By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Six weeks into the NCAA men’s lacrosse season, UVa and Johns Hopkins have 10 wins between them. Virginia’s victories, however, have come against Drexel, VMI, Stony Brook, Mount St. Mary’s and Vermont, and Hopkins has beaten Siena, Towson, Michigan, Mount St. Mary’s and UMBC.
Of those nine opponents, only Drexel, at No. 19, is ranked in the latest USILA coaches’ top 20. And that raises the stakes for the 86th meeting between the Cavaliers and the Blue Jays. In the second game of the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic, 14th-ranked UVa (5-3) faces No. 10 Hopkins (5-2) at approximately 4:30 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. ESPNU will televise the game.
“With both teams sort of searching for their first signature win of the season, I think there’s a certain sort of edginess here that’s probably not always there [in this series],” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said Friday.
“Over the years we’ve sort of had the luxury of not worrying about the results of some of these games. In this instance, I don’t want to get carried away, but we keep score, and I think we’re working hard and doing a lot of good things, but the players need to see some positive results, and I’m sure the Hopkins guys are feeling the same way.”
The Cavaliers learned this week that their captain, senior midfielder Chris LaPierre, would be shut down for the rest of the season to allow his injured right knee to heal.
LaPierre, a second-team All-American in 2012, was clearly bothered by his knee and struggled to make his presence known in the three games in which he played this season. He’s expected to return as a fifth-year senior in 2014.
“We didn’t know how this was going to turn out,” Starsia said. “Chris was desperate to try to play this spring and was doing everything on the practice field that he could to try to make that happen. We were trying to use him where we could, not knowing whether or not we were going to have him for game day or what his role was going to be.
“I think it almost feels like a weight taken off of his shoulders, and in some ways it’s been helpful for us. It’s just kind of cleared the air. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s been a little bit of a distraction up until now. So now we just know that we have to sort of make up the difference and that he’s not sitting on the hill on a white horse waiting to ride down. We just gotta pick it up and step in and fill the void, so to speak. We got a lot of guys that are prepared to try to make that happen for us.”
The new year did not begin auspiciously for the Wahoos, who finished 12-4 in 2012 after losing to Notre Dame in the NCAA quarterfinals. During the team’s first full practice in January, LaPierre injured his knee and James Pannell sprained his ankle.
“So you’re thinking, ‘Well, we had a pretty good practice, other than the fact that we lost our best player and our most important freshman,’ ” Starsia recalled with a weak laugh.
Pannell, whose brother, Rob, is a fifth-year senior at Cornell and perhaps the nation’s top player, was considered the jewel of the recruiting class that entered UVa last summer. The ankle injury limited his effectiveness early in the season.
“In January, when you’re looking at this season, you’re thinking, `OK, we don’t have much margin for error, but if a couple things break here, we got a chance,’ ” Starsia said Friday. “And we’re not past all that yet. But the things breaking for us were Pannell having a big year, Mark Cockerton having a big year, a couple things like that.”
Cockerton, a junior attackman, leads the `Hoos with 23 goals and also has four assists. “Mark has gotten off the start we’d hoped for,” Starsia said, but Pannell has only five goals and three assists in his first college season.
After beginning the season as a reserve attackman, Pannell is now on UVa’s second midfield, and he’s “going to start to play a bigger role, I think,” Starsia said. “He’s just starting to get his legs now, and so we’re hopeful that in the second half of the season, that we still could get from him what we hoped for.
“Anybody that’s watching tomorrow, I think, will see him play a little bit more and hopefully begin to be a little bit more assertive.”
Virginia is coming off a 11-10 loss to Ohio State. That game was played last Saturday at Klöckner Stadium, where a week earlier UVa had lost 12-11 to Cornell.
In each game, the Cavaliers pulled even late in the fourth quarter, only to surrender the winning goal. UVa’s other loss was to Syracuse, 9-8 in overtime, at the Carrier Dome on March 1.
“It’s not like we handed anything to anybody,” Starsia said. “We just haven’t made The Play that was going to decide one game or another.”
The Cavaliers lead the nation in ground balls (40.8 per game), which would have pleased Doyle Smith, whose groundbreaking work as a lacrosse statistician made him a legendary figure in the sport. Smith, who died in 2004, had deep roots in both the Hopkins and UVa programs, and the winner of the schools’ annual clash receives the Doyle Smith Cup.
“Doyle he would always say to me, ‘Throw out all the other statistics. The only one that matters is ground balls,’ ” Starsia said.
“If there’s any single statistic that speaks to your effort overall, then it’s that one. So I think people that are watching the games are saying, ‘Hey, they’re playing hard, they’re doing a bunch of good things.’ But we haven’t won. That’s the bottom line also. You’d like to see the players get rewarded for their efforts, and these things have a way of working themselves out.
“My job is to accent the positive piece of this and keep them working and continue to be hopeful that the next time we’re in this position that we can make the play that decides this in the very end.”
This is Starsia’s 21st season at UVa, where he has won four NCAA titles (1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011).
“I haven’t been around a group that I’ve enjoyed being on the practice field with as much as this team in a long time,” he said. “So I don’t have a lot to complain about, other than the fact that we’ve lost these three one-goal games. In the big picture, there’s a lot to be thankful for here.”