By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After a long bus trip home from Philadelphia, the UVa men’s lacrosse team met briefly at University Hall on Sunday night. The players left with a clear understanding of the challenge facing them.
“We don’t harbor any illusions here,” head coach Dom Starsia said Monday morning. “Everybody in our locker room knows we need to play better, play a more complete game.”
The Cavaliers are 3-0, with each victory by a single goal. On Feb. 6, Virginia opened with a 14-13 overtime win over Loyola (Md.) at Klöckner Stadium. The Wahoos needed a last-second goal by junior midfielder Ryan Tucker to force OT.
Two days later, as the visiting team in the University of Richmond’s first men’s game, UVa survived 13-12 at Robins Stadium. Sunday afternoon in Philly, senior attackman Mark Cockerton scored with 15 seconds left to lift Virginia to an 11-10 win over Drexel.
Many UVa fans find these close calls alarming. Starsia, who’s in his 22nd season at the University, isn’t panicking. Loyola won the NCAA title in 2012, he knows, and is ranked No. 9 in the USILA coaches poll released Monday. Drexel, 11-4 in 2013, was picked to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Association this season.
Virginia, which hosts Rutgers at 5 p.m. Saturday, is tied with Denver for fifth in the latest USILA poll.
“It’s early in February,” Starsia said. “Have we played our best lacrosse? No, but at the same time we’ve played a couple of pretty good teams and we’ve got a couple of Ws under our belt, and I think we’re moving in a positive direction. Guys continue to work and they pay attention. Now we just gotta turn that into performance.”
The `Hoos went 1-3 in one-goal games last season. This marks the first time since 2009 that Virginia has played three one-goal games in a row.
“It’s quite remarkable, really,” Starsia said. Drexel “was the one that I probably would have predicted had the best chance to be a game like this. They always play us tough, and playing them on the road like that [added to UVa’s challenge].”
In the 2012 opener, UVa edged Drexel 9-8 in Philadelphia. The Cavaliers opened last season with a 13-12 overtime win over the Dragons at Klöckner.
Virginia had a less-than-ideal week of preparation leading up to its latest clash with Drexel, a game that was postponed a day because of bad weather in Philly. Conditions weren’t much better in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers were forced to train in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“The indoor was a godsend, because I don’t know what we would have done without it,” Starsia said, “but at the same time sometimes you’ve got half the field, sometimes you’ve got the full field. There’s no lines on it. Obviously we were happy to have it, but it doesn’t quite play the same way.”
Virginia, which has won four NCAA titles under Starsia, is by far the most storied program on Drexel’s schedule. Loyola plays defending NCAA champion Duke on March 9. In general, though, the Greyhounds rarely face marquee opponents during the regular season.
As a result, Starsia said, teams such as Drexel and Loyola “put an awful lot into these early games [with Virginia]. We’re a benchmark for them in a lot of ways, so we’re going to get their best shot, and they’re just better than people think.
“At the same time, we need to play better. We need to be a more consistent lacrosse team. We show flashes of potential or brilliance, but we’ve made some mistakes that are just inexcusable, by veteran players. It’s not the young pups. ”
He’s not overly concerned, for example, when freshman midfielder Zed Williams “passes up a great shot and maybe turns the ball over,” Starsia said. “Those things are going to happen. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about my defensemen and Ryan and Rob Emery not completing plays that the other teams have turned around [and scored on]. We gotta start playing better, and I think everybody understands that.”
“I thought we were very good in the half-field on offense and defense,” Starsia said. “It was the transition play and our clearing game that let us down, and then the time of possession.”
Nick Saputo, a preseason All-CAA pick, took every faceoff for the Dragons and won 19 of 25. “He was tough,” Starsia said. “It wasn’t even that their wing guys were much of a factor. He was pulling the ball out and picking it up himself.”
Virginia’s No. 1 faceoff specialist, junior Mick Parks, won only 6 of 19 draws Sunday. The Cavaliers also tried freshman Jeff Kratky (0 for 4) and juniors Tyler German (0 for 1) and Tanner Ottenbreit (0 for 1) at the faceoff-X, with no better results.
“There were times when [Drexel] just kept getting the ball back and had it for long stretches, and then we would turn it over when we got it back again,” Starsia said. “That was disappointing. If we’re not going to win faceoffs, we need to be very good in the clearing game, and we weren’t. I got veteran guys back there. We just should have been better at taking care of the ball in our defensive end.”
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, “the kid in the goal gave us a game,” Starsia said.
In only his third college game, freshman Matt Barrett made 16 saves for UVa. Barrett, who’s from the Philadelphia area, totaled a modest 13 saves in his first two starts.
Still, the coaching staff “looked closely at the first two games,” Starsia said, “and there really wasn’t a goal that you felt like, `Man, that was a bad one.’ What he didn’t do in the first two games was steal one, steal a couple, like he had been in practice. But you worry about a freshman’s confidence. His stats didn’t look good. He’s going to his hometown. How’s he going to react?”
The coaches need not have worried. “Overall, Matt probably played the best of anybody on the team and gave us a really good chance to win,” Starsia said. “He had some really nice stops.”
Through three games, Pannell leads UVa with 12 points, on 10 goals and two assists, and Cockerton has 10 points, on seven goals and three assists. The third starting attackman, Van Arsdale, has a team-high six assists.
Scoring hasn’t been a struggle for the Cavaliers. Midfielders Tucker, German, Emery and Greg Coholan have four goals apiece, and they’ve combined for six assists.
“I think we’ve been very good in the half-field game,” Starsia said. “But we haven’t created enough easy goals, and we’ve given up some transition goals.
“Some of that is being stuck inside [for practice], perhaps, but it’s the full-field game that has let us down a little bit. In the half-field, I keep saying in the huddles, when we’re patient we can almost always generate a good opportunity, and that has really kind of held up. But we’re athletic enough and experienced enough to be creating some better opportunities for ourselves and to be more efficient in the clearing game, which would result in creating some easier opportunities.
“We need to be able to create and capitalize on those at the same time.”
In his first game last season — he sat out the opener — Cockerton scored six goals against VMI. He followed that with a five-goal performance against Stony Brook and then scored six against Mount St. Mary’s.
Cockerton, who’s from Ontario, Canada, finished his junior season with 49 goals and was named a third-team All-American. He’s had much less room to operate around the goal this season.
“He draws so much attention,” Starsia said.
Against Drexel, Cockerton didn’t score his first goal until more than 57 minutes had elapsed. That gave the `Hoos a 10-9 lead. His second goal kept them unbeaten.
“It was nice that he didn’t get frustrated and keep running in there and turn the ball over and stuff like that,” Starsia said. “He played within himself. One of these days he’s going to break out, and things will open for him a little bit.”
Another prominent veteran is fifth-year senior Chris LaPierre, who was an All-America defensive midfielder in 2012.
LaPierre, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, is still working into game shape and has yet to regain his 2012 form. “But he’s such a force and he’s such a confident kid,” Starsia said. “You can tag along behind him and he takes you where you want to go.”