By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Dom Starsia knows all too well how difficult it can be to stop a Cockerton on the lacrosse field. And so the University of Virginia’s longtime men’s coach is delighted to have had Mark Cockerton on his side for four seasons.
Back in 1978 — long before Mark entered this world — Starsia played defense for the United States at the world championships in Stockton, England. Team USA’s opponent in the championship game was Canada, whose stars included Stan Cockerton, then an All-America attackman for NC State.
Early in the tournament, the Americans had humbled the Canadians 28-4. But in the final, Canada prevailed 17-16 in double overtime on a goal by Cockerton, his sixth of the game. Starsia, positioned nearby, saw the play unfold.
“We were man-down, and Stan was playing inside on the extra-man,” Starsia recalled this week.
Cockerton, from Oshawa, Ontario, would finish his NC State career with 193 goals, an NCAA record that stood until 2008. Starsia, who graduated from Brown in 1974, never saw Cockerton play for State, which later dropped its lacrosse program. But Cockerton remains a legend in the sport.
“The stories are unbelievable,” said Starsia, whose team hosts Johns Hopkins (10-4) in the NCAA tournament’s first round Sunday at 1 p.m. at KlÃƒÂ¶ckner Stadium. UVa, the No. 8 seed, is 10-5.
Stan Cockerton has two sons, Matt and Mark, and each chose to play college lacrosse at Virginia.
“I’ve known Stan forever,” Starsia said, “and it’s been great to have him around the program.”
Matt lettered four times (2010-13) as a reserve attackman for the Wahoos. Mark, a 5-10, 185-pound left-hander, has had a greater impact on the field, mostly on attack.
Heading into his final NCAA tournament, Cockerton ranks ninth in career goals at UVa, with 123 — two fewer than Garrett Billings (another Canadian) and three fewer than Steele Stanwick.
Cockerton, who has been named All-ACC twice, was a third-team All-American last season and is likely to receive All-America honors again this spring.
As a junior, he finished with 49 goals, the fourth-most in a season by a Cavalier, and he has 45 this spring, with at least one more game to play.
“He’s on a very short list of the finest shooters that have been around here,” Starsia said. “In some ways he fits the sort of traditional description of the Canadian sniper. His ability to finish some shots is just remarkable, really.
“I would tell you also, he’s so much tougher than he looks. He’s so unassuming physically — not a big kid — but, man, he takes a beating and just keeps coming. He is really, really tough.”
Cockerton, who turns 23 this month, has seen a change in how opponents defend him this season.
“Every time I dodge I feel like there’s a slide coming right away,” he said. “That’s been probably the biggest difference. So I feel like when that happens, you’ve got to learn to feed, or it’s just really tough.”
Cockerton had only 16 career assists heading into his fourth year at UVa. He has 15 already this season. In Virginia’s most recent game, a 13-11 victory over ACC rival North Carolina on April 26, he scored four goals and tied his career high with three assists.
“That was probably one of the better games I’ve played in my career, just overall, scoring and feeding,” Cockerton said. “It’s good to get that confidence going, especially right before the playoffs start.”
Starsia said: “There are teams that are absolutely determined not to let him get to the cage. He is smart enough to know that he can help us a lot by passing the ball and finding the open guy, and he has gotten better at that even as this season has unfolded.
“I think his game has filled out since he’s been here. He’s become a much better player in the four years he’s been here.”
Cockerton grew up in Oshawa playing box lacrosse, the version of the game most popular in Canada, and that helped him develop into such a precise shooter. Box lacrosse is played indoors on hockey rinks whose ice has been removed or covered. There are six players on a side and a 30-second shot clock, the goals are 4-foot by 4-foot, and goalies wear bulky pads, as in ice hockey.
The version most popular in the United States, known as field lacrosse, is played outdoors, with 10 players on a team and a 6×6 goal at each end.
