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Starsia sounds off

Interview with Virginia men's lacrosse Coach Dom Starsia conducted Friday, Feb. 25, 2000

Cavalier Daily: How has winning the championship last season changed the team's outlook?

Dom Starsia: In some ways, it hasn't changed my life at all, but in other ways, it certainly has. It's made a lot of people really happy when we won the championships. And, clearly, one of the reasons I came to Virginia was to win a championship -- both professionally, from a Virginia standpoint and from my own.

The biggest thing is that it's allowed everybody to relax a little bit. I've had discussion with our seniors in particular. We have a very big senior class, a very talented class.

I think there are great expectations going into this season, but I think they would be enormous if we hadn't won the championship last year. In talking with our seniors and our captains, we all agree that it's a great relief that we won it last year, that we aren't burdened with only haven't one last season to get it done. We have five captains, which is an unusual number. I've never as high as five captains before, but we have an unusual senior class. It's really a special group.

I think it has allowed us to go into this season and just let us get ready to play lacrosse and enjoy the journey of playing college lacrosse at this level. Now, while there are different expectations at this level now that we're the defending champions, in a lot of ways, the burden isn't very heavy because it was greatly relieved by what happened last spring.

CD: What are your expectations for this season?

DS: I think the pressure would have been much, much greater if we hadn't won. In some ways, the pressure was building every year. We've won a lot of games, we've played a lot of big games and we've played a lot of great lacrosse, but we hadn't done this one thing that everybody wanted us to do, what we had been in a position to do. We have gone to overtime in the NCAA Final twice and hadn't won the championship. In some ways, winning it in 1999 was an enormous relief. So, we're all able to catch our breath.

You wind up with us being ranked number one in the preseason, and the expectations of being defending champions, but everybody's going to forget that in about a month once we get into the regular season and head toward May again. I haven't found it to be a tremendous burden, and I think that our players would relay the same. I think we're all looking forward to the start of the season and to get this started with a clean slate. I think it's an unusual situation in that way.

CD: Can Virginia win again?

DS: Things fell into place at the right time last year. It's hard to predict if that will happen this year. All I can tell you right now is that I like this team. I think the team likes each other. We've worked really hard. What we were looking for is: where are our seniors going to be, in terms of fitness and handling and things like that?

Our captains are all back. We have a 2.1-mile run that we use in the early season, in January. Our captains all came back and ran great. So, everybody seems intent on playing his best lacrosse.

Like I said, I think our chemistry is good. I think our experience is good. Our confidence is real. And we have good talent. I think we have the ingredients to have a real good season.

Unfortunately, at this level, there's really only one ending that will satisfy everybody. I've told people, "We can be a lot better and now have a better season than last year."

I think we're further along this season than we were at this time last year, a lot less question marks. But there's a lot of lacrosse to be played. And the question is: how do we look on May 1st? That's what we're going to be most interested in.

CD: Do the players expect to win again?

DS: That's one of the reasons that they came here. They wanted to play for Virginia, and they wanted to play for a national championship. With these guys, we've talked to them in the early season about this being the season that will define our toughness, in a sense that, last year, we probably surprised people by doing that. But, now we're number one in the preseason. There's great expectations. Everybody knows where we are. Are we going to withstand the challenge of getting everybody's best shot in the games in the regular season and come playoff time?

I think our seniors welcome that challenge. They're ready for that. We really have outstanding leadership in the senior class, and I couldn't be more pleased with that, with the tone that they've set in practice and will throughout the season.

CD: Can the players handle the pressure that comes with being the defending champions?

DS: When we're recruiting somebody, we sell the difficulty of our schedule. We've been either one or two in terms of being rated the toughest schedule in the country the last three or four years. We play Syracuse, we play Princeton, we play Hopkins, we play all the ACC teams. We scrimmaged Georgetown, we scrimmaged Loyola. So we don't duck away from anybody.

The Virginia-Syracuse game, the first game of the season, has been about the most hyped game of the season for the past few years anyway -- the fact that we're the defending finalists and ranked one and two in the preseason poll. From 22-21 two years ago, 16-14 last year (or 14-12, whatever it was), the game couldn't get ratcheted up any more than that.

We have the Princeton-Virginia game right after that. They've been the defending champions the last couple years, and we've played them before.

