Oct. 15, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the fall of 1998, UVa’s shoddy performance in a men’s lacrosse scrimmage prompted head coach Dom Starsia’s wife, Krissy Lasagna, to tell her husband she’d never seen one of his teams look so bad.

The next spring, the Cavaliers captured the NCAA title, the first of the four they’ve won during Starsia’s tenure. And so Starsia was not despondent after his team ended fall practice last weekend with a 10-8 loss to Navy in Virginia Beach.

For the Wahoos, it was their only scrimmage of the fall. For the Midshipmen, it was their second, Starsia said, “so they were prepared to play, and I thought they played hard. They went with their first guys the whole time. We played our entire roster, and we were going to do that no matter what.

“It was fun. We had moments when we played well, and if we’d hit a couple more shots, we would have [won].”

A year ago, the `Hoos ended fall ball with a scrimmage in San Francisco, where they defeated Princeton 11-8.

Starsia said his primary goal in fall scrimmages is “to get a feel for the freshmen and see which ones are likely to help us a little bit. And we want to sort of get the system introduced to everybody, so that when we [start practice] in January we can kind of get to things quickly and there’s some level of recognition for the guys, rather than trying to introduce everything from scratch.”

Moreover, he said, it’s helpful if players and coaches come away from fall ball feeling “like we clearly have work to do, and we do.”

UVa finished 10-6 last season after losing to Johns Hopkins at Klöckner Stadium in the NCAA tournament’s first round. Among the players gone from that team are attackman Mark Cockerton, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer with 63 points; midfielders Rob Emery and Pat Harbeson; long-stick middie Joseph Lisicky; short-stick defensive middies Chris LaPierre, Bobby Hill and Blake Riley; and defenseman Scott McWilliams, a second-team All-American.

Virginia’s returning players include goalie Matt Barrett, defenseman Tanner Scales and nine of the team’s top 12 scorers from last season: attackmen James Pannell (46 points), Owen Van Arsdale (38), Ryan Lukacovic (18) and Joe French (7), and middies Ryan Tucker (30), Greg Coholan (27), Tyler German (17), Zed Williams (15) and Zach Wood (6).

Starsia said he expects all five ACC teams to be ranked among the top eight nationally to start the 2015 season, with Syracuse, Notre Dame and North Carolina leading the way. And he’s not overlooking Duke, the two-time defending NCAA champion.

“I think we start out with a little less starpower than we’ve had in some other years,” Starsia said of the Cavaliers. “But we have some good young players that we’re very confident in and people will get to know better, especially when you think of Zed and Lukacovic and guys like that.”

Only a handful of seniors are likely to play leading roles for the `Hoos next season.

“I think we get better and better over the next couple of years,” Starsia said. “The question for us, in a couple of different spots, is how quickly do we grow up for 2015. Some guys that we like, that we’re confident in, but at the same time haven’t proven their mettle quite yet.”

Virginia will have two scrimmages before opening the season in 2015: the first against UMBC and the second against Navy.

“Usually we’ve only had one [in the spring],” Starsia said. “But we feel like events in the spring are more meaningful than events in the fall.”

A position-by-position breakdown of Starsia’s 23rd team at UVa, where his record is 257-90:

GOALIE: Matt Barrett started every game as a freshman last season. His save percentage (46.7 percent) was not great, but he improved steadily as the season progressed.

His backups include senior Rhody Heller, junior Dan Marino and freshman Will Railey.

“We’re going to need a big year from Matt, because we’re going to be fairly inexperienced at that end of the field,” Starsia said, “but he’s given every indication this fall that he’s ready to step up to the next level and be a little bit more of a leader, in addition to hopefully being a better goalie.”

Early in his senior year at Malvern Prep outside Philadelphia, Barrett tore an ACL, and he wore a cumbersome knee brace during fall practices at UVa in 2013.

“He starts out in a much better place and has had a much better fall this year,” Starsia said. “So we have every reason to think, frankly, that we’ll have one of the best goalies in the country, and that gives you some level of comfort.”

CLOSE DEFENSE: Two starters return: senior Greg Danseglio and junior Tanner Scales, an All-America candidate.

“We expect Tanner to continue to grow as a leader at that end of the field,” Starsia said. “I think he’ll be recognized as one of the top defensemen in the game.”

Other candidates to start include seldom-used senior Davi Sacco and freshmen Logan Greco, Scott Hooper and Cooper Fersen.

“We’re really pleased with the first-year defensemen overall,” Starsia said. “Greco is probably closest to the starting lineup right now.”

The 6-4, 190-pound Fersen, whose father, Paul, is a former NFL offensive lineman, is an outstanding athlete who “could bump out to the long-stick midfield position,” Starsia said. “He could wind up playing there before his career is done.”

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD: Michael Howard, a 6-5, 220-pound redshirt sophomore from Richmond, comes out of the fall as the No. 1 long-stick middie.

