May 14, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Upsets abounded in the first round of the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament, with four of the top eight seeds losing: No. 2 Syracuse to Bryant, No. 3 Loyola to Albany, No. 4 Penn to Drexel, and No. 8 Virginia to Johns Hopkins.
“I said that last week, that you’re going to have to fight your way out of the first round,” UVa coach Dom Starsia recalled Monday. “But even I wouldn’t have expected that it was going to be quite as dramatic as it wound up being. It just really was amazing what happened over the weekend.
“Ours was probably the least surprising of the group, in terms of the institutions involved and the experience of the programs.”
Between them, UVa and Hopkins have won 14 NCAA titles in this sport. On Sunday afternoon, though, only the Blue Jays looked like championship contenders. After falling behind 2-0, Hopkins steadied itself and pulled away for a 14-8 victory.
The Cavaliers, who won their first six games this season, finished with a 10-6 record. For the first time in Starsia’s tenure, Virginia has fallen short of the Final Four in three consecutive seasons.
The Wahoos have won four NCAA titles in 22 seasons under Starsia — in 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011.
All season, Starsia said, his players “never quit fighting and they never quit practicing, and we never quit believing, frankly. But at the same time, the last game against Hopkins sort of epitomized what the season was like for us. We gave up some runs, we had some spurts of our own, but we couldn’t get the goal that we needed, or we gave up one at an inopportune time.”
Freshman Matt Barrett started every game in goal for the `Hoos, and he improved over the course of the year. Still, Barrett finished with an underwhelming save percentage (46.7). That Virginia also struggled on faceoffs did not make Barrett’s job any easier.
UVa won only 47.2 percent of its draws this season. Its top specialist, junior Mick Parks, won 51.1 percent.
Troubling signs emerged early in the season. In its opener Feb. 6, Virginia edged Loyola 14-13 in overtime. During one second-half stretch, however, the Greyhounds scored nine unanswered goals.
“For three quarters of the Loyola game, we were all over them, and then it just kind of stopped clicking a little bit, and I can’t explain it exactly,” Starsia said.
Two days later, in a 13-12 victory over Richmond, making its debut as a Division I team, the `Hoos gave up seven straight goals. In March, Cornell and Notre Dame went on 9-0 and 8-1 runs, respectively, against UVa. Hopkins had an 8-0 run Sunday at Klöckner.
“An eight-goal run or a nine-goal run, we probably had more of those happen to us this year than all the rest of my years combined, where we couldn’t seem to get a stop when we had to or score a goal when we needed to,” Starsia said.
“That’s what was striking to me, that we couldn’t generate something. There were times when it looked like we couldn’t run by Richmond, and I was like, `How can that be?’ Early in the season it felt like this may not be quite as simple as I imagined it could have been.”
Senior attackman Mark Cockerton led the Cavaliers in scoring this season, with 63 points (47 goals and 16 assists), and sophomore attackman James Pannell was second with 46 points (39 goals and seven assists). Cockerton had a team-high two goals, plus an assist, against Hopkins, but Pannell missed all nine of his shots and failed to record at least one point for only the second time all season.
“We didn’t have enough margin for error on offense to be missing one of our big boys,” Starsia said.
Overall, the `Hoos connected on only 8 of 49 shots Sunday. Hopkins, by contrast, was 14 for 40. Junior attackman Wells Stanwick, whose brother Steele is UVa’s all-time leading scorer, was 5 for 5 to lead the Blue Jays.
Virginia’s final goal Sunday came with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well all game,” said junior attackman Owen Van Arsdale, who had a goal and a team-high two assists. “That really hurt us. We had great looks in every quarter. We got off to a fast start, and it looked like we were going to be hot shooting the ball, but then we hit their goalie a few times and let him get hot.”
Virginia’s first midfield combined for only one point against the Blue Jays, a goal by junior Ryan Tucker.
For Emery, a third-team All-American last year, the game marked a disappointing end to a fine career. Emery, who scored 24 goals in 2012 and 22 in ’13, had only 14 this season, a drop for which Starsia has no explanation.
“He was our hardest worker,” Starsia said. “He was out on the practice field early every single day, and he couldn’t make the ball get in the goal for him this year. It was from no lack of effort.”
Departing starters include Cockerton, Emery, midfielder Pat Harbeson, defenseman Scott McWilliams and long-stick midfielder Joseph Lisicky, as well as the team’s top three defensive middies: Chris LaPierre, Bobby Hill and Blake Riley.
“Sometimes you have a better season when you least expect it,” Starsia said.
“We’ll be a very different team, I think, next year, but I’m quite optimistic that we’ll be headed in the direction to the level that we all expect us to play at and reach.”
With Cockerton leaving, Starsia expects attackman Ryan Lukacovic, who had 18 points as a freshman this season, to play a leading role in 2015.
“I told Ryan [after the Hopkins game], `It’s going to be your turn now,’ ” Starsia said Monday.
Starsia is also high on long-stick midfielder Michael Howard, a 6-5, 220-pound redshirt freshman from Richmond, and Rob Emery’s brother Matt, a freshman who redshirted this season. Howard played in only three games this season, but one was the finale against Hopkins.
“I think we may have found something there,” Starsia said.
Incoming freshmen who might play immediately include attackman Mike D’Amario, midfielder Jack Falk and defensemen Chase Campbell, Cooper Fersen, Scott Hooper and Logan Greco, a former Cornell recruit.
Williams, who finished with 15 points this season, flashed the formidable skills that made him a legendary high school player.
“I think you sort of saw glimpses of the player Zed could be,” Starsia said.
“You could have put him on the first midfield this year, and we might have been better offensively. But I appreciate that people gave him a chance to grow up. It was a hard year for him, being away from home and with all that was being asked academically, and he surpassed my expectations on so many different levels.”
Starsia, only half-kidding, said Williams “might never come off the field next year. I think he could be the faceoff wing and a defensive guy that’s great in the middle of the field and stays in the game. He’s a bigger Billy Glading type for us, I think.”
The losses in the defensive midfield are substantial, but redshirt freshman Carlson Milikin played extensively this season, and Starsia said he believes sophomore James Dahlheimer and freshman Jacob Dean “have the potential to help us out there.”
Moreover, Falk could contribute immediately as a defensive middie, Starsia said, and “there’s a chance that Will McNamara might be back in school.”
McNamara, a heralded recruit coming out of high school, redshirted as a freshman in 2013 because of an injury and withdrew from the University last summer for personal reasons.
“You look at some of the guys we’re going to graduate, we’re going to miss them a great deal,” Starsia said, “but I do feel as if we’ve got some good young players in place to step in and be in position to make some plays for us next year.”
Asked Sunday how he would assess his team’s season, Starsia said, “I thought it was a great effort by the kids overall. It just felt like it never was easy.”
On the back of the players’ postseason shooting shirts was a phrase — Hard Road to Glory — taken from the title of an Arthur Ashe book, and “it kind of felt like that’s what the season was,” Starsia said.
“It was hard work the whole time. It felt like things didn’t come easily to us. It was a really nice group to work with, though. I thought they worked hard. They brought it to the practice field every day. I got no complaints about that. I just never felt like we really got into a rhythm of any length throughout the season. Sometimes those kind of things kind of make your life a little easier.”
In 2013, UVa missed the NCAA tournament for only the second time under Starsia. The seniors “got us back on track this year,” he said. “They kept us headed in the right direction, they were a pleasure to work with every day, and as a coach you can’t ask for a lot more than that.”