So, there couldn't be a lot more pressure to our regular season games than what we already have. One of the reasons that guys came here is that they want to play in games of this magnitude and with a schedule of this caliber. For us, it makes sure that practicing is a little bit more focused with the quality of our schedule that we play in the early season.

CD: Why do you start off your season with such difficult games?

DS: The only logic behind it is that it was the only date we could get together with Syracuse. We played them in '94 in the semifinal game. To this day, I would tell you that it's the best lacrosse game I ever saw. We beat them in overtime, 17-16 in '94. Roy Simmons, the former Syracuse coach, and I decided right there on the field that we would try to schedule.

We started playing the game in the mid-week, but it's too far to do in the mid-week. The only Saturday that we could find where we could both do it, the only weekend date we had free because of conference obligations and other things, was this early one. So that's how start.

I don't know if I would prefer to start with a couple easy games or not. You come out of the blocks, and you play Syracuse. It sure does make this time when you're running in the snow, it makes a little easier to digest when you know you're going to start off with a team like that.

CD: Have you gotten the media attention you deserve?

DS: I think that we've certainly had a healthy dose of media attention. Our program has always been one of the more visible ones. University administration has been very supportive from the president on down in recognizing what we were able to accomplish last year. It has certainly added a tinge of excitement for this season also. For everybody, it's made for a different six months between the end of last spring and coming to now. I tell people: we're everybody's heroes until the first game, and then we start all over again.

CD: Can you replace Tucker Radebaugh?

DS: I don't think that you fill the void that Tucker leaves us with with any one player. Tucker Radebaugh, for us, a program of our caliber - for him to win our team leadership award three years is very unusual, team MVP award two years. We're just going to have to have a lot of guys step up and fill it in, kind of by group, by committee almost. Like I said, we have a senior class that's capable of doing that.

Another part is the playing part of that. He was the quarterback at the offensive end and held down the fort. In Conor Gill and Drew McKnight, we have two returning starters. Drew is a two-year captain for us, Conor was the Tournament MVP last year. He's a sophomore now. They're just going to have to assume more of the load.

We're going to have a new player in Tucker's position, obviously. Whether it's Ian Shure or A.J. Shannon, who are the two most likely candidates, we're going to be new and inexperienced, and Conor and Drew are going to have to step up their play a little bit while that third-person get his feet wet, so to speak.

I think we're going to be okay there to start out the season, but we're certainly going to take it. On the opposite end of the field, Drew and Conor, they've always led by example, and now they're going to have to lead by deed, so to speak. Tucker made you cover him last year. Conor has a reputation as a feeder. He was able to live in that role because Tucker took a lot of that heat. Conor is going to have to step up his game going to the goal, force people to slide to him and create offense. Tucker was probably our best threat on the attack, and that's where Conor and Drew are going to have to step up their game.

They're great kids. I think the leadership part of it will take care of itself. It's more the playing part where they're going to have to show us something.

CD: What do you expect Conor Gill to do this season?

DS: I think that Conor has a gift with his eyes and his hands. He really has great eyes. He sees guys that are open and can give them the ball, so he gets labeled as that. He wants his game to be viewed more complete than that, and he'll complete that by going to the goal more recklessly.

He's a big kid. He's filled out a lot over the last year. Physically, he's gotten bigger and stronger. He needs to assert himself physically. He and Drew are both going to do that for us, but Conor particularly. I think that's he capable of it, and he knows it. He needs to make sure that he gets off that endline and attacks the goal. We're going to watch for that early in the season to see if he's making progress in that area.

CD: Where is Jay Jalbert going to play this year?

DS: He's probably going to play in the midfield this year. He made such a great transition there. He didn't really get comfortable there until the middle of the season. He's someone that, in the midfield, opens up the field for everybody else. Pole or no pole, doesn't matter who's covering him, it doesn't phase him at all. You have to cover him with a pole, you have to slide to him. That opens up the field for the other mids on his line, Hanley Holcomb or whoever else is playing with him. For our team right now, with Drew and Conor on the right hand, we're best with Jay up top still.

CD: What's the starting line-up going to be on opening day?

DS: I think the attack is likely to be McKnight, Gill and Shure, Ian Shure.

