By Jeff White
CHESTER, Pa. — Around 10 a.m. Saturday, UVa men’s lacrosse players began streaming out of the locker room and onto the grass field at PPL Park. Midfielder Ryan Tucker felt the air on this sparkling spring morning and shouted, “Sea breeze, baby!”
An older Cavalier corrected the ebullient freshman: “River breeze.”
No matter. Tucker’s teammates share his enthusiasm for the stadium in which fifth-seeded Virginia (12-3) will meet fourth-seeded Notre Dame (12-2) at noon Sunday in an NCAA quarterfinal.
“This is awesome,” fifth-year senior Chris Clements said as he surveyed his surroundings.
PPL Park, which opened two summers ago, is the home of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. The 18,500-seat stadium sits next to the Delaware River at the southwest corner of the Commodore Barry Bridge.
During his Hall of Fame coaching career, Dom Starsia has guided UVa to four NCAA titles, and his teams have played in huge stadiums more often used by Ravens, Patriots, Eagles, Broncos and Buckeyes. On a smaller scale, PPL Park dazzles, too.
“I told the kids just before we stretched, this never gets old,” Starsia said after his team practiced for about an hour Saturday.
“In my lifetime, you don’t take moments like this for granted. Both the venue and the setting of it all, and the importance of the game and what’s going on and all, this is really special.”
A victory over the Fighting Irish would send the Wahoos to the NCAA semifinals for the fifth consecutive year. In this sport, the spotlight shines brightest on the teams still playing on Memorial Day weekend, and the Final Four is the reward all are chasing when the season begins.
“It’s an incredible stage,” said Clements, a long-stick midfielder from Baltimore. “We haven’t really talked about being there for four straight years, but it’s quite an accomplishment, and hopefully we’ll get there this year.”
A year ago, at the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium, No. 7 seed UVa defeated Denver in the NCAA semifinals and then, two days later, edged Maryland for the crown. The ‘Hoos never have repeated as NCAA champions, but they publicly embraced the challenge of trying to do so this year.
The pressure on a reigning champion can be intense, but Starsia’s players were loose at practice Saturday as they prepared for the Irish, whose head coach, Kevin Corrigan, is a former UVa player.
“I think it does almost lessen a little bit,” Starsia said of the burden of defending an NCAA title.
Virginia opened the tournament last weekend with a hard-fought 6-5 victory over unseeded Princeton at Klöckner Stadium.
“The first round, for me particularly, was just very nerve-wracking,” Starsia said. “You’re playing at home, you’re the favorite, you’re supposed to win. When they asked me afterwards about what I was feeling, really it was just a sense of relief.
“I don’t feel quite the same kind of tension coming into this one. In the end, though, I can still remember last year. As unlikely as it was for us to get to the final weekend and get to the final game, I remember the morning of the championship game thinking, ‘Man, we’re so close. If we’re going to get here, why not finish this? Who knows when we’re ever going to get back?’ So you want to make the most of these opportunities. They’re precious. You’re not guaranteed anything. There’s a number of really quality teams in our sport that haven’t been to the final weekend in a long, long time.
“All we can control is what we’re going to do tomorrow, and hopefully we’ve got our best game waiting to break out.”
Two quarterfinals are on the Sunday schedule at PPL Park. The second matches ACC champion Duke (14-4), the No. 3 seed, and Colgate (14-3), which knocked off previously unbeaten Massachusetts in the first round.
Colgate’s practice at PPL Park followed UVa’s on Saturday morning. As Starsia came off the field, he shook hands with two members of the Red Raiders’ traveling party before embracing a third.
“Joseph, how are you?” Starsia said to a young man wearing a Colgate cap.
Joe Starsia-Lasagna, son of Starsia and wife Krissy Lasagna, smiled back at his father. Starsia-Lasagna is in his first season as a Colgate assistant, and his father will be pulling for the Red Raiders in the second game of the doubleheader Sunday.
Starsia’s immediate concern, though, is Notre Dame, which under Corrigan has become known for its suffocating defense. The Irish are allowing an average of only six goals per game, and the ‘Hoos have not been lighting up the scoreboard recently. Only one in their past four games have the Cavaliers scored more than nine goals.
“I definitely think that that’s a function of how our midfield’s played,” sophomore middie Rob Emery said Saturday morning.
“We haven’t played up to our potential, and this is a game where we’re really trying to step up our game at the midfield, because I think that might be where the game is won or lost. The attack has been putting up big numbers, and it’s time for the midfield to step it up a little bit, and we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”
Fifth-year senior Colin Briggs, scoreless in the regular-season finale against Penn, had two goals against Princeton. But Tucker hasn’t had a goal or an assist since an April 20 loss to North Carolina, and Emery has only three goals in his past four games. Another sophomore middie, Mark Cockerton, has two goals and one assist in his past seven games.
For the season, Emery is third on the team in goals with 22, and Cockerton is fifth with 16. Their recent struggles are not unprecented for second-year middies at UVa.
As seniors on the UVa team that went unbeaten in 2006, midfielders Kyle Dixon and Matt Poskay were All-Americans. Two years earlier, however, they had combined for only 21 goals and 15 assists.
“Dixon was terrible as a sophomore, and Poskay couldn’t put a ball in the goal as a sophomore,” Starsia said, laughing.
“There’s a little more ebb and flow with a younger player. In a lot of ways sophomore year is the toughest one, I think, because all of the sudden there are all these increased expectations. It’s not really surprising to have Rob, and Mark Cockerton the same, kind of up and down. All they can control is that they work hard and they come out and they give it their best shot. They have, and it’ll fall back in for them, and it might fall back in for them tomorrow, and it would be great if it did.”
UVa and Notre Dame haven’t met since the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament. Sunday’s winner will face No. 1 seed Loyola (16-1) in the semifinals Saturday at Foxborough, Mass.
Virginia’s seniors include Briggs, Clements, defenseman Matt Lovejoy, faceoff specialist Ryan Benincasa, goalie Rob Fortunato and attackmen Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet. They form the nucleus of a team that Starsia says has been a joy to coach, from the first-years to the fifth-years.
“On and off the field, throughout the spring, they’ve worked hard, they’ve earned their way to be here. We hope that we can make it pay off in performance tomorrow, and that’s really all we’re concerned about right now,” Starsia said.
“But at the end of the day, at the same time, there’s no guarantee on those kind of things. You got quality teams all left here. Everybody’s worked hard to get here. But if we can play smartly and efficiently, hit some shots, we certainly like our chances. And I certainly like our chances with this group. I’m as proud to have worked with this team as any that we’ve had.
“We’ve earned our way to be here. Now we’ve just got to make the most of it.”
To make it back to the Final Four “would be incredible,” said Clements, a team captain. “We’ve put in a lot of work, so that’s definitely our ultimate goal. And we’re right there, so we’ve got to punch the ticket.”