Men's Lacrosse Finds Itself in Unfamiliar Territory

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Dom Starsia

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Dom Starsia
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

April 9, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- After the UVa football team ended its 1999 season with a 63-21 loss to Illinois in the Micronpc.com Bowl, then-coach George Welsh publicly promised to "reinvent the corporation" in the coming months.

Dom Starsia remembers thinking then that Welsh, who a few years later would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, did not need to take such drastic measures.

"He's an experienced coach that's done it right for a long time," Starsia said.

That's an apt description of Starsia, too. He's overseen the men's lacrosse program at Virginia since the early 1990s and was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2008. In 21 seasons under Starsia, the Cavaliers have won four NCAA titles -- in 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011 -- and 245 games.

UVa, which finished 12-4 in 2012, won its first four games this season and entered March ranked No. 6 in the USILA coaches' poll. That makes the Wahoos' subsequent fall more shocking.

With two regular-season games remaining, the 'Hoos (5-6) are unranked and have lost five straight for the first time since 1966. If they don't prevail Friday night in Durham, N.C., against No. 7 Duke, which has won 12 of the past 13 games in the series, the `Hoos will have lost six straight in a season for the first time since 1939.

"This is just a little different for us," Starsia said Monday.

Only once under Starsia have the Cavaliers finished with a losing record: in 2004, when they went 5-8. That's also the only time Virginia has failed to reach the NCAA tournament during his tenure.

To earn a ninth consecutive invitation to the NCAAs, UVa may have to beat Duke on Friday night and Bellarmine on April 20 and then win the ACC tournament, which starts April 26 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

His latest team, Starsia stressed, has little in common with those 2004 Cavaliers.

"That was a team that had other issues that made the lacrosse-playing piece of it more complicated," he said.

"This team is very much on the same page and pointed in the right direction and does what we ask. They listen, they're attentive in practice. Over spring break, we practiced one day and I remember saying to the kids afterward, `When I retire, this is what I'm going to miss.' It's really fun to practice with these guys."

As the lacrosse world knows, the Cavaliers rebounded from their 2004 debacle to reach the NCAA semifinals in '05. A year later, Virginia went 17-0 and won the NCAA title in Philadelphia.

So Starsia isn't panicking. Only three seniors play regularly for the `Hoos -- defenseman Harry Prevas and midfielders Matt White and Charlie Streep -- and five other players are redshirting because of injuries: freshmen Carlson Milikin, Will McNamara, Dickson Smith and Michael Howard and, most notably, All-America middie Chris LaPierre. Moreover, a highly regarded recruiting class will join the program this summer.

"I'm not making any promises, but I think we're just a heartbeat away from being in the middle of the hunt," Starsia said. "With the people we bring back and the people we add in, I would certainly like our team [in 2014]."

But he added: "I'm trying not to think too much about next year."

Starsia's focus remains on this season, on this group. "People always want to ask, `Is it over yet?' It's not really over yet. And so we just take it in small pieces," he said.

"People ask, `Are you going to make the playoffs?' I'm like, `Look, let's just have a good day today, and let's see if we can play our best game against Duke, and then we'll see where we're at.' "

That the Cavaliers played well in their fall scrimmages and practices makes their struggles this spring more perplexing. From a team that reached the NCAA quarterfinals last season, Starsia had to replace such stars as Steele Stanwick, Chris Bocklet, Colin Briggs and Matt Lovejoy, but Virginia returned such talented veterans as LaPierre, Prevas, Mark Cockerton, Scott McWilliams, Rob Emery and Ryan Tucker.

"Coming into the season, we knew that there was a little less margin for error," Starsia said. "You don't graduate a group with Steele and Bocklet and Briggs and Lovejoy, all sort of first-round draft choices, and not feel the effect of that. But I would have told you in the fall that we actually were playing a little better than I thought we were going to be playing."

