By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Dom Starsia was still at Klöckner Stadium, site of his team’s first-round victory in the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament, when his cell phone rang Sunday afternoon. It was his friend Mike Pressler, the former Duke coach who now oversees the program at Bryant University.
“The first thing out of his mouth is, ‘LaPierre’s my favorite guy in the whole world, Dom,’ ” Starsia recalled Tuesday.
Not long after that, Starsia got another call, this one from his son, an assistant coach at Colgate.
“Joe said, ‘I’m sure that LaPierre was throwing that ball to Stanwick. I have no doubt that that was a pass and not a heave,’ ” Starsia said with a laugh.
Chris LaPierre has a knack for making believers out of those who watch him play.
“His athletic intuition is at a different level than most folks’,” Starsia said.
Never mind that LaPierre rarely scores for fifth-seeded Virginia (12-3), which meets fourth-seeded Notre Dame (12-2) in an NCAA quarterfinal at noon Sunday in Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia. The 6-2, 220-pound junior from Medford, N.J. — about 25 miles from Philly — is the premier defensive midfielder in the college game, and he’s an enormous presence in the Cavaliers’ program.
“There and Back,” the two-part documentary on UVa lacrosse that recently aired on ESPNU, devoted a segment to LaPierre.
“He’s an absolute animal,” classmate Matt White said on camera.
Defensive middies rarely earn postseason honors. LaPierre, however, is a two-time member of the All-ACC team, which is selected by the league’s coaches. In 2011, LaPierre was named a third-team All-American after helping Virginia, the tournament’s No. 7 seed, win the NCAA title.
“I’d rather win another national championship than get another All-American award,” LaPierre said. “But it’s definitely satisfying knowing that your hard work gets noticed and people take note of what you’re doing, and hopefully doing the tough work can set a pace and set a mindset for the rest of the guys on the team.”
Starsia said he’s never lobbied voters on LaPierre’s behalf. He’s never had to.
“The other coaches know,” Starsia said. “They can see it on the field. I think that even the uneducated lacrosse fan goes ‘ooh’ when he’s playing. But the educated guys, the guys that know the game, they notice what he does and notice the subtlety of his play. It’s not just that he runs up the field and does a spectacular charge up the field. It’s the little things.”
LaPierre was pivotal in two of the most memorable plays in UVa’s 6-5 win over Princeton on Sunday. In the final seconds of the first half, LaPierre’s 45-yard toss ended up in the stick of All-America attackman Steele Stanwick, who scored to put the Wahoos up 5-2.
Then, in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, LaPierre stepped in front of a shot by Princeton’s 6-6, 250-pound Forest Sonnenfeldt. The ball bounced off the chest of LaPierre, who then crumpled to the turf. The ‘Hoos gained possession and ran out the clock to secure their victory.
By Tuesday, the red mark on his chest had faded, but the point of impact “is still a little sensitive to the touch,” LaPierre said that afternoon. “Like I said before, it’s one of those in-the-moment decisions, and you kind of do what you have to do to win the game.”
Growing up in South Jersey, LaPierre was a spectacular athlete whose feats became the stuff of legend. He started early. When he was 5 years old, a kindergartner playing in a tackle football league, LaPierre hit another boy so hard that the boy was unable to get up immediately. Thus was born the nickname — Shocker — that followed him to UVa.
“I don’t even know the true story,” LaPierre said. “I think someone watching the game either said I shocked the kid or ‘Wow, that was a shocker.’ Something along those lines. And then my coaches started calling me that, and then friends, and somehow it just stuck ever since.”
At Shawnee High School, LaPierre starred at safety and tailback for the football team. As a senior he scored 44 touchdowns.
“I’m confident he would be playing football at his level for somebody if that’s what he wanted to do,” said Starsia, a former wide receiver at Brown.
LaPierre’s football exploits attracted the attention of such schools as Penn State. LaPierre says he remembers his high school football coach telling him that Joe Paterno would “fly down here in his helicopter and offer you the scholarship if you want it. It was tough to say no to that, but I made a commitment and I stood by it.”
In the summer before his junior year at Shawnee, LaPierre had traveled to Charlottesville for a team camp with his lacrosse club. The day before the camp started, LaPierre recalled, he met with UVa football coaches and got a tour of the McCue Center.