“I definitely like box lacrosse better,” Cockerton said. “I feel like there’s just more flow to the game, and it’s more exciting, more fast-paced. In box it’s just back and forth.”
Even so, he said, “I feel like I kind of have a hybrid of the box and field games. I feel like I probably carry the ball more than any other Canadian in the NCAA right now.”
Cockerton’s versatility is one reason he was such a coveted recruit coming out of Monsignor Paul Dwyer Catholic High in Oshawa.
“I remember the first time [associate head coach] Marc Van Arsdale saw Mark play,” Starsia said. “Marc came back to me and said, `He’s more than just a typical lefty Canadian. He can pick the ball up off the end line and make something happen.’ Not every Canadian can do that.”
As a freshman in 2011, Cockerton made a critical late-season contribution in the Cavaliers’ surprising run to the NCAA title, their fourth under Starsia. As a sophomore, though, he posted modest statistics — 16 goals and five assists — and started only two games.
“A lot of it was playing time, but confidence, too,” Cockerton recalled. “I just felt like I was really confident last year, and my sophomore year I just couldn’t get any confidence going, and it was tough.”
Such struggles aren’t unusual for Canadians adjusting to the college game.
“Most of these guys have never played field lacrosse at this level, with other good guys, and so it takes them a while,” Starsia said.
“I always thought he was capable of this. His career started out slowly, and I think part of it was just trying to figure out what’s going on, and trying to be respectful of Steele and [Chris] Bocklet and guys like that, and trying to figure out, `How do I do the things that I think I can do and not get in the way of these other players?’
“It was a confusing time for him early in his career, and now that he knows he’s got a little more license, I think his game has really blossomed in the last year and a half, especially.”
That’s not the only way Cockerton, a sociology major, has changed during his college career.
“I think being at UVa has opened his eyes a little bit,” Starsia said. “He’s grown up some.”
Cockerton said: “That’s one of the things that Dom always stresses. He wants to make you a better lacrosse player, but also a better person. That’s what definitely happened with me. I feel like when I came in, I was kind of selfish. I cared a lot about myself, and as I’ve progressed through my career, I feel I’ve definitely been more of a team player, and that’s one of the things that I pride myself on. I’ve really matured and become more of a team player.”
His brother is back in Oshawa, Cockerton said, training to become a firefighter. For Cockerton, lacrosse will continue to dominate his life after he leaves UVa.
The Rochester Rattlers of Major League Lacrosse drafted Cockerton this year, and he’s also planning to play in the indoor National Lacrosse League, whose draft is in September.
He hopes to stay active in the sport even after his playing days are over, as has his father has done. Stan Cockerton is president of the Federation of International Lacrosse and executive director of the Ontario Lacrosse Association.
“I haven’t really thought too far down the road,” Cockerton said. “But I love lacrosse so much. It’s one of the greatest things in my life, so maybe a coaching job or something could be in the future.”
THE NEXT GENERATION: Cockerton isn’t the only Canadian in the Cavaliers’ program. UVa’s freshmen include Joe French, a 5-11, 195-pound attackman from Toronto.
French, who has played in four games, has five goals and two assists. In style of play, French is closer to Garrett Billings than to Mark Cockerton, Starsia said.
“I would describe Mark as a slasher,” Starsia said. “French is more of a finisher. French is bigger and stronger. French catches everything in front of the goal. He doesn’t carry the ball well.
“Mark can start from the whistle and make a play, and not every Canadian can do that. That’s not really French’s game. You would plant French in front of the cage.
“French is the kind of guy that would have four goals at the end of a game, and the ball would have been in his stick for about 10 seconds total. He’s very good with the ball and on loose balls around the crease. He catches everything inside.”
Starsia smiled. “He’s a remarkably inaccurate shooter from about 10 yards. We give him grief about it all the time. He’s got no range, but he’s very tough and very focused in a very small area in front of the cage, which also can be a valuable asset.”
With Cockerton about to graduate, “French’s time will come next year,” Starsia said.