Misfortune struck, however, during the team's first practice in January. Attackman James Pannell, the most heralded member of the Cavaliers' freshman class, severely sprained his ankle, and LaPierre hurt his knee.

Pannell hasn't missed any games this season, but the injury set him back significantly, and he hasn't been as productive as Starsia envisioned. LaPierre appeared in three games in February -- he had no goals and no assists and picked up only three ground balls -- before deciding, after having his knee examined by several doctors, to sit out the rest of the season.

LaPierre was the first player to be named a solo team captain during Starsia's tenure at UVa. "The loss of LaPierre, I don't think it can be calculated accurately or quantified," Starsia said.

The 6-3, 210-pound LaPierre has been the team's best defensive middie since the day he enrolled at UVa. Starsia planned to use him more on offense this season, but LaPierre would have anchored the defense during critical stretches.

"I don't like to make it sound as if we're whining, and I've tried to avoid using the word `young' as much as I can," Starsia said. "This is who we are, and I've got guys working feverishly to fill in the hole left by a LaPierre's absence, and I don't want to diminish their efforts."

Without LaPierre, a formidable physical presence, Virginia's top two defensive midfielders are juniors Bobby Hill and Blake Riley, who are listed at 5-8 and 5-10, respectively.

"They have toughness, but they can be overpowered," Starsia said. "I would still take guys that can move their feet, but there's a strength and size quotient required at the defensive end of the field that we don't have in the defensive midfield. When we've come back late in these games, we've actually subbed in [6-3, 195-pound] Rob Emery and [6-2, 200-pound] Ryan Tucker on defense, because they're fast and they get us up the field in transition.

"We've scored those big goals late in the games with those guys on the field. The problem is, I can't possibly ask much more of them than I'm already asking. We need them on offense at the same time."

Junior attackmen Nick O'Reilly and Mark Cockerton are the team's top scorers, with 39 and 36 points, respectively. Cockerton leads the `Hoos in goals with 32. The third attackman has been Pannell or sophomore Owen Van Arsdale, and during the five-game skid they've combined for only six goals and six assists.

The Cavaliers are averaging a respectable 11.4 goals per game, which ranks 15th nationally, but their shooting has been abysmal. Virginia ranks 52nd in shooting percentage (24.4).

In its most recent game, a 10-7 loss to North Carolina at Klöckner Stadium, UVa's offensive woes were highlighted.

"We outshoot Carolina 51-32, but we don't get a lot of easy shots," Starsia said. "And that's what LaPierre brought. He got us from defense to offense."

Another problem, Starsia said, has been the attack's inconsistency. The difference Saturday was "the slickness of Carolina's attack scoring," he said. "Cockerton has three [goals]. He should have had six. We're not getting anything from that third spot right now, and we need Pannell to step up. It's the difference between shooting layups and shooting jumpers. And if we were scoring a little bit more on the attack, it would open up the field even more for Rob and Ryan.

"As it is, they're every defense's first consideration, to a certain extent, and so their life is more difficult. But on the other hand, when you consider that we're essentially starting three new attackmen from a year ago, those guys are all playing pretty well."

UVa has suffered three one-goal losses this season: to Syracuse, Cornell and Ohio State, teams ranked Nos. 2, 8 and 13, respectively, in the latest USILA coaches' poll. Only once have the Cavaliers been blown out, in a 15-8 loss to Johns Hopkins on March 23.

"The thing about it is, I just feel like we're close," Starsia said. "I feel for the seniors, because I think this is hardest on them. I just hope we don't run out of season before we get a chance to realize what the potential of this group is."

Starsia spoke to former UVa star Matt Poskay on the phone Monday morning. Poskay, now the head coach at Wagner, scored only 11 goals as a Virginia sophomore in 2004. He had 29 a year later and 41 as a senior.

"He called and I said, `This year reminds me of your sophomore year,' " Starsia said. "His sophomore year, he could not throw it in the ocean, and then he graduates as a great player and becomes an MLL [star]. It comes when it comes."