“Because at that point I was still thinking football,” LaPierre said. “And then a few days later I met with Coach Starsia, and after that I just totally pulled a 180.”
That November, LaPierre accepted Starsia’s scholarship offer. It didn’t bother Starsia that LaPierre played for a fledgling high school program. (Shawnee had only had a club team when Starsia’s nephew Graham Gill, who later became an All-American at Navy, was a senior in 2001.) What the UVa coaches saw from LaPierre at camp in the summer of 2007 was enough to win them over.
“We decided then that he was a guy that we were going to hitch our wagon to,” Starsia said. After his senior year, LaPierre was named MVP of the Under Armour All-America game in Towson, Md., Among those who saw LaPierre ring up two goals and four assists that night were Starsia and UVa’s associate head coach, Marc Van Arsdale.
“It was a coming-out party for Chris,” Starsia said. “I remember sitting there with Marc watching the game, and at that point, without attaching any names to it, we had a couple of temperamental guys that were the face of the program. And I remember turning to Marc and saying, ‘Boy, isn’t that the kid that we want defining us over the next couple years, just the way he plays and the way he carries himself?’ ”
LaPierre has no regrets about the path he chose to follow in college.
“People ask me all the time, do I miss playing football?” he said. “And my answer is yes, I miss playing football, but had I chosen to play football instead, I think I would have missed lacrosse even more. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
LaPierre, whom Inside Lacrosse ranked No. 3 nationally among recruits in the Class of 2009, had 62 goals and 31 assists as a senior at Shawnee. He came to college expecting to be an integral part of the Cavaliers’ offense.
“It’s funny, because before coming here I actually never played defense in my life,” LaPierre said. “I was always an offensive middie. I would take faceoffs and then play offense, and if we turned the ball over I’d get off the field.”
When LaPierre arrived at UVa, however, Starsia slotted him in the defensive midfield, where his size and athleticism made him a force. As a freshman in 2010, LaPierre was third on the team with 51 ground balls and added 10 goals and nine assists.
A year later, LaPierre’s scoring output dipped to 13 points — six goals and seven assists — but he led the ‘Hoos with 92 ground balls. This season, LaPierre again is the team leader in ground balls, with 58, and he’s also contributed four goals and an assist. He has fewer opportunities to score than in previous seasons, LaPierre said, because opponents emphasize stopping him in transition.
Come 2013, though, LaPierre’s role may well be different. Starsia said he’ll seriously consider moving No. 44 to offense.
“I think he can do anything on a lacrosse field, frankly,” Starsia said. “I think he very easily could be an effective offensive player, and a dangerous one, and on next year’s team, we may be looking for guys that can run by people and make things happen … I still say that the most difficult thing to do in lacrosse is to score goals. It’s the same in lacrosse as it is in basketball. You need to break people down in order to create offense.”
LaPierre said: “I would definitely like to give that a go. But at the same time, I think I’m pretty valuable at the defensive end, so we’d have to see” if UVa had enough other options at that position.
For now, LaPierre’s focus is on the NCAA tourney. The ‘Hoos are trying to repeat as national champions for the first time in school history, and they’ve encountered significant obstacles along the way.
“We knew it was going to be a hard task,” LaPierre said. “Any time you’re the defending national champions, you’re going to face everyone’s best effort. Being at Virginia in the first place, you’re going to face everyone’s best effort. But then add to that the fact that you have the returning Tewaaraton Trophy winner in Steele, you have the all-time winningest coach, you have a bunch of talent coming back, and everyone’s really going to pay extra attention to us, and we’re kind of seeing that this year.”
LaPierre hurt his shoulder April 20 against North Carolina in the ACC tournament. He sat out UVa’s next game, the regular-season finale versus Penn, as a precaution, but says the shoulder didn’t bother him versus Princeton.
The UVa-Notre Dame winner will face No. 1 seed Loyola or Denver in an NCAA semifinal May 26 in Foxborough, Mass. The championship game is May 28.
“We like our position right now,” LaPierre said. “I think we saw last year that it doesn’t matter what seed you are in the playoffs.”