Oct. 23, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For further proof of lacrosse’s growth, check out UVa men’s coach Dom Starsia’s recent travel schedule. In the span of about a week, the sport took him to San Francisco, to Harlem, N.Y., and to Tulsa, Okla.

“Ten years ago, I’m not going to any of those locations,” said Starsia, who’s heading into his 22nd season at Virginia.

On Oct. 12, UVa scrimmaged Princeton in the fifth San Francisco Fall Lacrosse Classic. A few days later, Starsia flew to New York and attended his first meeting as a member of the executive board of Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership, whose program directors include former UVa player Wyatt Melzer.

Finally, Saturday in Tulsa, Starsia took part in a lacrosse clinic whose sponsors included the Muscogee Creek Nation, a Native American tribal group. The organizers of the clinic included Justin Giles, a Native American who played for Starsia at UVa. Among those joining Starsia at the clinic were Brett Bucktooth and Neal Powless, former college stars who have represented the Iroquois at the world championships.

“The emphasis on the Native American piece of it all was really kind of cool,” Starsia said. “And then at the end, as I was getting ready to leave, they had a closing ceremony, and they wrapped me in a Native blanket that they gave me. It was very nice. People were very appreciative. It really made for a nice week, just the three trips and all the different stuff.”

The Cavaliers’ 2013-14 roster includes players from 12 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia — as well as three from Canada.

“There are kids all over,” Starsia said.

His Californians are brothers Rob and Matt Emery, graduates of St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. Rob is a 6-3, 205-pound senior midfielder. Matt, also a middie, is a 6-3, 200-pound freshman.

Matt missed the scrimmage with an injury, but Rob scored a goal in Virginia’s 11-8 victory over Princeton.

UVa’s San Francisco experience exceeded his expectations, Starsia said. “Firstand foremost in a practical way, because every flight was on time. Everybody got through security with no problem, everybody got to the gate on time. The buses were where they were supposed to be. And so we moved very efficiently. It was a beautiful day.”

Kezar Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers until 1970, was “a neat setting for the game,” Starsia said. “You go through this tunnel underground back to the locker rooms, which are these little holes. You can picture NFL guys in there 40 years ago. The tunnel is a hundred yards long, dirt floor, dingy concrete. You feel like you’re a gladiator in the Colosseum.”

The Tigers scored three of the first four goals in the scrimmage. “They kind of carried the play to us for about 20 minutes,” Starsia said. “They seemed very excited, and we kind of stood around a little bit, I thought, early in the game. But then I thought we picked it up and really dominated the play over the last almost three quarters of the game. We never let them back into it.”

The scrimmage was the only one of the fall for Virginia, which finished 7-8 last season and failed to make the NCAA tournament for only the second time in Starsia’s tenure.

“Overall, not bad,” Starsia said when asked to evaluate fall practice for his team. “We got a ways to go. Princeton’s a pretty good team, ranked ahead of us in some of the preseason polls, and so it was a good effort for us overall. I don’t think anybody’s getting too excited, but I feel like at the end of a long fall, it was the way you hoped you might finish at least.”

Among the players back from last season are Rob Emery, Chris LaPierre, Pat Harbeson, Ryan Tucker, Rhody Heller, Greg Coholan, Dan Marino, Greg Danseglio, James Pannell, Owen Van Arsdale, Blake Riley, Bobby Hill, Mick Parks, Tanner Scales, Scott McWilliams and Mark Cockerton.

LaPierre, an All-America defensive midfielder in 2012, injured the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Virginia’s first full practice last January. He tried to play through the injury but ended up being shut down and taking a redshirt year.

Using a football analogy, Starsia said the PCL injury is not one “that wide receivers or running backs often get. It’s an offensive lineman’s injury.” And that’s why LaPierre could not play last season.

“Had he been [the lacrosse equivalent of] an offensive lineman, I think he could have come back and played midway through the year,” Starsia said. “But the fact that he was out in the middle of the field, needing to change direction and things, that was what he couldn’t do.”

LaPierre, who wore a brace on his knee in practice this fall, is nearly back to full strength.

“Running straight ahead, he looks the same to me,” Starsia said. “He looks great. I still think he’s a little bit hesitant when he’s playing defense and some guy comes at him with a quick change of direction. So I think he’ll continue to get stronger.

“It was good for us to have him out there this fall. It was a shot in the arm for us to see him back out there on the field [in San Francisco], and he was a force for us in the middle of the field, the way he has been in the past.”

UVa’s top defensive middies last season were the 5-10 Riley and the 5-8 Hill, “and we just got overpowered in some of those games,” Starsia said. Virginia’s options at that position now also include the 6-3, 210-pound LaPierre and 6-1, 185-pound redshirt freshman Carlson Milikin, who sat out last season with an injury.

