By Jeff White
CHESTER, Pa. — Steele Stanwick might have put it best.
“There wasn’t any magic in the air for us,” Stanwick said April 27 in Denver after the UVa men’s lacrosse team’s regular-season finale.
The All-America attackman was referring to defending NCAA champion Virginia’s performance that night in its 10-8 victory over Penn in the Mile High Classic. But Stanwick could have been speaking about the Cavaliers’ season as a whole.
“I felt that way standing there on the sideline,” UVa coach Dom Starsia said Sunday afternoon.
“It’s funny, we talked about it back in June a year ago, that it was going to be hard to repeat and do this again. I think we were prepared to make the effort to do it, but it’s the difference in emotion and psychology. Last year no one expected us [to capture the NCAA crown]. This year everybody was prepared for us.”
The Wahoos had, by any standard, a successful year. They won 12 games in their 20th season under their Hall of Fame coach, and each of their four losses was to a team that made the NCAA tournament. (Two of those are teams are headed to next weekend’s Final Four in Foxborough, Mass.)
But little came easily for the ‘Hoos this spring. That was true in their NCAA tournament opener, a 6-5 win over unseeded Princeton, and that was the case again Sunday against Notre Dame before 10,770 at PPL Park, the picturesque home of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union.
Fifth-seeded Virginia led only once in this NCAA quarterfinal, at 4-3. The fourth-seeded Fighting Irish (13-2) responded with two goals to take a 5-4 lead with 4:12 left in the second quarter. The ‘Hoos fought back and pulled even three times — at 6-6 late in the third quarter, 7-7 early in the fourth, and 8-8 with 11:03 left — but the Irish finally went ahead for good on Ryan Foley’s unassisted goal with 7:41 remaining.
Notre Dame’s lead grew to 12-8 before UVa rallied for two goals in the final 79 seconds. Time expired with the Irish up 12-10, ending Virginia’s bid to repeat as NCAA champion for the first time in school history. (The Cavaliers have won five NCAA titles — in 1972, 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011.)
“I thought it was a really good lacrosse game on both sides,” Starsia said. “Both teams battled the whole time.”
Against the nation’s No. 1 defense — Notre Dame came in allowing only six goals a game — UVa fared better that most teams have this season. But Irish goalie John Kemp made 14 saves, several of them spectacular, and allowed only two goals in a third quarter that the Cavaliers, who trailed 6-4 at halftime, dominated.
“He’s awesome,” Stanwick said.
Starsia said: “Even though we controlled the play in the third quarter, we weren’t able to kind of translate that and turn that into scoring, turn it into a lead. We probably played well enough in that quarter to have scored more than two goals. Again, I don’t mean to overplay the point, but everything about it felt like what our season was like. We worked hard and did a lot of good things, but it just never was simple, never was easy.”
Virginai got two goals apiece from Stanwick, senior attackman Chris Bocklet, senior midfielder Colin Briggs and sophomore middie Rob Emery. Stanwick also had a game-high five assists but turned the ball over six times.
In the end, Starsia said, the game “kind of epitomized our season in a lot of different ways. We just were a little bit off. It seemed like we had opportunities to score goals, to get a lead and to push forward in the game. We just couldn’t get the ball in. I felt like we were a little bit a step slow defensively early in the game. I thought then we picked up some, but then Notre Dame also played very well. And I felt like — I’ve had reason to think about this a little bit — in some ways I felt like I just didn’t have what I needed to give to this team, just to get us over the hump throughout the year.
“I just told the kids in the locker room, this is one of the finest groups of young men I’ve ever been around, that I’ve ever been associated with, and I’ve been doing this a long time. The play on the field didn’t go quite the way we hoped this year, but it never was for a lack of effort or anything they were doing. On or off the field, in or out of the locker room, in or out of practice, these guys took care of business, they took care of each other in every way. [The season was] sort of inexplicable in some ways. We just never could quite get the playing piece of it just the way we wanted it, and I think that falls on my shoulders above all else. But I’m really proud of these guys. I couldn’t have asked for much more.”
