By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If history is any guide, the award handed out Tuesday to Tanner Scales bodes well for his career — and for the UVa men’s lacrosse team.
Scales, a 6-2, 200-pound defenseman, became the 11th Cavalier to be named ACC freshman of the year, as chosen by the conference’s coaches. Previous recipients from UVa include Tim Whiteley (1993), Michael Watson (1994), Conor Gill (1999), Tillman Johnson (2001), Danny Glading (2006) and Steele Stanwick (2009), some of the greatest players in the program’s history.
“It’s awesome to be mentioned in the same category as guys like Steele and Tillman Johnson,” Scales said. “Obviously all individual awards are secondary to the team success, but it’s very humbling. I’m very thankful that the ACC coaches look at me the way that they do.”
Virginia coach Dom Starsia is thankful Scales chose lacrosse over hockey. Not until Scales was in high school did he give up his goal of playing hockey in college and, perhaps, professionally.
Scales played defense on the ice, too, “I think the physicality of hockey really helped me with lacrosse, as well as how quick the game is,” he said. “So when I’m on the lacrosse field, I can slow things down. I’m just more calm because of the experience of playing hockey.”
Born and raised in Denver, Scales spent his 11th-grade year at the Salisbury School in Connecticut, in part because of its hockey program. But an injury derailed his hockey career, and Scales returned to Denver for his senior year.
He graduated from Regis Jesuit High School, where as a freshman and sophomore Scales had played lacrosse with Rhody Heller and Tanner Ottenbreit, now his teammates at UVa. A fourth Cavalier, freshman midfielder Matt Florence, is also from the Denver area.
“It’s great to see the explosion [of lacrosse] out in Denver,” Scales said.”It’s awesome, and I think it just speaks to the growth of the sport.”
Charlottesville is some 1,600 miles from Denver, and Scales marveled at times this year about how far he’d come, especially when he was on the practice field with Florence.
“I remember playing on the same summer team as Matt when we were in seventh grade or something like that,” Scales said, “and I never would have guessed that we both would have ended up here.”
Virginia’s 2013 roster also included players from such states as North Carolina, California and Illinois, none a traditional hotbed for the sport.
“I’ve had kids sitting in my office from these outlying areas,” Starsia recalled, “and they generally say to me, `I know you’re biased against me, Coach,’ and I say, `No, I’m not. The question is: Are you good enough? I don’t care where you’re from.’ I’ve never cared where they’re from.
“The lacrosse in Denver has exponentially exploded in the last 10 years, I think. So there’s just more players there now. But we’d always kind of peek there. It was always one of those spots you thought, `Boy, this area really has a chance.’ You’d just be missing out if you didn’t look.”
Former UVa stars Ned Bowen, Ken Clausen and Chris Bocklet are active in the Denver lacrosse community. Starsia doesn’t solicit recommendations from them in the recruiting process, he said, but “they are good ambassadors for us out there. When we find somebody that we think is good enough, he’s usually had contact with Clausen or these other guys in some different setting, and he has a positive impression of Virginia. And so it’s not hard for us to make contact with somebody and to get somebody interested in Virginia.”
Scales said his oldest memory of UVa lacrosse involves the 2006 NCAA championship game. Virginia whipped Massachusetts that day to complete a 17-0 season and give Starsia his third NCAA title.
“I still remember where I was,” Scales said. “I was at a lacrosse tournament. And from there, there was just something about UVa. I remember on the game telecasts, seeing a little bit of the campus and just being like, `Wow, that’s so cool.’ I remember watching the seven-overtime Maryland game in Steele’s freshman year. I’ve always kind of had my eye on UVa.”
Scales moved into Virginia’s starting lineup March 9 against Cornell at Klöckner Stadium. He never relinquished the job. Scales finished the season with 33 grounds balls and was second on the team in caused turnovers, with 25. Only junior defenseman Scott McWilliams (36) forced more, and Scales played most of the season with a nagging groin injury.
“He’s a confident athlete and an impressive kid,” Starsia said. “He’s not like somebody who, like Scott McWilliams, picks up the ball and runs down the field and jumps off the page at you. Tanner, he’s more quietly efficient. He’s very good with the ball on the ground, which comes from his hockey background, but he also just shuts these people down. And for him to cover some older, big-time offensive players at this level in his freshman year speaks to his ability overall.”
Scales’ physical tools helped him make an impact in his first college season.
“I’ve always said that I would never take somebody that can’t move his feet,” Starsia said, “but on defense there’s a strength and size component that’s almost a requirement. You don’t have to be 6-foot-5, but you gotta be strong enough to hold somebody off. And so a kid who’s got some size, he’s in a better place defensively, because you’re not going to get overpowered in different situations.
“Tanner has got above-average strength and size, so he’s built for it. He’s got a really strong trunk, which is probably part of the hockey piece of it. He’s really hard to move.”
Scales said his first college season was “everything that you dream about as a kid. Stepping on Klöckner for the first time was an experience in itself, and every experience — going to the [Carrier] Dome to play Syracuse, the ACC tournament, Cornell at home under the lights — all those games were awesome. I loved it.”
But he hated the way the season ended for UVa. In the ACC tournament semifinals, the fourth-seeded Wahoos whipped top-seeded Maryland 13-6 to improve their record to 7-7. That set up a make-or-break game for UVa against second-seeded North Carolina for the ACC title.
Needing a victory to become eligible for a ninth straight invitation to the NCAA tournament, Virginia lost 16-13 to UNC in Chapel Hill.
“We played really hard this season. We just came up a few goals short,” Scales said. “It wasn’t like we were just getting blown off the field or anything like that. But I think next year, with the returning talent that we have, we’re going to go from being the underdog to being a favorite, and I think we need to embrace that.”
Among those expected to return for UVa at the defensive end in 2014 are Scales, McWilliams, long-stick midfielders Greg Danseglio and Ottenbreit, goalies Dan Marino and Heller, and defensive middies Chris LaPierre, Bobby Hill, Blake Riley, Pat Harbeson and Carlson Milikin. Incoming freshmen who could contribute immediately include goalie Matt Barrett (Glenmoore, Pa.) and defenseman Andrew Mullen (Toronto, Ontario).
Starsia sees many similarities between Scales and Mullen.
“When we started recruiting him,” Starsia recalled, “he was on a hockey track in Canada, and he said, `Coach, I’m very interested in Virginia, but I’m following this professional hockey track.’ I said, `Well, tell you what, Andrew Mullen: If you tell me that if you come to college you’ll come to Virginia, but that I could lose you to hockey, I’ll take that chance.’ He said OK, and the hockey didn’t quite work out.”
Mullen is listed at 6-2, 205 pounds. Even bigger is Thompson Brown, who came to UVa on a football scholarship in 2011, then gave up that sport last year and joined the lacrosse team as a walk-on.
“We may be writing about Thompson Brown in a year’s time,” Starsia said Wednesday, laughing.
The 6-4, 210-pound Brown, an exceptional athlete who played defensive end for Mike London’s football team, spent most of his first year of college lacrosse at close defense, but his role may change. He’s been working as a defensive middie and faceoff specialist.
“I’m intrigued by it,” said Starsia, who played football and lacrosse at Brown. “We gave him a short stick, and he just seems more comfortable with it.”