The midfield is really in flux. I'm not trying to hide anything. The likely candidates are: well, we're still deciding whether or not to load up with Jalbert and David Bruce and Hanley Holcomb. We'll use another group with Aaron Vercollone, maybe Chris Rotelli, a freshman, and Willie Quayle, a junior. In some cases, you'll see Jalbert and Holcomb run together. In others, you see them run separately. My guess is that we're going to go into the season that way. We'll certainly going to load those two guys up in some situations, but probably not all the time.

And the rest of the way: the short-stick middies will be David Jenkins, and defensive middies in Brenndan Mohler, Peter Ragosa at the long pole. Close defense is likely to be Ryan Curtis, Mark Koontz, and Court Weisleder in the starting unit with Derek Kenney in the goal. Jason Hard and David Jenkins still be back facing off.

CD: Do you expect any newcomers to make an impact?

DS: We're really pleased with the freshman middies. I think you'll see Chris Rotelli, Andrew Faraone, Billy Glading, especially out there, maybe not in a lead role early in the season, but I think throughout the course of the season. And the Canadian boy, A.J. Shannon, will play an important role on our team during the season whether it's up on the attack or in the midfield. If Ian Shure can do the job over there, then Shannon may be a midfielder sooner rather than later. So, we're still waiting to see how that will work out over there.

CD: What would you say is the Virginia style of lacrosse?

DS: We're athletic and uptempo. I like to think that we're an aggressive defensive team that likes to push the ball in the open field and take advantage of unsettled opportunities. We recruit for speed; we look for that. So, going from defense to offense, we want to try to beat you down there if we can. The key is that we're unselfish offensively.

When we take the ball from the defensive end, our aim is to get it behind the goal on offense as quickly as possible. When you have somebody behind the goal like Conor Gill -- formerly it was Tim Whitely -- you try to get it to those guys as quickly as you can and try to fill up those spaces and see if we can't find somebody coming down.

We've led the NCAA in scoring three of the last four years: '96, '97 and '99, so we definitely create a lot of shots and score a lot of goals.

A lot of them are lay-ups. If you go with the unsettled game, you create a lot of high percentage shots. That's the key. You see teams that take a lot of shots, but they have a lot of outside shooters. I would say that we haven't had great outside shooters the last couple of years, but if you get the ball behind, then you have somebody like Conor back there -- or like Timmy Whitely formerly -- then you know if you cut, you're going to get the ball in a good spot. That's how we build ourselves.

CD: What strides has Derek Kenney made in goal?

DS: I think Derek's going to have a great year. I think if there's a single reason why Virginia might be better, I think it's because Derek Kenney did not like to be thought of as our weak link last year. He's one of the most competitive, most capable athletes I've ever been around. I think he has to prove himself in the goal. I think he's going to have a great season.

He's had a great preseason. He's played better so far than he did all last year, but he also gave us a chance to win the National Championship last year. He didn't get any credit or enough credit for that. People sort of got on him. Could there have been any tougher assignment for a first-year player than to play his first college game in a dome, his second one at Princeton and his fourth one at Hopkins? That Hopkins game especially, he got consistently better the rest of the way. We talked to both Conor and he about treating the playoffs as a second season. You get done with exams, and then you start up again.

Conor was up and down late in the year, but they both had great playoff runs for us. They both played like upperclassmen at that time. I think Derek Kenney is going to have to show it, but I think Derek Kenney is going to have a great year. That's the single reason why we're going to be better.

He gave us chance to win last year. He made a save on Duke's best middie last year at the end of the ACC Championship game to win the game. I would have said that he didn't win any games for us last year. He's capable of doing that this year. A great goalie steals one or two of those games for your team. I think Derek's getting there.

CD: How has Derek performed in the preseason?

DS: I see a kid who's much more confident and much more comfortable with his technique. Last year, he was trying to learn a new defense and facing a difference in the quality of shooters and then working with new goalie coaches here with new techniques, there was just a lot on his plate last year, and his head was spinning.

This year, he's much more comfortable between the pipes, so he is allowing his athleticism to carry the day for him as a player. You want these kids to get to a point where what they do on the field is just second nature. He's starting to get that way. His second nature is better than most guys because his athleticism is so good.

