By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team began the season ranked No. 8 in the USILA coaches poll.
Eleven weeks later, the Cavaliers are unranked and in danger of finishing below .500 for only the third time in Dom Starsia’s 24 seasons as their head coach.
This is not, Starsia acknowledged, where he expected his team to be late in the regular season.
“I think certainly if you were thinking about this back in January, you’d feel disappointed,” Starsia said Wednesday. “At the same time I would tell you that this has been a really good group. They work on the practice field. We just haven’t had a breakthrough performance by a couple of guys.”
Only one Cavalier — long-stick midfielder Michael Howard, a redshirt junior from Richmond — was named to the All-ACC team this week.
“And so we just haven’t quite been able to score when we’ve needed to, nor keep it out when we had to, enough to be able to create some breathing room for ourselves,” Starsia said. “We just haven’t had somebody really step up and take the bull by the horns.”
Senior attackman James Pannell, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer, shares Starsia’s disappointment.
“I think we started off [the season] a little banged up,” Pannell said Thursday, “but still I thought we were going to have a much different season than we’re having right now. It’s weird because we practice so well every week, and we have great intensity, and it seems like everybody is truly invested into what we’re doing here. We’ve showed glimpses, I think, in every game where we can hang with anybody, but we just didn’t do it for the complete 60 minutes.”
The NCAA tournament field will be announced May 8. To even be eligible for consideration, the Cavaliers must win the final game on their schedule, and they’ll try to do so Saturday in Kennesaw, Ga.
At 7 p.m., in a game that will not be televised or shown online, Virginia (7-7) faces second-ranked Brown (13-1) at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw. Before the season, Brown agreed to play the ACC team that did not qualify for the conference tournament. (The four-team ACC tourney starts Friday in Kennesaw.)
A victory Saturday night would not assure the Wahoos a spot in the NCAA tournament. Still, at 8-7, with wins over heavyweights Brown and Johns Hopkins, Virginia would at least merit serious consideration.
Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at UVA, said he told associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale “that if we can just get this [win over Brown], I’m willing to take my chances, and I think we would have a good shot to continue playing.
“It’s a year in which there are so many other things going on that it’s really hard to know what’s going to matter [to the NCAA selection committee] at the end of the day. I was on the committee for five years and sat in a lot of selection meetings, and oftentimes when you’re looking for teams, you’re really scratching, trying to find somebody that’s got something good.
“All I can say is that I think between our strength of schedule and the quality of a couple of our wins we would have reason to be considered.”
Brown’s campus is about 1,100 miles from Kennesaw, which is more than 500 miles from Charlottesville. Still, Starsia said, however unusual Kennesaw might be as the site for this game, it’s “probably just weirder for me to be playing Brown. The fact that we’re playing them in Georgia is a little beside the fact.”
Starsia, the winningest coach in Division I history, played football and lacrosse at Brown, from which he graduated in 1974. He later spent 10 seasons as the Bears’ head men’s lacrosse coach, compiling a 101-46 record. Starsia left Brown for Virginia after the 1992 season.
This will be the first meeting between these programs since March 13, 1996, when Virginia edged Brown 16-15 in overtime in Charlottesville.
“It’s been a while,” said Starsia, whose ties to his alma mater remain strong.
Brown’s current head coach, Lars Tiffany, was a two-time team captain for Starsia at the Ivy League school. Starsia remains close with many of his former Brown players, teammates and colleagues, for whom Saturday night’s game is more than a little awkward.
“They’re a lot more conflicted about this than I am,” Starsia said, laughing. “They worry about me, and they’ve become Virginia fans over the years, and now Virginia’s playing Brown in an important game.”
Brown demolished Dartmouth 16-3 on Wednesday to clinch its first outright Ivy League title since 1994. Led by attackmen Dylan Molloy, Kylor Bellistri and Henry Blynn, the Bears average 16.9 goals per game.
“They are really good,” Starsia said. “They are really playing with a lot of confidence. They are fun to watch. If you weren’t having to prepare for them, it would be an easy team to root for.
“They are throwing the ball around everywhere, and they are playing the game without conscience. And so it’s quite refreshing in this day and age, when everybody seems a little overcoached, to be able to watch what Brown is doing right now.”
Molloy, with 48 goals and 44 assists, leads the nation in scoring. Bellistri has 46 goals and 22 assists, and Blynn has 38 goals and 12 assists.
For the `Hoos, who are coming off an 8-7 win over Georgetown, Pannell has a team-high 40 points, on 29 goals and 11 assists, and junior attackman Ryan Lukacovic is next with 33 points (19 goals, 14 assists).
Virginia averages 10.6 goals per game. To upset Brown, the Cavaliers know they’ll almost certainly have to exceed their scoring average.
“We’re going to have to put up some numbers, for sure,” Pannell said. “I think we’re ready for it, too.
“[The Bears] play a really fast, athletic game where they’re just kind of running and gunning, shooting, and trying to play in transition a lot. They attack you right away. We’ve never really played a game like that this year, but I think it will be interesting to see how we play when we play that way.”
The `Hoos, Pannell said, have much to prove Saturday night.
“We’ve showed glimpses of everyone really playing well at the same time, but we haven’t really put it together for a whole 60 minutes yet,” Pannell said. “But I think we’re ready to do that. We give Brown a lot of respect and know they’re a very good team, but we really would like to get this one.”
Pannell, who’ll graduate next month with a bachelor’s in sociology, has totaled 86 goals and 27 assists during a UVA career in which he’s been slowed by ankle, hand, knee and shoulder injuries.
“He’s really about a sophomore in terms of experience,” Starsia said.
Pannell, who’ll join Major League Lacrosse’s New York Lizards once his UVA career ends, said he doesn’t “like making excuses for injuries, because people are always playing banged up. We’ve got a bunch of guys like that. [Senior midfielder] Greg Coholan has been banged up, too, and I’m sure there are guys on other teams that are banged up. If I’m out there, I feel like I’m capable, even with the injuries, of making an impact on the game.”
He hasn’t given it much thought, Pannell said, but he knows that, win or lose, his college career could end Saturday night. He doesn’t want to squander the opportunity.
“I think it would be good to show people that we really could have been a top-tier team this year if we put it together for the whole game,” Pannell said. “Getting this Brown win would be just a tremendous game to go out on.”