In the first meeting between these teams since 2006, Notre Dame got three goals and an assist from senior midfielder Max Pfeifer, a graduate of Western Albemarle High in Crozet who grew up watching Virginia play. The Fighting Irish, whose coach, Kevin Corrigan, is a former UVa player, advance to meet No. 1 seed Loyola (16-1) in the NCAA semifinals Saturday.
“Give them credit,” Starsia said. “There were chances for them to crack during that game, and maybe that’s what we never got from [opponents this season]. Nobody ever handed us anything.”
Virginia came in having won 10 straight games in the NCAA quarterfinals. The loss means that for the first time since 2007 UVa won’t be playing on Memorial Day weekend. Among the seniors whose college careers ended Sunday were Stanwick, Bocklet, Briggs, midfielder Matt Kugler, faceoff specialist Ryan Benincasa, long-stick middies Chris Clements and Wyatt Melzer, goalie Rob Fortunato and defenseman Matt Lovejoy.
The Cavaliers bused back to Charlottesville after the game. The team’s graduating members will be recognized on Grounds in a special ceremony Monday afternoon.
“I haven’t had much time [to reflect],” Stanwick said Sunday, “but it’s been a great run. I don’t think I could have picked a better spot or picked a better school or had a greater group of guys and coaches. I wouldn’t have changed one thing about my career here. It was the best.”
After Pfeifer scored to put the Irish up 12-8 with 1:36 to play, the Cavaliers refused to go quietly. Stanwick passed to junior Matt White for a goal that made it 12-9, and then White fed Stanwick, who scored with 59 seconds left.
Bocklet said: “You never give up, especially being a senior. You want to make it to the next game, you want to spend as much time together as possible, and as a senior you really realize how it goes by fast. We really enjoyed the time. That’s why it’s really hard for us. I just thought this team bonded really well together, on and off the field. I felt like we had something special. It’s sad to end it like this.”
He didn’t win a starting job until his sophomore season, but Bocklet finished his UVa career with 137 goals, the fifth-most in school history.
Stanwick, the reigning Tewaaraton Trophy winner, leaves as UVa’s all-time leading scorer. He totaled 269 points, on 126 goals and 143 assists, in his four seasons. (Former great Doug Knight is second with 249 points.) Stanwick handed out 51 assists this year, a total surpassed in a season only once at Virginia — by Jay Connor, who had 58 in 1972.
“I’ve tried not to think too long and hard about whether or not he’s the best lacrosse player I’ve ever been around,” Starsia said of Stanwick. “But he might be. He’s probably the smartest and the best-skilled lacrosse player I’ve ever been around.”
That Stanwick is the all-time leading scorer “at a place like Virginia, which has had so many great players over the years, speaks to his ability,” Starsia said, “and maybe I’m just biting my tongue a little bit. But if what you wanted to say about him was that he was a great lacrosse player, maybe the best attackman that’s ever played at Virginia, one of the best players, that really only begins to tell the story of who that kid is. He’s just a wonderful young man, and it’s been a joy for me to get to know him, to have him be part of the program, to be part of his life.”
As the sting of this loss fades, the Cavaliers will start looking ahead to 2013. Among the players expected back are Emery, White, Chris LaPierre, Bobby Hill, Owen Van Arsdale, Mark Cockerton, Ryan Tucker, Pat Harbeson, Carl Walrath, Mick Parks, Scott McWilliams, Harry Prevas, Greg Danseglio and Nick O’Reilly, who was suspended this season for violating team rules.
“I think we’ve got some good young players in the program,” Starsia said. “We have a way of kind of bouncing back from a season you might feel like is a little bit of a disappointment. We have a way of bouncing back and getting right back on the horse, and I’m confident we’ll do that.”