“I think Mike Howard has a chance to be special,” Starsia said. “He gives us some size and athleticism there. He’s beginning to remind me of [former UVa star] Mike Timms. And I’ll be honest, when you look at our conference, you look at the Myles Joneses of the world” — Jones, a 6-4, 240-pound middie, is a dominant force for Duke — “and Mike Howard gives us a chance [against those players].”

At short-stick defensive middie, sophomores Carlson Milikin and Will McNamara and freshman Jack Falk have separated themselves, with junior Thompson Brown, a former defensive end on Virginia’s football team, the No. 4 option.

McNamara, who enrolled at the University in the summer of 2012, has yet to play in college game. A graduate of Haverford School near Philadelphia, McNamara was a heralded recruit whom Inside Lacrosse ranked No. 3 in his class. But a hip injury kept him from playing as a freshman, and then he withdrew from UVa for personal reasons in 2013-14.

Like Milikin and Falk, McNamara has battled persistent injuries in recent years.

“If we can keep them healthy and in one piece, I think we have a chance to be very good there, actually,” Starsia said. “The three of them all have great feet, and they’re pretty tough, and they have really good instincts. They give us a little more size than we had with Bobby and Blake in particular.

“We were very pleased with the defensive midfield in the fall. We’ve very encouraged by that.”

Back problems marred Falk’s career at Landon School in Bethesda, Md., but UVa “got much more out of him this fall than I thought we would,” Starsia said. “I don’t think he missed a practice.”

OFFENSIVE MIDFIELD: The first line consists of senior Ryan Tucker, junior Greg Coholan and sophomore Zed Williams. Heading the second is senior Tyler German, one of Virginia’s standouts in the scrimmage against Navy.

The top three candidates for the other two spots on the second midfield are junior Zach Wood, sophomore AJ Fish and redshirt freshman Matt Emery, who followed his brother Rob to Virginia.

The 6-3, 175-pound Fish, an attackman last season, moved this fall to middie, where he’ll have more opportunities for playing time.

“He had a great fall,” Starsia said. “He gives you a little different look as a middie. He can invert. He’s good close to the cage. He’s a split-dodger type. Not your typical midfielder, but pretty athletic. And he’s actually a really good defender.”

The first midfield should be among the nation’s best, Starsia said. Tucker, who finished with 15 points as a freshman, raised his total to 20 as a sophomore and 30 last season.

“I think his game has become a little bit more diverse,” Starsia said. “He should have been recognized as an All-American last year. I thought he had that kind of year. I think he’ll reach that status this year.”

The Cavaliers’ most intriguing middie remains the 6-2, 185-pound Williams, who in five varsity seasons at Silver Creek High in Irving, N.Y., scored a national-record 729 points, on 444 goals and 285 assists.

“Zed’s the wild card there a little bit,” Starsia said. “He’s hard to guard, and so he’ll be fun to watch.

“He had a really impressive fall for us. He’s a guy that is probably going to get a bunch of points in every game, because he can get them both passing and shooting. If anything, Zed wants to pass too much. We just want him to go to the goal more. He can get it both ways, and he makes everybody better.”

ATTACK: Five players figure to log most of the playing time on attack: senior Owen Van Arsdale, junior James Pannell, sophomores Ryan Lukacovic and Joe French, and freshman Mike D’Amario.

Van Arsdale, whose father, Marc, is UVa’s associate head coach, and Pannell are returning starters. If the season began today, Starsia said, Lukacovic would be the third starter, “but D’Amario’s going to play, and I think French is going to get his minutes somewhere. I think we have the potential to be pretty good there.”

In a recent Inside Lacrosse piece, ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich ranked Williams No. 1 among “10 impact sophomores to watch,” and Starsia understands why.

“But to me,” Starsia said, “the guy on our team that I think will dictate a lot about the level we’re able to play at offensively is Lukacovic. I think he’s ready for this, but he’s going to have demonstrate it, because we’re going to put a lot of weight on his shoulders. If he has a big year, I think we’re going to be pretty good offensively.”

Inside Lacrosse ranked Lukacovic as the No. 12 recruit in the Class of 2013. At Chaminade High on Long Island, N.Y., he totaled 70 goals and 68 assists in his final two seasons.

FACEOFFS: The `Hoos won only 47.2 percent (203 of 430) of their draws last season. Back from that faceoff group are senior Mick Parks (157-307), junior Nate Menninger (29-69) and sophomore Jeff Kratky (13-42), and they’ll be working with a new coach, Corey Bulken, who joined Starsia’s staff as a volunteer assistant this summer.

At Division II Le Moyne College, Bulken was a dominant faceoff man, winning 69.2 percent of his draws as a senior in 2012.

Another option at the faceoff-X will be Jason Murphy, a 5-9, 160-pound sophomore who transferred from Ohio State to Virginia after the 2013-14 academic year.

“He’s a quick, tough little guy,” Starsia said.

Murphy’s brother, Justin, is Princeton’s No. 1 faceoff specialist. Jason Murphy suffered a serious knee injury during his senior year at Landon and did not play at Ohio State last season.

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