By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Near the end of last season, so many key University of Virginia men’s lacrosse players were injured, head coach Dom Starsia recalled, his team would have struggled to hold a meaningful intrasquad scrimmage.
The Cavaliers are considerably healthier this semester, and that’s among the reasons Starsia deemed fall practice, which concluded Friday night with the Blue-Orange scrimmage, a success.
Before they played their first game in 2015, the Wahoos lost one All-America candidate, defenseman Tanner Scales, to a season-ending injury. Six games into the season, they lost another, attackman James Pannell, to a torn ACL.
A leg injury hindered another standout, midfielder Ryan Tucker, late in the season. Tucker played through the injury, but it rendered him ineffective in No. 7 seed Virginia’s NCAA tournament game against Johns Hopkins at KlÃ¶ckner Stadium.
Tucker had five goals and two assists in the Cavaliers’ regular-season victory over the Blue Jays in Baltimore. In the rematch, which Hopkins won 19-7, Tucker was barely able to run. He finished with one goal and no assists as the ‘Hoos fell to the Blue Jays in the NCAA tourney’s first round for the second straight year.
“I think we ran out of talent last spring,” said Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at Virginia. “I’d like to think our talent has come back to where we expect it to be.”
From a team that finished 10-5 overall and 0-4 in the ACC, Virginia returns three of its top four and seven of its top 10 scorers. Still, the Cavaliers’ losses were significant.
“I wouldn’t minimize the contribution of last year’s seniors, even though it was only a small group,” Starsia said. “Ryan Tucker, Tyler German, Davi Sacco, Owen Van Arsdale had their best years. They were great leaders.”
Even so, Starsia acknowledged, a “program like ours always graduates good players. I’d like to think we’ll benefit significantly at the defensive end of the field from what we went through a year ago. Probably our primary chore going into the start of the season is demonstrating that we can replace Tyler and Ryan’s productivity in the midfield.”
Defense should be a strength in 2016. All-ACC goalkeeper Matt Barrett is back, as are Virginia’s top three short-stick defensive midfielders: Jack Falk, Will McNamara and Carlson Milikin. Michael Howard is one of the nation’s premier long-stick midfielders, and Scott Hooper and Logan Greco each started 13 games on close defense last season. Cooper Fersen, a valuable reserve last season, returns too.
And then there’s Scales, who’s healthy again. He was named the ACC freshman of the year in 2013 and a third-team All-American in 2014.
“If we made a statement this fall, it was that we were going to be a little bit more to be reckoned with at the defensive end of the field,” said Starsia, who’s in his 24th year at UVA.
Leading what should be a formidable group in the defensive midfield is McNamara, a redshirt junior who, for various reasons, did not make his Virginia debut until last season.
“He reminds me so much of [former UVA star] Billy Glading,” Starsia said. “He’s built like Billy, he’s way tougher than he looks, he can defend people, and he can make plays in the offensive end.”
The team captains are Scales, Pannell and Coholan.
Having Scales back helps with “the leadership piece of it, maybe first and foremost,” Starsia said, but the 6-2, 200-pound redshirt junior also improves the Cavaliers in a key area.
“What we never did the entire year [last season] was really pick the ball up off the ground in our defensive end,” Starsia said.
“I think Hooper might have had more groundballs in the Blue-Orange scrimmage Friday night than he had the entire [2015 season]. And Davi, who had a great season and covered the best attackman and did a nice job with that, never was really good at picking the ball up.
“But the first scrimmage we had [this fall], it felt like Tanner had a half-dozen groundballs, and you just felt his presence immediately. So we’re bringing a guy in that you’re confident can cover the other team’s best guy, somebody that everybody looks up to and also makes us better in the full-field game. I think all of our confidence has risen at that end of the field just by having Tanner back out there.”
Coholan moved from midfield to attack after the Cavaliers lost Pannell last season and finished with a team-high 53 points, on 39 goals and 14 assists. He’s back in the midfield as a fifth-year senior, and his presence should help make up for the loss of Tucker (36 points in 2014) and German (27 points).
