April 25, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Chris LaPierre is in North Carolina with his teammates, and he’ll do everything in his power to inspire them before and during UVa’s game with Maryland in the ACC men’s lacrosse tournament Friday night in Chapel Hill.

At times, LaPierre said with a smile this week, he finds himself yelling more from the sideline than Dom Starsia, the Hall of Fame coach who has guided the Cavaliers to four NCAA titles.

“I just try to be as engaged as possible,” said LaPierre, UVa’s sole captain this season.

LaPierre knows, however, that he can only do so much for the team when he’s not on the field. He hasn’t played since March 5, when a knee injury sidelined him for the second time this season. An All-America midfielder, he watched in frustration as Virginia, which won the NCAA title in 2011, his sophomore year, lost six of its final seven regular-season games this spring.

“It’s been so tough,” LaPierre said. “And I think my form of leadership is mainly leading by example and making the tough play or picking up the hard ground ball or winning the sprint, stuff like that. So I think not being able to go has definitely hurt a lot. But you just try to do whatever you can.

“For me, that’s being more of a leader from the sideline and trying to be vocal and watching and paying attention and helping the guys, like [Ryan] Tucker and [Rob] Emery, as much as I can.”

At 5 p.m. Friday, fourth-seeded UVa (6-7) faces top-seeded Maryland (9-2) at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium. Third-seeded Duke (11-4) meets second-seeded UNC (10-3) in the second semifinal.

To be eligible for an invitation to the NCAAs, which they haven’t missed since 2004, the Wahoos must win the ACC tournament. Had the 6-2, 210-pound LaPierre been healthy all season, the `Hoos almost certainly would be assured a ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Three of the Cavaliers’ losses have been by a single goal. Another, to Maryland, was by two goals. ESPN lacrosse analyst Quint Kessenich has opined that LaPierre is worth two goals a game for the Cavaliers, and “I think that’s a pretty fair assessment,” Starsia said. “It would be hard for me to overvalue Chris LaPierre.”

From his first day on Grounds, LaPierre has been the Cavaliers’ best defensive midfielder. As a boy, he picked up the nickname “Shocker” for his powerful presence on athletic fields, and it’s not hard to see why when LaPierre plays lacrosse. He led the team in ground balls in 2011 and again last year after finishing third as a freshman.

“To me, he might be the best faceoff wing in the country,” Starsia said.

LaPierre’s role was expected to expand this year. After the 2012 season, several rule changes went into effect in college men’s lacrosse. Designed to speed up the game, they enhanced the value of middies who could contribute at both ends of the field.

“It was almost as if they were the LaPierre Rules, the changes,” Starsia said. “We thought that if there’s any kid in the country that’s going to be prepared to take advantage of these rule changes, it was going to be Chris. We were working him more on offense, because we thought he would be able to contribute there, too.”

During the team’s first full practice in January, however, LaPierre fell and landed awkwardly on his right knee after taking a shot. He got up slowly and was able to hobble to the sideline, but LaPierre knew something was wrong. UVa’s medical staff, after testing his knee, suspected that LaPierre had injured his posterior cruciate ligament, and a MRI confirmed that initial diagnosis.

No surgery was required, and after missing most of preseason practice LaPierre played in the Feb. 16 opener against Drexel. But he was ineffective that day and then sat out Virginia’s next three games. LaPierre returned to face Syracuse on March 1 in the Carrier Dome but again was no factor.

Four nights later, in a brief appearance against Vermont, LaPierre continued to noticeably favor one leg. After that game, the medical staff decided to give LaPierre more time off to see if his knee would improve.

“I was telling Coach I was like 85 percent,” LaPierre recalled. “In reality I was closer to 50 or 60 percent. I wanted to play, but it didn’t heal the way we were hoping for.”

LaPierre, who’s from Medford, N.J., returned home to have his knee examined by doctors there. They agreed that an operation wasn’t needed but advised LaPierre to use the rest of the season to rehab his knee.

“They said, `You need to let it heal. You’re not able to play on it right now,’ which was true,” LaPierre recalled. “I tried running, I tried cutting, it was just wasn’t working out.”

His final statistics for 2013: no goals, no assists, three ground balls. Because LaPierre appeared in only three games, he’s expected to receive a hardship waiver that will allow him to play as a fifth-year senior in 2014.

For now, he works out regularly in the McCue Center weight room with strength-and-conditioning coach Everrett Gathron — “I do a lot of upper body and core, no lower-body stuff,” LaPierre said — and rehabs his knee three times a week with athletic trainer Rebecca Vozzo. He was recently cleared to jog a couple of times a week.

“That stuff’s going well,” LaPierre said. “It’s just a slow process, so you don’t want to rush too much.”

LaPierre is one of five Cavaliers redshirting because of injuries this season, along with freshmen Will McNamara, Dickson Smith, Michael Howard and Carlson Milikin, who was expected to contribute immediately in the defensive midfield.

With LaPierre and the 6-1 Milikin out, Starsia has used 6-3 Rob Emery and 6-2 Ryan Tucker on defense more than he’d planned to. Most often, though, the Cavaliers’ defensive middies have been juniors Bobby Hill, Blake Riley and Pat Harbeson, who are listed at 5-8, 5-10 and 5-8, respectively.

“Against some of these [bigger, stronger] teams, we’re biting you on the ankle and hanging on,” Starsia said. “Shocker gave us that physical presence as a defender. He’s not even that great an individual defender, but he’s a big body, so he can bang a big middie, which we don’t have that right now. But mostly when the ball was on the ground in the defensive end of the field, he was instant offense. He was a one-man clear. What we haven’t been able to do is create enough easy scoring opportunities, and that’s what he was always able to do for us.

“And so we’ve become more of a half-field team without him, because these other guys are pretty efficient picking the ball up and clearing it, but they don’t attack the other end of the field the way Chris always did.

“It’s hard to quantify his contribution, because it’s just such an extended one. I’m not sure we’ve had a player that contributes in so many different areas as Chris does, in addition to his role as sort of the emotional leader of this team.”

When LaPierre was shut down for the season, Starsia said, the coaching staff considered naming additional team captains. But Starsia wanted to keep LaPierre involved, “and I thought highly enough of him that I thought he could provide leadership for this team in spite of the fact that he couldn’t play.”

The Cavaliers have struggled this season, but their work ethic and practice habits have been superb, Starsia said, and LaPierre “gets some of the credit for that.”

LaPierre, a history major, will receive his bachelor’s degree next month. He hopes to then enroll in a one-year master’s program in the Curry School of Education for 2013-14.

An intern last summer at the New York Stock Exchange, LaPierre is interested in finance, “but in terms of a full-time job I didn’t really have anything lined up,” he said. Another year at UVa will allow him to further explore his career options.

On the field, LaPierre figures to provide an enormous boost to a team whose regulars this season include only three seniors: defenseman Harry Prevas and midfielders Matt White and Charlie Streep.

Whatever happens the rest of this season, Starsia and LaPierre believe, the `Hoos should again be NCAA title contenders in 2014.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be back,” LaPierre said. “People say we’re having a down year, a rebuilding year, whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day, all of our losses are to top-15 teams, and three or four of them are one-goal or two-goal losses. So we’re right there, just maybe one or two plays away. There’s no doubt we’ll be back.”

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