By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Four games into the season, the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team is not where it hoped to be. Not even close.
The Cavaliers have already lost twice — to sixth-ranked Loyola (Md.) and to unheralded High Point, both at Klöckner Stadium — and their slow start has sparked much discussion in lacrosse circles. That hasn’t shaken the team’s resolve.
“We try not to pay attention too much to the outside world,” senior attackman James Pannell said. “We come to practice every day, and everybody is giving it their all every day. Everybody on this team has such a good attitude.
“We’ve always been positive, even with the two losses that we suffered early on. We’ve definitely shown a little bit of resiliency. Nobody’s getting on each other or pointing the finger. We’re just battling. The effort’s been there 100 percent.”
That effort paid dividends Sunday. On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon, No. 11 Virginia posted a 15-10 victory over the Penn Quakers at Klöckner Stadium. In the final two quarters, the Wahoos won 12 of 14 faceoffs and outscored Penn 9-5.
“We definitely needed a win today,” said defenseman Tanner Scales, a redshirt junior who’s one of UVA’s captains. “Obviously we’re real happy with the result. I don’t think we’ve really strung together a full 60 minutes yet, and so we definitely have a lot to improve on. But any time you came away with a win on Klöckner, you’ll take that.”
Especially encouraging to head coach Dom Starsia was the productivity of Virginia’s attackmen against Penn (1-1). Pannell and junior Ryan Lukacovic combined for six points and three assists, and sophomore Mike D’Amario added two goals.
“Our attack came alive today, both Pannell and Lukacovic,” Starsia said. “Ryan got a little dinged up early in the preseason, and he’s starting to round into form a little bit. We really need that to happen.
“For us to be the team we want to be, we have to have [strong] attack play, and today was the first time where I felt we were dangerous at the attack end of the field.”
The `Hoos were coming off a humbling loss to High Point, a team in its fourth season of varsity competition. Virginia scored two goals in the final minute of the fourth quarter to force overtime Tuesday night, but the Panthers answered with the game-winner 27 seconds into the extra period.
“It’s been a hard week,” acknowledged Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at Virginia.
And so, with ACC rival Syracuse (3-0) coming to town this weekend, the `Hoos (2-2) were delighted to win in convincing fashion Sunday.
“This was a really important game for us,” Starsia said.
At 5:30 p.m. Friday, Virginia hosts Syracuse at Klöckner Stadium. The Cavaliers lead the series 16-15, but the Orange won their 2015 meeting at the Carrier Dome.
“We’ve been playing them for a long time,” Starsia said, “and it’s always an important game on the schedule. It’s generally not hard to get the players’ attention for this one, and now we’ll see if we can elevate our play to the level that’s going to be required to get after [the Orange].”
Scales said: “I think every time we come together as a group and we’re on the field, we’re always trying to raise the level, regardless of whether it’s practice or a game. We try not to look forward, but obviously with Syracuse coming in, we know we’re going to have to be at our best. We gave Penn our full attention and tried to put our best effort out there, and we’ve got to elevate even more for [Syracuse].”
On an afternoon when Virginia won 19 of 27 faceoffs, sophomore Jason Murphy (13 of 19) was especially dominant Sunday. The `Hoos capitalized on many of those possessions.
Pannell and Lukacovic led UVA with three goals each. D’Amario, freshman midfielder Ryan Conrad and junior middies AJ Fish and Zed Williams had two apiece, and redshirt sophomore middie Matt Emery scored one.
Virginia entered the game having connected on only 22.4 percent of its shots this season. The Cavaliers were 15 for 48 (31.3 percent) against the Quakers.
“I think the first three games we got a little down when we were missing our shots,” Pannell said, “and once you get down on yourselves, you’re not taking the same shots, you’re not shooting the ball with as much conviction.
“Today we just stayed positive the whole time. We knew we were getting good shots, and we knew they were going to drop.”
Starsia said: “I still don’t feel like the ball is jumping in the net for us. If [Greg] Coholan has a pretty good day today, we score a bunch more goals, I think. But it was nice to see the attack come alive a little bit.”
A preseason All-American, Greg Coholan is a fifth-year senior who led Virginia in goals (39) and points (53) in 2015, when he split time between attack and middie. Coholan, a team captain, is back in the midfield this season. He had an assist Sunday but failed to convert any of his 11 shots.
For the season, Coholan has scored four goals on 39 shots.
“As in basketball, my message to him would be to keep shooting,” Starsia said. “He doesn’t take a lot of bad shots. He’s just got to keep going. We need him to score for us to be the team we want to be.”
Pannell has five goals on 24 shots this season, so he hasn’t been especially accurate either.
“I had a bunch today that I should have hit,” Pannell said. “All I’ve got to say [to Coholan] is keep shooting. Shooters keep shooting. That’s my motto. I’ve been through slumps like that.
“Greg’s still playing so hard and taking good shots. They’re going to start falling for him, and he’s going to have that one game where he just goes off.”
In Coholan, Fish and Williams, Virginia has three talented and experienced middies. That hasn’t kept Conrad from earning significant playing time.
Among the players who enrolled in college this academic year, Conrad was ranked No. 1 by Inside Lacrosse. Like former UVA greats Steele Stanwick and Ben Rubeor, Conrad starred at Loyola Blakefield in Towson, Md., and he’s clearly no ordinary freshman.
“He’s confident, and that’s a big part of it,” Starsia said. “He’s had to learn to pick his spots a little better, but he’s starting to do that, and when all of that comes together, he’s going to be a terrific college middie.”
In addition to scoring two goals, Conrad had an assist Sunday and picked up six groundballs. For the season, he has five goals and two assists.
“It’s just been an amazing experience, and I really couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else,” Conrad said.
He chose Virginia in part because of its tradition of success in lacrosse, and Conrad knows many fans are frustrated by the team’s uneven start.
“Sometimes we see things floating around about what people are saying, and that’s a little discouraging at times,” Conrad said, “but the coaches reinforce that we shouldn’t worry about that. We should just keep going, keep pushing, and once we start clicking we’re going to start playing really well.”