“I don’t take for granted that we’re just going to be able to replace those guys,” Starsia said. “But I think Zed is ready to step up. AJ Fish appears ready to make the next step, and a couple of the freshmen, Ryan Conrad and Phil Poquie, have [impressed too].”
Zed Williams, a junior, contributed 20 goals and 17 assists last season.
“I’d like to think he’s on the cusp of being great,” Starsia said. “Again, some of it’s wishful thinking, but you have reason to be optimistic that these things are going to happen, that he’s now ready to take on that role alongside Coholan.”
The final spot on the first midfield figures to be filled by Fish or Conrad, whom many recruiting analysts ranked No. 1 in the Class of 2015.
Fish, a 6-3, 175-pound junior, had four goals and four assists last season.
“He’s had flashes of greatness, and now he needs to be able to put it together all the time,” Starsia said. “He could be that third guy, and he presents some different problems. He’s tough to cover and can play that invert, whereas Conrad is more of a traditional middie, a middle-of-the-field kid who picks it up and [split-dodges] to both hands.
“Conrad is going to be a great college middie. Whether or not he’s ready to play on the first midfield the first day, we’re still trying to figure that out â€¦ But with his savvy and his confidence level, I think he’ll make a significant contribution for us early in the year.”
Others in the first-year class who have played well this fall include midfielder Ryan Lamb, attackmen Mikey Herring and Tyler Kellogg, short-stick defensive middie Matt Dziama, and Zach Ambrosino, who can play close defense or long-stick middie.
On the attack, the projected starters are Pannell, a senior whose brother, Rob, had a legendary career at Cornell; junior Ryan Lukacovic, who led the Cavaliers with 27 assists last season; and sophomore Mike D’Amario, who scored three goals in his six appearances last season.
“There are couple of little question marks at each spot,” Starsia said. “But if they all get answered in a positive way, I think we have a chance to be very good there.”
Pannell, who scored 39 goals in 2014, had 11 goals and four assists in his abbreviated junior season. He was cleared to practice early this month, and “the fact that James could “participate, rather than just sitting out the whole time, is a really good thing,” Starsia said. “He just needs to come back healthy, and he appears to be on that road.”
A reserve in 2014, Lukacovic was one of the team’s most important players last season. Now, Starsia said, he wants to see Lukacovic “step up into that role as the offensive leader, that guy at X. He’s a kid who’s in engineering, doing a great job in school and a great job in the weight room. He seems poised to make that step.”
As a senior at Niskayuna High in New York, the left-handed D’Amario totaled 82 goals and 38 assists, and talent is not an issue for him. The key for D’Amario as a UVA sophomore, Starsia said, is “just kind of growing up, being a year older, and being a little bit more acclimated to life. We’ve seen some indications of that happening, too. So we feel as if we can answer all those questions in a positive way.”
“I think we have a chance to be very good on the attack,” Starsia said. “We’ll wait to see how it plays out, but I think we’re headed in the right direction. We certainly have better depth at that position than we had a year ago.”
That appears to be the case at almost every position, and a team that figures to be strong in 2016 should be even stronger the next year. Of the Cavaliers’ probable starters, only Coholan and Pannell will not be eligible to return in 2017.
“If we can build on the leadership and the effort of last year’s group and fill in the pieces with some talent in terms of depth and experience,” Starsia said, “I think we’ve got a chance to get back in the hunt.”
For the first time during Starsia’s tenure at UVA, he chose not to scrimmage another college team in the fall. That allowed him to add a home game against High Point to the Cavaliers’ 2016 schedule.
“A number of teams have gone that direction the last few years,” Starsia said. “We thought we’d try it, and I think we had a good fall. On a number of different levels it just made some sense not to have an outside competition in the fall.”
The ‘Hoos will focus on strength and conditioning until late November. After practice resumes in mid-January, two scrimmages will follow: the first against former ACC rival Maryland and the second against UMBC.
Virginia will open the season at home against Loyola (Md.) in February. The complete schedule has yet to be announced.