CD: What has the team done in the preseason?

DS: We've practiced really well. We've practiced pretty hard. We scrimmaged last week against Georgetown and Loyola. Against Georgetown, I wasn't happy with how we were in the warm-up against Georgetown, and they carried the play to us. It was very useful.

Georgetown's a good team, so the feeling was afterwards that that would be good for us. That will wake us up. But, only if we're good enough. The next day, we scrimmaged that Friday night, and then on Saturday, we scrimmaged Loyola, and we played very, very good against Loyola.

It was a good weekend for us. The thing that catches you off guard in these first scrimmages and games is the pace of the play. You almost forget how much faster a scrimmage and a game is than what you're ever able to do in practice. You feel like you're practicing hard.

Georgetown's advantage in that scrimmage was that they had scrimmaged Maryland the weekend before, and it was really our first scrimmage. We let them carry the play to us. We didn't shoot well. There were a couple of little adjustments that we could have made that would have made a difference. But, mostly, I thought that they outplayed us and out-hustled us. But we came back on Saturday and played very well. So, I even feel it myself. We have another scrimmage tomorrow, and I really want to get through this thing and start getting ready to play Syracuse and get ready to play our first game.

PREVIEWING THE TOP CONTENDERS

Syracuse

The preseason ranking are approximately: I voted Syracuse number one. We're number one in most of the polls. Syracuse is number two in all the polls. In any poll that we're number on in, they're number two in. I would tell you that they're every bit the team that we are. They wind up with Ryan Powell coming back on the attack. They're a team a lot like us: very good scoring capabilities on the attack.

We might be a little bit more dangerous offensively from the midfield, but they're at least as deep as we are or deeper in the midfield overall. Two very talented defenses, they have a player back in the goal, [Rob] Mulligan, who's a little more experienced than Derek. I would say that that is a wash. We are two very similar teams.

All of that feeds this first game thing. The teams are ranked one and two. It's a rematch of the national championship teams. Two teams that everybody seems to agree are probably the most complete teams right now.

Johns Hopkins

I would tell you that the third team is probably Hopkins, nationally. Essentially three first team All-Americans back: [Conor] Denihan on the attack and A.J. Haugen in the midfield with [Brian] Carcaterra in the goal, who made second team last year. They have probably as good a first seven or eight guys as any of the rest of us. They may not be quite as deep after that as Syracuse and Virginia. They are certainly capable of winning.

Georgetown

I think Georgetown and Duke are close next. Georgetown comes back with three seniors on the attack. They've made steady progress the last couple years. They get to the semifinals last year, so they have experience and confidence. They've got -- just from seeing them in scrimmage the other night -- four or five very good middies. They're defense is experienced. They have a new kid in the goal that played very well against us. The question is how he holds up in the regular season. But I like them.

Duke

Duke, I think, is very athletic, a big strong team, having three returning starters on the attack that probably average 225 pounds. They're an unusual looking lacrosse team; they're so big and strong. Again, probably three first-team All-Americans in [Jared] Frood on the attack, [Chris] Hartofilis in the midfield and [Stephen] Card in their close defense. They're going to be a team to be reckoned with. They're going to need to establish some depth on defense. They have a great lead guy, and I like their goalie, [Matt] Breslin, but they graduated their other starters, both on the defensive midfield and on the other two close defense spots, so I don't know who's going to be playing with them there again.

Princeton

Princeton, I think, is a great young lacrosse team. I'd like to think they're at least a year away, probably. I think last year was a transition year; I think this is a transition year. I think next year becomes a climax year talent wise for them. Hopefully, they won't grow up faster than they're supposed to. They've got some good young players, and they're going to be rebuilding themselves defensively. But they're certainly the class of the Ivy League, I'd say right now.

Maryland

They have Brian Zeller in the midfield, Mike LaMonica in the midfield. They lost their goalie. He could have come back for another season. He decided to graduate early and left, so that's a hole for them to fill.

North Carolina

It's Coach Klarmann's last year. I think they've got a fairly complete team. They're a team that may not have a first-team All-American but has 18-20 kids that can handle and play. There are days when you turn the ball over to your best player. I don't know who those guys are for them, but they have a fairly complete team, Carolina does, so they'll be a force to be reckoned with.

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