May 23, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa women’s lacrosse team, revenge is not the primary motivating factor this postseason, says head coach Julie Myers. Still, it’s not lost on the Cavaliers that they keep getting matched against opponents that defeated them during the regular season.
First Duke, then Maryland, then Princeton and then North Carolina. Next up for the Wahoos is a rematch with ACC rival Syracuse, which beat them 18-14 on Feb. 23 in Charlottesville.
“It’s nice how that worked out,” Myers said Wednesday by phone from the team bus as the `Hoos headed north to the Baltimore area.
At 5 p.m. Friday, sixth-seeded UVa (12-8) meets second-seeded Syracuse (20-2) in the first NCAA semifinal at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson, Md.
“I think it’s such a unique opportunity to get a second chance at teams,” said Myers, who’s in her 19th season as head coach at her alma mater.
“It’s been good to be able to sit down as a staff and have [assistants] Jessy [Morgan] and Colleen [Shearer] look at: What did we do the first time, how are our opponents playing now, and what do we different? So we’ve been able to use our first experience as a learning tool.”
In the ACC quarterfinals, UVa avenged its regular-season loss to Duke with a 7-5 victory. The Cavaliers fell to Maryland the next day, but they had done enough to assure themselves a 19th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
Virginia was awarded the No. 6 seed — and a first-round bye — in the NCAA tourney. In a second-round game May 11, the `Hoos ousted Princeton, which had beaten them March 15, with a 13-11 win at Klöckner Stadium.
Six days later, UVa upset third-seeded North Carolina 10-9 in Chapel Hill to clinch its first Final Four berth since 2007.
The Tar Heels had thumped the Cavaliers 14-10 at Klöckner on March 8 and came into the NCAA tournament having won nine straight in the series.
Still, Myers said, “I think the coaches are more aware of the history and the tradition and when’s the last time we beat `em. I think the kids are pretty naive when it comes to when’s the last time we beat Carolina and all that.”
The coaching staff rarely talks about avenging losses, Myers said. “We really just focus more so on what we’re going to do that’s going to help us win, and then we really drill the heck out of it in practice. And again, Colleen and Jessy do a great job of coming up with ways to really make their point and get the kids to understand how we’re going to play it. They know the game plan going in, and that makes a huge difference.”
Much has changed for the `Hoos since their loss to Syracuse at Klöckner, especially on the defensive end.
“I would first tell you, if you score 14 goals, I feel like you should probably win that game,” Myers said.
Junior Morgan Stephens’ move from the midfield to defense during the regular season paid immediate dividends for the Cavaliers, who have won eight of their past 10 games.
Stephens was named a second-team All-American this week, and behind her in the cage is senior Liz Colgan, the only Cavalier to make the first team.
“It’s definitely something I dreamed of,” Colgan said of her honor, “but I’m always going to put the team first, and winning in the Final Four would mean way more to me than [being an] All-American.”
Colgan, who’s in her first season as a full-time starter at UVa, made nine saves in the regular-season loss to the Orange. Back then, Myers said Wednesday, the `Hoos were taking more chances on defense “and really kind of leaving Liz out to dry. She was making a ton of saves, but obviously not enough when you’re facing shooters like that. But our defense has really come a long way. They’ve really focused on the little things and being consistent and moving as a unit, and I think that has helped tremendously.
“Liz has been rock-solid the whole year, so this gives Liz a chance to do her thing in a winning effort. So that’s been huge for us. And our attack is really good.”
Junior Courtney Swan leads Virginia in scoring with 79 points, on 53 goals and 26 assists, and in draw controls with 92. Another attacker, redshirt junior Liza Blue, is second in scoring with 65 points, on 55 goals and 10 assists, and in draw controls with 56.
Swan was named a second-team All-American this week, and Blue was a third-team selection. Another attacker, junior Casey Bocklet, totaled two goals and three assists last weekend to help the `Hoos rally past the Tar Heels.
UNC led 7-4 at the break and scored first in the second half. But the Cavaliers never lost their poise. With 21:57 remaining, sophomore midfielder Mary Alati pulled UVa to 8-5 with a goal that started a 6-0 run.
“I think that we’re playing well, and even when you’re playing well you’re going to have stretches where you may go down in a game,” Myers said. “But what I liked is that when our backs were against the wall yet again in this game, where we were down four and we needed draws, Courtney Swan and Liza Blue, started finding those draws and getting some clean ones, and we were really efficient on the attack side.
“What we wanted to do was take the shots that our attackers wanted to shoot and not take what Carolina wanted us to take. So I think that we just kind of won the war of wills in terms of staying with it and moving the ball a couple more times to get those clean looks. And Liz, of course, made some huge saves throughout.
“Every time she made a save, I thought, `All right we’ve got another chance. We’re catching up, and they didn’t get an easy goal there.’ Liz and the defense came up with huge plays, and it’s always nice when the defense does that and then the attack answers with a goal of their own.”
When the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA championship game in 2007, nobody considered that an unusual occurrence. Under Myers, the `Hoos previously had reached the NCAA final six times, winning in 2004.
In 2008 and ’09, however, Virginia was bounced in the first round. In 2010, the `Hoos advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals, but first-round defeats followed in 2011 and ’12. The Cavaliers reached the NCAA quarterfinals last season, but not until this month did they break through and end their Final Four drought.
“When I was young and we had great teams,” Myers said this week, “I knew it was a great accomplishment to get to a Final Four, but I didn’t realize how hard it was to get to a Final Four.”
In 2008 and ’09, Myers said, UVa had Final Four-caliber teams, “but we tripped over ourselves. Those were good teams that really just didn’t have a great game at the end.”
The Cavaliers produced such a performance last weekend in Chapel Hill. And now, to the delight of everyone associated with the program, they find themselves back on their sport’s biggest stage.
“It’s super-nice, having been left out for so many years, to get back in,” Myers said. “It’s a huge accomplishment, and it’s something that all of us are really proud of.”
In the second semifinal Friday night, top-seeded Maryland meets fifth-seeded Northwestern at 7:30. The NCAA title game is set for Sunday at 8:30 p.m. in Towson.
“I’m definitely not ready to be done yet,” UVa middie Maddy Keeshan said, and the rest of the team feels the same way.
“I like the way we’re playing right now,” Myers said. “I like our mojo going into the Final Four.”