By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After three-plus quarters, with the home crowd at Klöckner Stadium almost drained of hope, the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team finally came to life Sunday.
When No. 12 Syracuse scored at the 12:54 mark of the fourth quarter, fifth-ranked Virginia found itself down 10-5 and in danger of getting blown out in its ACC opener.
“I think we all were just like, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ ” sophomore midfielder Dox Aitken said, “and we started attacking them and realized time was running out. I just wish we did that earlier.”
The Cavaliers recorded six goals in the final 13 minutes of their ACC opener — one more than they scored in the first 47 minutes — to tie the game at 11-11. The final goal in that run came with 1:41 remaining, when sophomore long-stick midfielder Jared Conners scored in transition, and an improbable comeback win suddenly seemed possible for the Wahoos.
Alas for the ‘Hoos, their surge stopped there. Syracuse, dominant at the faceoff-X all day, controlled the game’s most pivotal draw. The Orange set up their offense and, after a timeout, Tucker Dordevic scored an unassisted goal with 12.4 seconds left. That gave the freshman midfielder a game-high four goals and sealed a 12-11 loss for UVA.
“We played awesome in the fourth and really came back,” said freshman goalkeeper Alex Rode, who made 15 saves, several of them spectacular, in his second start for the Cavaliers. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”
That the ‘Hoos (4-1, 0-1) came so close to ending an unwelcome streak made the defeat more excruciating for them.
Since beating Syracuse 17-12 at Klöckner Stadium on March 1, 2014, Virginia has lost 17 consecutive regular-season ACC games. (In a game matching the two teams that failed to make the conference tournament that season, UVA defeated North Carolina on April 26, 2014, in what was called the ACC Showcase.)
“We have a lot of faith in our team,” said Aitken, who had two goals and a game-high three assists Sunday. “We’re really close. It definitely stings, but this team’s only 0-1 in the ACC. We’ve got three more [regular-season ACC games] left, and that’s all matters: this team, and 2018.”
Eight minutes into the game, the Cavaliers led 3-2. Then they suffered a devastating blow. Junior midfielder Ryan Conrad, a third-team All-American last season, went down with an apparent knee injury, and the game was stopped at the 3:08 mark of the first quarter.
After being examined by Virginia’s medical staff, Conrad limped off the field. He stayed on the sideline but did not return to the game.
Without Conrad, who opened the scoring Sunday with a sensational unassisted goal, the ‘Hoos were a different team. The Orange (3-1, 1-0) scored eight of the next 10 goals to put UVA in an unenviable position.
“He does everything for us,” Aitken said. “God willing, he’s back tomorrow. If he’s not, next man up. Not one guy can do what he does, so it’s going to take a lot of people to try and fill what he can do.”
In part because of Conrad’s work as a faceoff wing, Virginia came into its ACC opener having won 64.5 percent of its draws. Against Syracuse, the Cavaliers won only 11 of 27 faceoffs.
“It’s always a challenge to replace an All-American lacrosse player,” said Lars Tiffany, who’s in his second season as Virginia’s head coach. “We moved on, but we missed [Conrad], especially on the ground balls.”
Still, Aitken said, even with fewer possessions “we had our chances to win, we had our chances to take this one home, and it stings.”
Turnovers hurt the ‘Hoos as much as their struggles at the faceoff-X. Virginia finished with 19 turnovers — Syracuse had only eight — and many of those turnovers were unforced.
Somehow, though, on an afternoon when they far from flawless, the Cavaliers nearly pulled out a memorable victory. The ‘Hoos want to play a breakneck pace, but only when they modified their tactics, offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan said, were they able to claw back into the game.
“We started slowing down just a little bit, as contrary as that sounds,” Kirwan said. “We were just rushing. We were antsy for three quarters, and we were beating ourselves because of it.
“I know we had a lot of turnovers, and probably a lot of them were unforced. That was our biggest issue, and a lot of it was just because we were rushing. I think we started to settle down and take that extra half a second and still play at our tempo, and that’s what was able to get us those looks.”
Senior attackman Mike D’Amario led the Cavaliers with three goals. All of his goals — as well as his assist — came in the fourth quarter.
“He started to shoot to score a little bit more,” Kirwan said. “I thought in the beginning he was just shooting just to shoot it. And then in that fourth quarter, he really started picking his spots, and they started going in.”
The Cavaliers’ next three games are on the road, the first two in New York. UVA plays at Manhattan (3-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday and at Stony Brook (1-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The ‘Hoos resume ACC play on March 17, when they visit No. 8 Notre Dame for a 6 p.m. game that ESPNU will televise.
In 2016, the Cavaliers’ final season under head coach Dom Starsia, they suffered two one-goal losses in ACC play. The same thing happened in 2017. The ‘Hoos want to avoid a similar fate this year, Aitken said Sunday, “So we said in the locker room, ‘Let’s let this define us in a positive way.’
“We’ve been in these situations so many times that we know how to play. We’ve just got to do it. We’ve got to be not afraid of the moment. We’ve just got to attack it.”