By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the first day of this month, the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team surrendered the game’s first seven goals in a 15-9 loss to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
Four weeks later, the Cavaliers are on more solid footing. With every game and every practice, head coach Dom Starsia believes, his players grow up a little more, and the team’s record reflects that progress.
Since their trip to Syracuse, the Wahoos (8-2) have won five of six games, the lone setback an 11-9 loss to Notre Dame on March 14 at Klöckner Stadium.
In the latest U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association rankings, Syracuse is No. 1 and Notre Dame is No. 2. (The Fighting Irish edged the Orange in double overtime Saturday, so the teams may switch positions in the USILA poll Monday.)
“One of the strengths of this team is that we build week to week,” attackman Owen Van Arsdale said Saturday after eighth-ranked UVa routed Richmond 14-7 on a cold, blustery afternoon at Klöckner Stadium.
“So far we’ve done that, and I don’t think that we’re done. We still need to keep getting better to be the top-level team we want to be. But we’re working on it, we’re improving, and at this point in the season we’re right where we want to be.”
Since the start of practice in January, Virginia has lost two All-America candidates to season-ending injuries: junior defenseman Tanner Scales and junior attackman James Pannell. Undeterred, the `Hoos have persevered.
“This has just been a really fun group to be with,” Starsia said. “They generally get after it on a daily basis, and it’s nice to see it manifest itself on game day, and I feel like we are getting better. Some of our young defensemen are starting to step up a little bit, we’re a little bit better getting the ball up off the ground, we were a little better facing off today, and those things will make a difference as we go forward.”
This is the second season in Division I for Richmond, which advanced to last year’s NCAA tournament as the Atlantic Sun Conference champion. The Spiders’ inaugural season included a game in Richmond against UVa, which was fortunate to escape with a 13-12 victory.
UR carried a 6-3 record into the rematch, which was expected to be close too, but the `Hoos dominated almost from the opening faceoff. Virginia led 9-2 at halftime and 13-4 heading into the final quarter, during which Starsia substituted liberally.
“For about 40 minutes today, that may have been the best that we’ve played the entire year,” he said.
Van Arsdale said the Spiders “really earned our respect last year, and we came out and played them with respect [Saturday]. I felt like we could have done a better job with that last year, but this is a new team, and this is the way we want to go against these guys, giving them the respect they deserve.”
A fifth-year senior who graduated from nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, Van Arsdale tied his career high with five goals Saturday. Senior midfielder Ryan Tucker contributed four goals, and redshirt junior Greg Coholan, who plays both middie and attack, scored three.
Other standouts for UVa included its faceoff specialists — sophomores Jeff Kratky (13 of 16) and redshirt freshman Jason Murphy (5 of 8) — as well as senior middie Tyler German (two goals, one assist), sophomore attackman Ryan Lukacovic (four assists), and sophomore goalkeeper Matt Barrett (nine saves, five goals allowed).
“I haven’t seen a better goalie yet [this season],” Starsia said Thursday when asked about Barrett, who’s in his second year as a starter.
“He’s doing the things in the cage that I always felt like were going to be possible this year, which is significant, the way he’s stopping the ball and all. But he’s also been more of a leader and a little bit better in terms of orchestrating us than I thought he would be at this stage in his career. Because I wasn’t sure he had that quality in him. He just seemed like the big, quiet guy. But he’s been much more in charge of things, and so he’s taken a quantum leap in that area. We’ve needed every bit of leadership and experience we have back there, and he’s got most of it.”
Led by Barrett, the Cavaliers’ defense has steadily improved, Starsia said Saturday, in part because it “had so much room to get better, starting from really kind of zero … We’re going to need that group to continue to grow up for us to be the team we want to be in the latter part of the season, but we certainly can look at this today and feel like we made some steps in the right direction.”
Virginia’s top short-stick defensive midfielders are freshman Jack Falk and sophomores Carlson Milikin and Will McNamara. Its No. 1 long-stick middie is sophomore Michael Howard. On close defense, Virginia starts two freshmen — Logan Greco and Scott Hooper — and their classmate Cooper Fersen is also in the rotation.
The third starter on defense is a former walk-on, senior Davi Sacco, who until this season had played sparingly.
“Davi Sacco is just a revelation,” Starsia said. “He is just playing like a madman. He’s been playing the other team’s best guys week in and week out, and every coach I talk to after the game just tells me how impressed he is with him.”
Starsia smiled. “You’re thinking to yourself as a coach, `What was I thinking before now?’ ”
Of the defense’s progress, Sacco said, “I’m so proud of all the freshmen, especially, but I think today we just played great as a group. We really communicated well, that was the biggest thing, and of course picking the ball up off the ground.”
The Cavaliers’ next game will provide another gauge of how far their defense has come. At 7 p.m. Friday, UVa, which is 0-2 in ACC play, hosts fourth-ranked North Carolina at Klöckner Stadium.
“Got a different animal coming to Klöckner on Friday,” Starsia said. “Clearly a very good team. Maybe the most experienced of all the top teams in the country, and kind of electrifying on offense. It’ll be a real test for us at the defensive end of the field, but it comes at a time when I think we’ll be excited about getting ready for it. It’ll be fun, and it should be a great atmosphere here Friday night.”
The Tar Heels, 9-1 overall, open ACC play Sunday against sixth-ranked Duke (7-2, 0-1).
“They’re an unbelievable team,” Tucker said of the Heels. “We just have to be great in practice this week and get ready to come out flying Friday night.”
Sacco said: “They have weapons all over the field, so we’ve just got to get in film [study] this week. We’ve got a short week, so we’ve got to stay focused. It’s all just about team defense, honestly. We have to play well with our one-on-one matchups, but it’s about supporting each other like we did today.”
When the Cavaliers hosted Notre Dame on March 14, they fell behind 7-0, just as they had against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
“I think we’re a much better team than we were a couple of weeks ago,” Starsia said. “Are we good enough to match up with Carolina? We’ll see on Friday. But it’s the kind of thing where now you look forward to playing a game like that.
“We are clearly getting better. Are we good enough yet? I don’t know. Maybe by the time we get to late April or May. It may take a couple more weeks, but this’ll be fun on Friday.”