By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Had Dom Starsia been told in January that Loyola would be crowned NCAA champion in men’s lacrosse on Memorial Day, his response would have been predictable.
“I would have told you that I’m really surprised to hear that,” Starsia, UVa’s longtime coach, said last week.
Loyola, after all, was unranked in the USILA coaches’ preseason poll. But the Greyhounds lost only once during the regular season and earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In the title game, Loyola whipped unseeded Maryland 9-3 at Foxborough, Mass.
In 2011, as the No. 7 seed, UVa won its fourth NCAA title under Starsia and fifth overall. Virginia entered this year’s NCAAs as the No. 5 seed and lost to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.
This year’s Final Four was the first since 1975 that did not include UVa, Syracuse or Johns Hopkins.
Loyola’s run “sort of epitomized what this season was like,” Starsia said. “It was almost a continuation of last spring. In a lot of ways we were an unlikely champion a year ago. We are Virginia and I understand that, but still, we came out of nowhere. And now we have an unseeded team playing Loyola for the national championship in 2012. We may be seeing more of this in our sport. I’m not ready to concede that parity has arrived, but there are certainly more players out there.”
The 2012 recipient of the men’s Tewaaraton Award, Colgate’s Peter Baum, is from Portland, Ore., anything but a lacrosse hotbed.
“How unlikely is that?” Starsia said. “So Loyola’s winning may reflect the growth of the game and the fact that there are just more players out there, and we may be seeing more of this in the future.”
Starsia said be believes Loyola’s triumph is “very good for the sport. Absolutely. I’d have preferred that the University of Virginia won the national championship, but I could see past that, and this is definitely good for the game. It’s not just the big boys that have to do it all the time.”
In 2011, Denver reached the Final Four. The University of Michigan has added men’s lacrosse. And now the winner of the sport’s most prestigious award, the Tewaaraton, is from the Pacific Northwest.
“So these little seeds are kind of sprouting up, and they’re sprouting up more often now,” Starsia said. “I think it speaks very directly to the growth of the game and the potential of the game to continue to grow.”
To Starsia, the “most incredible thing about the playoffs was that there was no predictability in terms of what was going to happen in the next game. Nothing that happened previously was going to tell you what was likely to happen next.”
Duke crushed Colgate in the NCAA quarterfinals, then struggled in a one-sided loss to Maryland. The Terrapins dominated Duke and then sputtered against Loyola, which had nearly been upset by Denver in the quarterfinals. In 2011, Starsia noted, UVa came perilously close to losing to Bucknell in the first round, then blew out Cornell a week later.
“You just need to win the game that’s in front of you somehow,” Starsia said.
His 20th season as UVa’s coach included wins over Syracuse, Cornell, Maryland, North Carolina and Princeton. The Cavaliers finished 12-4. Still, more was expected of a team that included attackmen Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet, midfielders Colin Briggs and Rob Emery, long-stick middie Chris Clements, defensive middie Chris LaPierre, and defensemen Matt Lovejoy and Scott McWilliams.
“It was an unusual season for us,” Starsia said. “As unlikely it was that we won in 2011, I feel that it’s almost as unlikely that we didn’t win in 2012. But the reason that sports fascinates us all is that you just can’t guarantee results.”
Starsia’s teams have been known for their high-powered offenses. The 2012 Cavaliers, though, scored more than nine goals only twice in their last five games: in a 10-8 win over Penn in the regular-season finale and in the 12-10 loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA tourney.
“For whatever reason, we never were able to kind of gather any offensive momentum throughout the season,” Starsia said. “We never were able to sort of meet our own expectations for who we were offensively, and I’m not laying this on the doorstep of the offensive guys or anything. It was never for a lack of effort. We had good people. It was in some ways kind of inexplicable. We always worked hard.
“Even the Notre Dame game we played hard. For me, the whole thing was epitomized in the third quarter. We were down 6-4 at halftime against Notre Dame. We came out in the third quarter, and we played great. We’re all over them, and we only get two goals! We should have been up two or three going into the fourth quarter there. We’re a team, we’re a program, that’s sort of built to score, and it never quite happened for us.”
Heading into the season, UVa’s major concerns were probably faceoffs and play in the goal, where Adam Ghitelman had to be replaced. Neither turned out to be a weakness. Led by senior Ryan Benincasa, the Wahoos won 54.1 percent of their draws in 2012. At goalie, senior Rob Fortunato exceeded virtually all expectations in his first year as a starter.
Moreover, Starsia said, most of his seniors had their finest seasons as Cavaliers, and overall the team enjoyed good health.
In contrast to 2011, when injuries and suspensions forced the coaching staff to make radical changes on offense and defense late in the season, “this year we were closer to having all our ducks in a row and being ready to go,” Starsia said. “There were a whole bunch of things where the stars lined up correctly for us, and we just weren’t able to make it happen.”
