By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — What has been a spring tradition for most of the past two decades was interrupted last season. In May 2013, the NCAA announced the fields for its men’s and women’s lacrosse tournaments, and UVa was included in only one.
A year later, order has been restored, and Virginia is again represented in both tourneys. The UVa men, who failed to qualify last year, are in the NCAAs for the 20th time in 22 seasons under Hall of Fame coach Dom Starsia. The UVa women are in the NCAA field for the 19th consecutive season, which coincides with Julie Myers’ tenure as head coach at her alma mater.
Both will play this weekend at Klöckner Stadium.
Virginia (10-5), seeded No. 8 in the 18-team men’s tournament, hosts longtime rival Johns Hopkins (10-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday in the round of 16.
In the 26-team women’s tournament, Virginia earned the final first-round bye as the No. 6 seed. The Cavaliers (10-8) will face Penn State or Princeton at 4 p.m. Sunday at Klöckner. The Nittany Lions and the Tigers will meet in a first-round game Friday at 4 p.m. at Klöckner.
In 2013, the UVa women won two games, both on the road, to advance to the NCAA quarterfinals, where they lost to eventual champion North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“We’re excited,” Myers said Sunday night after the NCAA field was announced. “It’s huge for us during exam week to be able to be home and not have to play till Sunday.”
Final exams run through Friday at the University. Not having to travel for a first-round game, Myers said, means her players “can now sit in their own regular classrooms and take exams on time with everybody else, and I think that’s a huge perk going into the tournament.”
The Wahoos went 3-4 in ACC play during the regular season, and their overall record isn’t eye-catching. But they played a grueling schedule for which the NCAA selection committee rewarded them.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Myers said.
Virginia will be familiar with whichever team it plays Sunday. During the regular season, UVa edged Penn State 12-11 in Charlottesville on March 1 and lost 15-13 at Princeton two weeks later.
“Looking at the bracket, they’re all going to be great games and tough games, and it’s not going to be easy to even get through Sunday,” Myers said. “But certainly we like playing at home. We like having a familiar opponent. I think we’re playing better, and we’ve certainly moved some things around and changed some things on our end [since the games against Penn State and Princeton].”
The `Hoos enter the NCAA tournament having won six of their past eight games. This is not the team that fell to 3-5 with the loss at Princeton.
“I definitely think that we’re playing smarter, and our best players are really playing even better,” Myers said. “I think we are doing things better than in the middle of the season. I think our mojo is right. I think the chemistry has come together more and more, on and off the field. Hopefully our best games are in front of us, but I certainly like the track we’re on right now.”
The UVa men appear to be peaking, too. The Cavaliers ended a three-game losing streak by beating Bellarmine 12-8 at Klöckner Stadium on April 19, then rallied to defeat North Carolina 13-11 a week later at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
Freshman goalie Matt Barrett improved as he gained experience during the regular season, Starsia said, and UVa’s second midfield, with freshman Zed Williams, junior Tyler German and senior Pat Harbeson, has grown into a formidable unit.
Moreover, Starsia said, “I think we have settled in defensively, which took longer than I thought it would, probably, but I think we’ve been better, more solid defensively, here in the second half of the season, and I think that helps us some. So I think we have changed in some subtle ways. I think we have improved. I think we’re playing some of our best lacrosse here at the end.”
The UVa-Hopkins winner figures to meet top-seeded Duke in the NCAA quarterfinals May 18 in Newark, Del. Duke hosts the winner of the Air Force-Richmond play-in game in the first round Sunday evening.
The Cavaliers have lost 14 of their past 15 games with the Blue Devils. Virginia’s immediate concern, though, is another team it knows well.
In a series that dates to 1926, UVa and Hopkins have met 85 times, with 14 of those games coming in the NCAA tournament. The teams play each other in the regular season each year, and the games rarely lack drama.
In their regular-season meeting March 22 at Klöckner, for example, the `Hoos edged the Blue Jays 11-10 on a goal by sophomore middie Greg Coholan in overtime.
“We’re both in the same boat,” said Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at Virginia. “You got two experienced programs that are very familiar with each other. It’s almost like we’re playing one of our ACC partners here, playing a team like Johns Hopkins.
“It’s just a question of getting yourself ready to play, and who’s going to play better on game day. There’s not going to be a lot of surprises out there.”
Of its 17 counterparts in the NCAA field, Virginia faced 10 during the regular season, the most of any team in the tournament. Given the Cavaliers’ strength of schedule, Starsia would not have been surprised had they been seeded as high as No. 4.
“And so to me, the strength of schedule, which has always been an important factor, seemed not to have carried quite as much weight as I might have imagined that it would have,” he said Sunday night.
In addition to Virginia-Hopkins, marquee matchups this weekend include No. 7 Maryland vs. Cornell, No. 5 Denver vs. North Carolina, and No. 6 Notre Dame vs. Harvard.
“You got a tough job trying to pick some of these,” Starsia said.
The game has grown in popularity during his tenure at UVa, and that change is reflected in the NCAA tournament, where first-round mismatches are no longer the norm.
For much of his coaching career, Starsia said, “there was very clearly a top group of teams, and you could kind of have your way in the early rounds of the playoffs. And we did a couple times in my early years here. But as things have changed and grown, you’re going to have to battle your way out of the first round. That’s just the way it’s going to be. It’s clearly not just us. There are a bunch of really exciting games here early on.”