“What we did this fall was, we split up Hill and Riley and put one of them each with Milikin and LaPierre,” Starsia said. “Now we just match up better, and our depth is better there. It really, really will help.”

Overall, Starsia said, “I just feel like this may be as athletic a group as we’ve had for a while overall, from top to bottom.”

Heller started nine games and Marino six in goal last season. Pushing the veterans this fall was Matt Barrett, a highly regarded freshman from Malvern Prep outside Philadelphia.

“He’s very much in the mix,” Starsia said.

Barrett tore his left ACL playing football in September 2012. He returned for lacrosse season last spring, but Barrett didn’t arrive at UVa “in great shape, because I don’t think he’s really worked at it since the injury,” Starsia said.

“But he’s been working hard since he got to school. He had some catching up to do on the fitness side of things.”

Barrett is listed at 6-0, 220 pounds, and his size is one of his strengths.

“I hate playing against big goalies,” Starsia said. “He fills up a lot of the cage. He gives us a little presence in the goal just by standing there. You just don’t see a lot of the cage.”

The Wahoos have won four NCAA titles under Starsia. For the `Hoos to return to their customary place in the lacrosse world, they must get more consistent play in goal than they did last season. They also need more production from attackmen not named Mark Cockerton.

Cockerton scored 49 goals last season, the fourth-most ever by a UVa player, and made the All-America third team. The senior left-hander missed the scrimmage in San Francisco to try out for Canada’s national team, but that didn’t concern Starsia. “He’s on top of his game right now.”

Other attackmen include Pannell, who’s a sophomore; juniors Carl Walrath, Taylor Michel and Van Arsdale; and freshmen Ryan Lukacovic, Joe French and AJ Fish.

“I think if we had a game tonight, we would probably start Pannell and Lukacovic and Cockerton,” Starsia said. “Owen’s sort of the fourth guy and jack of all trades.”

In the midfield, the Cavaliers are loaded with talented veterans and promising newcomers. On the attack, questions remain.

“It’s fair to say the development of our attack overall will probably define what kind of offensive team we’re going to be,” Starsia said. “I feel like we made progress this fall, but we’re still going to have to show that we can do it when we’re playing for real.”

Pannell, whose brother is former Cornell great Rob Pannell, suffered an ankle injury on the first day of practice last January and did not have the impact many expected as a UVa freshman. He finished with seven goals and five assists.

In the scrimmage against Princeton, Pannell led UVa with three goals. Van Arsdale and Lukacovic added two apiece.

“So that was encouraging overall,” Starsia said. “Lukacovic came on during the fall, and Pannell got better as the fall went on.”

Lukacovic and Barrett weren’t the only members of their class to impress this fall. Other freshmen who had their moments included Emery, Fish, French, Jacob Dean, Zed Williams and faceoff specialist Jeff Kratky.

Williams arrived at UVa with an especially compelling résumé. A member of the Seneca tribe who grew up on the Cattaraugus Reservation near Buffalo, N.Y., he made the Silver Creek High varsity team as an eighth-grader. Williams finished his high school career with 729 points — a national record — on 444 goals and 285 assists.

Williams figures prominently in Starsia’s plans for the spring. Classmate Emery might redshirt, but not because he lacks talent. The presence of fifth-year seniors LaPierre and Riley means Virginia is “a little older in the midfield than we thought otherwise,” Starsia said.

The younger Emery is “a first-midfield-for-four-years caliber player who might not get there this year, because he missed a lot of fall lacrosse,” Starsia said. “So maybe you save his year rather than put him on the second midfield or the third midfield and use [a season of eligibility] in a couple games. We at least pushed that decision off until February. But he’s got big ability.”

The program’s most intriguing newcomer is probably Joseph Lisicky, who was a two-time Division III All-American on defense at Lynchburg College.

The 6-2, 205-pound Lisicky was the Division III preseason player of the year in 2013. But he suffered a foot injury in his first game last season and never played again for the Hornets.

The NCAA granted Lisicky a fifth year of eligibility, and he chose to use it at UVa, where he’s a graduate student. He’s expected to play a significant role as a faceoff wing and long-stick midfielder for the `Hoos.

“He’s going to help us,” Starsia said. “He needs to get in a little better shape, but he’s aggressive and he’s tough and he’s active in the middle of the field.”

The gap between Divisions I and III in lacrosse is not nearly as great as in other sports.

“Mostly I would say it’s a physical difference,” Starsia said. “The players are just bigger and stronger at this level in general. This is in no way being disrespectful to Division III, but I think Joe sort of had his way a little bit at Lynchburg, and he’s surrounded by more players with similar ability now, and he needs to maximize his conditioning and things like that. But there’s a spark there that we clearly can use, and he’s been fun to have around. He seems to be very respectful of everybody and seems to be appreciative of the opportunity. He’s just a really nice kid, and I think it’s worked out probably as well as or better than I might have expected.”

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