So what’s next for Starsia’s program? Conventional wisdom says 2013 will be a rebuilding year for the ‘Hoos. Then again, conventional wisdom held that Loyola would not contend for the NCAA title in 2012.
“We have the pieces to be good next year,” Starsia said. “We’re certainly going to be in transition, but a program like ours always graduates good players. You don’t graduate Steele Stanwick every year, but we always graduate good players, and we have young players that are waiting their turns. And I think you’ve seen [what can happen] with Loyola and Maryland both. Maryland graduates 20 seniors a year ago and plays its way back to the final game.”
The biggest loss, of course, is Stanwick, UVa’s all-time leading scorer. But Starsia also must replace such players as Bocklet, Briggs, Fortunato, Benincasa, Clements, Lovejoy and Matt Kugler.
Like Stanwick, Briggs was named to the USILA’s All-America first team last month. Lovejoy was a second-team All-American, and Bocklet and Fortunato received honorable mention.
Stanwick, Bocklet and Briggs were Virginia’s top scorers this season, with 80, 44 and 36 points, respectively. The top returning scorer in 2013 will be Matt White, who totaled 31 points this season while splitting time at middie and attack.
Other Cavaliers with eligibility remaining include LaPierre, a second-team All-American this season, Emery, McWilliams, Harry Prevas, Bobby Hill, Pat Harbeson, Owen Van Arsdale and Mark Cockerton. Moreover, Starsia expects to again have the services of defensive middie Blake Riley and attackman Nick O’Reilly, who played key roles in the 2011 championship run.
Riley missed this season with an injury, and O’Reilly was suspended for violating team rules.
“He actually had a great spring,” Starsia said of O’Reilly, who didn’t practice with the team this year. “He did a great job in school, and he really took care of the things he needed to take care of.”
Because UVa returned so many veterans, Tucker and faceoff specialist Mick Parks were the only freshmen who played major roles this season. But it’s a talented class, said Starsia, who expects to receive contributions from such members as Tanner Ottenbreit, Greg Danseglio, Greg Coholan, Tyler German, Taylor Michel and Carl Walrath in 2013.
Coholan will be a redshirt freshman next season. The others will be sophomores. Ottenbreit may well become the No. 1 long-stick midfielder, with Danseglio replacing Lovejoy on defense. Coholan will challenge for a spot on the first or second midfield.
Of the recruits who enrolled at UVa last year, Walrath, a 6-0, 195-pound attackman from the Philadelphia area, was the most highly rated. But he played in only four games this season — in part because the Cavaliers had more experienced players at his position, but also because Walrath needs “to be more consistent in practice,” Starsia said.
“He has flashes of greatness, but his attention to detail goes up and down. He could be somebody that kind of takes you to the next level, but he’s going to have to demonstrate that he can do that on a daily basis.”
The leading candidates to replace Fortunato at goalie figure to be Austin Geisler, a graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, and incoming freshman Dan Marino, a heralded recruit from Long Island, N.Y.
“I think we’re going to be good in the goal,” Starsia said.
UVa’s Hall of Fame coach also believes his team will be strong in the midfield, especially with the addition of incoming freshman Will McNamara.
“We’re going to be athletic in the middle of the field,” Starsia said.
What the attack will look like in 2013 is difficult to say. Will White be a full-time attackman as a senior? Will Cockerton, who moved from attack to middie late in the 2011 season, return to his natural position? Is incoming freshman James Pannell, whose brother, Rob, stars for Cornell, as good as recruiting analysts say? Will Zach Wood, another newcomer, carve out a role for himself in the offense? Can Van Arsdale, who totaled only seven points in his final 11 games this season, be more productive?
Those are among the questions for which Starsia and associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale will try to find answers during fall ball.
“We’ve got some interesting pieces there,” Starsia said.
Cockerton, a surprise standout at the Final Four in 2011, struggled as a sophomore. He finished as the Cavaliers’ sixth-leading scorer this year, with 21 points, but only three came in the final eight games.
“It just never happened for him,” Starsia said. “He knew that it was not happening for him, and he was trying. He just couldn’t get the ball to go in. It was very frustrating for him and for us ultimately. But we need for him to get on track.
“I feel like even now saying to Marc, ‘We’ve got to get that kid going. We have to have that kid.’ ”
Parks is the only returning player who took more than 10 draws this season, but Tucker, German and Harbeson also may be options on faceoffs next year, Starsia said.
Six of the recruits who signed with UVa in November will play June 30 in the Under Armour All-America Classic at Towson, Md. — Marino, Wood, McNamara, Pannell, defenseman Tanner Scales and middie Matt Florence.
“It’s a good class,” Starsia said, and at least one of its members will be expected to contribute immediately.
“We need Pannell to be good,” Starsia said. “If that happens, then we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”
The class’ most intriguing prospect may be the 6-3, 200-pound Wood, the all-time leading scorer at the high school level in Illinois, a developing region in the sport.
“He’s a big, left-handed kid that can shoot,” Starsia said. “If we had that player this year, that might have been enough.”