By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Long before he became a Hall of Fame coach, Dom Starsia played football and lacrosse at Brown, and as a recruiter he has often targeted multi-sport athletes.
In a piece published by U.S. Lacrosse in 2014, Starsia wrote, “I absolutely wince when a young player tells me that he is giving up football or soccer to `concentrate’ in lacrosse. You develop a deeper fundamental understanding of the team concepts involved in the sport of men’s lacrosse on the football and soccer fields, the basketball courts and hockey rinks of your youth.”
It was no surprise, then, when Starsia, whose lacrosse teams at Virginia have won four NCAA titles, urged Matt Barrett to resume his football career as a senior at Malvern Prep outside Philadelphia.
Barrett, now an All-ACC goalkeeper for UVa, played football as a freshman and sophomore at Malvern. His junior year, however, Malvern had a veteran offensive line that included Michael Mooney, now a starting tackle at Virginia. Barrett decided to focus on lacrosse that fall, and in November 2011 he committed to the Cavaliers.
Fast forward to 2012. Malvern had holes to fill on its offensive line, and Barrett’s former teammates asked him to consider playing again, a course of action Starsia, naturally, supported.
“I said, `Look, it’s your last chance. You should go out and play football,’ ” Starsia recalled. And the rest of the story?
“He tears his ACL in October of his senior football season,” Starsia said.
So it goes in sports sometimes. Barrett had reconstructive surgery on his left knee in October 2012. About five months later, he was cleared to play in Malvern’s lacrosse opener.
“I wasn’t fully healed, but it was enough where I could play goalie,” Barrett said.
Barrett did his best, but he “was never the same that spring, or even into the fall [of his first year at UVa],” Starsia said. “He still had the heavy brace on during fall lacrosse, and so he never had a chance to really play his way into shape until January of his freshman year.
“So there was a lot of pressure on him last spring. He was just still coming around from having been injured. I thought he held up his freshman year just fine, but I think we’re seeing more of what he’s capable of overall.”
In 2014, Barrett started every game for a UVa team that finished 10-6 after losing in the NCAA tournament’s first round. He turned in several sterling performances, but he struggled at times too. Barrett finished the season ranked 57th nationally in save percentage (46.6).
“It was definitely kind of a tough transition from high school to college, trying to get [adjusted] to the speed of the game,” he said. “After your freshman season, everything starts to slow down a little bit more. And I thought last year, in the second half of the season, I was starting to see the ball better, and the whole game has become a little easier for me.”
As he heads into his second NCAA tournament, Barrett ranks third nationally in saves per game (13.07) and 11th in save percentage (56.5). He was the only UVa player named to the All-ACC team this spring.
“I think it’s what we thought he was capable of,” Starsia said. “At the same time I don’t take it for granted. His consistency in the goal has probably exceeded my expectations overall. He has been very steady for us throughout the year, at a very high level.
“What has truly exceeded my expectations is his involvement in the team play and his play outside the cage. He’s been so much better than he was a year ago. I didn’t see the vocal piece of this coming. I always thought of him as kind of the big, silent guy, and he’s taken a very active role in what we’re doing back there defensively, to the point where I almost have to get him to shut up now a little bit. But we welcome that. It’s been a real big plus for us, because we have needed every bit of experience that we could muster, and he’s the only one that had any.”
Barrett, a Media Studies major, usually deferred to his older, more experienced teammates last season.
“If I saw something maybe they didn’t see, maybe I would say something, but really it was kind of their defense,” Barrett said. “But this year it was a little more conscious effort to be more vocal, just because of how young we are at the defensive end, and I felt like if I didn’t talk during practice or during the game, it was hurting the team and not really allowing us to kind of improve the way we needed to.”
He’s also become an asset in the clearing game, which wasn’t always the case in 2014.
“I think last year I just kind of overthought it a little bit,” Barrett said. “I knew coming out of high school, it was one of my weaknesses, but in high school no one really capitalized on it, I guess. But in college it’s a lot different. The rides are a lot more aggressive. I think last year I just was a little timid throwing the ball. I tried to work on it, and over the summer and the fall I put a lot of emphasis on my stick skills. Now during the clear I don’t really think about it as much. I just do what comes naturally, see a guy open and try to hit him.”
UVa (10-4) enters the NCAA tournament as the No. 7 seed. For the second straight year, Virginia hosts unseeded Johns Hopkins in a first-round game at Klöckner Stadium, this one at 1 p.m. Sunday.
In last year’s postseason meeting between the longtime rivals, the Blue Jays romped 14-8.
“That was pretty rough,” Barrett said, “but Hopkins was a really good team, and they capitalized on a lot of our mistakes. But I think [UVa’s veterans] probably remember that game, and you remember the taste it leaves in your mouth.”
For this Virginia team, highlights of the regular season included a 16-15 overtime win over Hopkins in Baltimore. The Wahoos scored the final two goals of regulation to force OT, and then sophomore Ryan Lukacovic fed Greg Coholan for the goal that ended the March 21 game at Homewood Field.
Six weeks earlier, UVa had been in Baltimore for its season-opener against Loyola (Md.). With All-America candidate Tanner Scales lost for the season with an injury, the `Hoos started senior Davi Sacco, a former walk-on, along with freshmen Scott Hooper and Logan Greco on close defense against the Greyhounds.
Starsia did not sleep well heading into the opener, he said, “because if you had asked me, `How are you going to be defensively in that game?’ I wouldn’t have had any idea. With the three close defensemen in that game, we didn’t have a single guy that had started a college lacrosse game. It’s unprecedented really, especially for a program at this level.”
The inexperienced defenders acquitted themselves well that afternoon, and Barrett made nine saves to help UVa pull out a 13-12 victory.
“Before the game I was kind of nervous,” Barrett recalled, “but then after the first couple of minutes I kind of calmed down and realized everybody was going to be OK.”
Barrett, who was born in Philadelphia, grew up about 40 miles west of the city in Glenmoore. His lacrosse teammates at Malvern included Mooney, who’s now listed at 6-6, 290 pounds.
Mooney was “pretty skinny back [in middle school],” Barrett said, laughing. “He was a pretty lanky dude.”
At 6-0, 220, Barrett would not be described as lanky, and that’s not a bad thing.
“I hate playing against big goalies,” Starsia said. “And what you don’t see with the Matt Barretts of the world, what doesn’t show up in the scorebook, are the shots that miss the cage, because shooters are trying to be too fine. In addition to the fact that they know there’s a good goalie standing in there, there’s not a lot of cage to look at.”
Barrett, the first UVa goalie since Kip Turner in 2007 to make the All-ACC team, doesn’t finish first when the players run sprints at practice. Starsia doesn’t expect him to.
“I think he looks like a good athlete,” Starsia said. “He just looks like an offensive lineman. But there are plenty of offensive linemen that have been very good athletes. You watch Matt move, and you can see that he’s a good athlete.
“He’s got very quick hands, and there’s a fearlessness piece too. You and I can’t even fathom how [goalies] do what they do. You look at what he’s facing down every day. It’s really quite remarkable.”