the Ivy League championship game.
Even so, Starsia said, “Princeton is certainly talented enough to persevere in this tournament. We aspire to do the same. I understand [Princeton’s] sense of unfinished business, but there’s a certain sense of desperation for everybody in this tournament, and everybody’s got the same goal in mind, which is to be playing their best lacrosse on game day, and if that’s the way it plays out, that teams are doing that, then let the chips fall where they may and I think we’ll have a great lacrosse game.”
The Cavaliers have lost three straight game at home — the first time that has happened since 1968 — since beating Vermont on March 6. Even so, there’s no place they’d rather be than Klöckner for a first-round game in the NCAA tourney.
“There’s just a certain urgency about playing this time of year,” Starsia said Monday, “the desperation of knowing that it’s one and done, and whatever advantage there is to be playing at home — and I think people would generally argue that there’s some — then we’re going to try to use it to our full advantage. It’s a familiar routine to us.”
Of the first-round games in the NCAA men’s tournament, six will be televised on ESPNU. Two will be shown on ESPN: Duke-Syracuse on Saturday and UVa-Princeton a day later. Virginia remains one of the sport’s biggest draws, and Starsia is happy for the national exposure.
“It’s not going to help us in the game, but it’s a real plus for the program,” said Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles with the Cavaliers.
The Virginia-Princeton winner will meet No. 4 seed Notre Dame or Yale in an NCAA quarterfinal May 20 in Philadelphia.
UVa hasn’t played since April 27. On that night, in its regular-season finale, Virginia snapped a two-game losing streak with a 10-8 win over Penn in the Mile High Classic in Denver. The ‘Hoos were without All-ACC defensive midfielder Chris LaPierre (separated shoulder) against the Quakers, but the bruising junior is likely to play Sunday afternoon.
Virginia’s break for finals “almost always comes at a good time,” Starsia said Sunday night. “Clearly, we don’t have LaPierre in the last game against Penn, and I think he’ll benefit from the extra week off. I think we get a little healthier, I think we hopefully get a little bit more bounce in our step. I felt like I detected a little bit of that [in practice] today.
“We’re balancing getting throughs exams as we prepare for this first-round game, but that’s the normal state of affairs for us. We have felt like we perhaps didn’t play our best lacrosse in the last couple of weeks, but at the same time we weren’t playing terribly. But we need to be sharper. We need to be a little bit more efficient. I felt a little change in practice today from what I sensed in the last couple of weeks going into the Penn game, and hopefully we can turn that into performance on Sunday.”
For the UVa women, this will be their second clash with Duke in Durham this season. In the first, the Cavaliers rallied to defeat the Blue Devils 14-12 on March 24.
“Duke is obviously a great team,” Myers said Monday morning. “They’ve got some amazing players that are older and experienced and [haven’t won] a championship at the ACC or NCAA levels, so I’m sure they’re going to be hungry. But we do match up pretty well against Duke, and we’ve done a better job this season against great teams than against kind of that mediocre or that mid-range team.”
UVa’s players are familiar with the Devils, so preparation “won’t take that long in terms of having to learn all new sets to get our defense ready,” Myers said. “We like that Duke field. We just have to make the most of this opportunity and not go in with any kind of regret or question.”
In its regular-season victory at Koskinen Stadium, UVa outscored Duke 9-4 in the second half. More recently, though, the ‘Hoos have faded late.
In the ACC tournament, UNC outscored Virginia 12-4 in the second half en route to a 14-6 victory. A week later, in its regular-season finale, UVa led mighty Northwestern 4-2 at the break but ended up losing 13-6.
“Our defense did a great job in both of those first halves and really held, which gave our attack a chance to do their thing,” Myers said. “And then in the second half we just didn’t win draw controls, and I think we got a little bit frustrated internally when we just weren’t getting possessions, and then everything seemed to go [wrong for UVa].
To try to reverse that trend, Myers said, in recent practices the ‘Hoos have been “kind of taking a halftime in every drill, and then going back to that drill again. We’re trying to build in that natural break, and then going back out and playing sharp.”
If the Cavaliers can get past Duke again, they will face Notre Dame or No. 2 seed Northwestern in an NCAA quarterfinal May 19 or 20.
Virginia beat Harvard at Klöckner on April 2. Since then, the ‘Hoos have played in Blacksburg, in Baltimore, in Durham, and in Evanston, Ill. And now they’re headed back to Tobacco Road.
Playing a first-round game at Klöckner would be preferable, but Myers is staying positive.
“Because exams end on Friday and we don’t play until Sunday, we won’t have to move any exams, which is the first concern about going on the road [for an NCAA opener],” she said. “So to be able to finish that natural course as scheduled, I think, is a huge benefit.”
Moreover, Myers said, her players “travel well, and it’s always enjoyable to be out and kind of doing our thing. So I’m just looking forward to getting this opportunity.”