By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As much as they try not to dwell on it, members of the UVa men’s lacrosse team know the clock is ticking. If the Cavaliers are to advance to the NCAA tournament for the ninth consecutive season, their turnaround must start soon.
Saturday afternoon brought another setback for a team that plays only three seniors. Against No. 2 Maryland, Virginia never led and lost 9-7 in an ACC game in front of 5,225 fans at Klöckner Stadium.
UVa fell behind 9-4 before rallying for three goals in the final seven minutes. The Wahoos nearly made it a one-goal game, but Terrapins goalie Niko Amato stopped a bounce shot by sophomore midfielder Ryan Tucker with 48 seconds remaining.
“That was a great shot,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “The kid made a great save.”
The defeat was the Cavaliers’ fourth straight, their longest skid since 2004. They finished 5-8 and failed to reach the NCAA tourney that season. Virginia must have at least a .500 record to be eligible for an invitation this year.
“We haven’t really discussed what we need yet, but it’s probably in the back of everyone’s minds that we need to get some wins if we want to make it,” junior attackman Nick O’Reilly said.
Since defeating Vermont on March 5, Virginia has lost to the teams ranked Nos. 3, 12, 8 and 2, respectively, in the latest USILA coaches’ poll — Cornell, Ohio State, Johns Hopkins and Maryland. The Cavaliers’ schedule gets no easier. Next up is a date with No. 6 North Carolina, which defeated Hopkins in overtime Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill.
“This team, if it continues to work hard and continues to improve, we still got a chance to do some damage,” said Starsia, who has guided Virginia to four NCAA titles (1999, 2003, 2006, 2011) during his tenure in Charlottesville.
The Wahoos (5-5 overall, 0-1 ACC) host the Tar Heels (7-3, 1-1) at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday at Klöckner. Then come two more regular-season games — April 12 at Duke and April 20 against Bellarmine at Klöckner — and the ACC tournament in Chapel Hill.
“I think everyone’s loose,” said O’Reilly, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer this season. “I don’t think anyone’s thinking about it too much, about keeping the tradition alive. I think everyone just wants to play and start winning next week, and then when we get more [moving] forward, then hopefully we find ourselves in the playoffs.”
On a splendid spring afternoon at Klöckner, the crowd Saturday included Steele Stanwick, UVa’s all-time leading scorer. Stanwick, a 2012 graduate of the University, saw his former team suffer through an abysmal offensive performance. Virginia scored only two goals in the first half and trailed 8-4 after three periods.
Two plays early in the second quarter typified the Cavaliers’ struggles with the ball. After a Maryland turnover, O’Reilly sprinted down the field on a 2-on-1 fast break, junior attackman Mark Cockerton to his right. When the Maryland defender hesitated, O’Reilly had a clean look at the goal. His shot sailed over the cage.
About a minute later, O’Reilly, from behind the goal, flipped a pass to junior midfielder Rob Emery, uncovered on the crease. Emery missed his point-blank shot, and the score remained 3-1.
“We get behind a little bit, you can just feel that we’re a little tentative,” Starsia said. “And then we had some guys step up [in the second half] and make some plays. We need a little bit more of that.”
Cockerton and Tucker scored two goals apiece to lead UVa, and O’Reilly and senior middie Matt White had two assists each. Emery, who entered the season as an All-America candidate, did not record a goal or assist Saturday.
“We gotta kind of break through offensively,” Starsia said. “We’ve always been a program that’s sort of built to score. I’m not laying this on anybody’s shoulders. We just gotta get those guys loosened up a little bit. We gotta start shooting the ball at the cage a little bit more bit aggressively, and hopefully we can make some of those things happen.”
Against the Terps (7-1, 2-1), the Cavaliers’ comeback started when White fed Cockerton for a goal that made it 9-5 with 7:00 to play. The score had not changed when, with 1:45 remaining, long-stick midfielder Greg Danseglio blocked a Maryland shot with his body, scooped up the ground ball and started a fast break that ended with redshirt freshman middie Greg Coholan’s goal.
On the ensuing faceoff, junior defenseman Scott McWilliams came up with the ground ball for UVa and then passed to O’Reilly, who fired a shot past Amato to make it 9-7 with 87 seconds to play.
Maryland controlled the next faceoff, but the `Hoos forced a turnover to give themselves a chance to make it a one-goal game in the final minute.
“I think it just shows the toughness of our team and the kind of character that we have,” White said. “It’s a 60-minute game, and we’re never gonna say die.”
The Cavaliers’ late rally should help their confidence, Starsia said. He applauded their effort, while acknowledging that the `Hoos are “not quite there yet.”
“But I really like this team,” Starsia said. “That’s who they’ve been on the practice field and almost every game situation. We’ve had this sort of never-say-die attitude. At the same, we’ve got to be a little better. We’ve got to finish a little better. We’ve got to defend a little better. Like I said this morning, I’ve got to coach a little better, and everybody’s going to have to pick up the pace a little bit.”
The Terps scored the game’s first three goals Saturday. UVa’s defense steadied itself thereafter, though, and sophomore goalie Rhody Heller finished with nine saves. On close defense Virginia started McWilliams, senior Harry Prevas and freshman Tanner Scales.
“I thought that was our most complete effort defensively this season so far,” Starsia said. “I thought we did a nice job of talking and communicating and supporting each other. We mixed in a little zone at times, and I thought we did a good job overall.”
The offense, by contrast, looked out of sync for most of the game. Virginia converted only 1 of 3 extra-man opportunities and rarely got high-percentage shots.
“I think it starts with me, first and foremost,” White said. “I have the most experience of anyone out there, played in the most games, been on the man-up ever since I came here, and when the guy with the most experience isn’t scoring and isn’t creating as much as he should be, then you’re not going to score as much.”
White said he’s not worried that the `Hoos will shy away from the challenge facing them.
“Not with the people that we have in our locker room,” he said. “These are a bunch of tough young men that just never quit. As long as I’m with them and they’re with me, we’re never gonna quit.”