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Defense never rests in title chase

The phrase "defending champions" is especially appropriate for the 2000 Virginia men's lacrosse team, a squad that is making a strong run at another national title using a tough, experienced core of defensemen.

"We have an experienced group," Cavalier coach Dom Starsia said. "One would expect us to be a good defensive team. Guys like Court Weisleder, Ryan Curtis, Mark Koontz, Peter Ragosa and Richard Reid know how to do this and know how to do it right. When we decide to do it right, we're pretty tough."

Curtis, one of five senior captains, is the big name on the defense, a returning All-American who received the Schmeisser Award last season as the outstanding defensive player in the country.

Koontz is another preseason All-American who came into his own at the end of last year, his freshman season. Weisleder, the third starting defenseman, is a senior who worked his way into the starting lineup late last season. Ragosa, another senior captain, starts at long-stick midfield, while Reid provides depth and the experience of a senior in the defensive end.

Curtis said experience and familiarity are the keys to the success of the Cavalier defense.

"Last year we were just as good, except we had a lot of lines," he said. "We had a good defense, [but] we just kept switching around. This year [and the] end of last year, the seniors have been playing together for a while and we're getting used to each other. I know what they can do and they know what I can do, so that helps out."

Koontz agreed that familiarity with his teammates has helped him improve his play in his first season as a starter.

"Experience is a big part of why we're so successful this year defensively, and it goes back to getting the confidence this year and having people back," he said. "Since Ryan and I played together last year, we know how each other play. I know where Ryan's going to be and [I can] allow him to pick off the pass or stop the play."

Starsia said the defense has gelled as a team and spread its unselfish attitude to the rest of the team.

"Team defense is a group activity, and the success of the group is very much greater than the sum of the parts," he said. "We've been playing well as a team, and as a group we've gotten better and better each of the last couple of weeks. That goes to communication and guys working together and helping each other out. At this level, the best defenders are not going to stop the best offensive players every single time, so you need to get those support guys to help each other out."

Part of the success of the Cavalier defense can be credited to players such as Koontz stepping in immediately.

"The way the coaches recruit here, every class has players," Curtis said. "Since I've been here it's never been so much a question of experience - we've always been pretty experienced. I think winning last year helped a lot. It was a place that no one had been, and that's helped us a lot this year, especially with confidence."

The defending champion always plays with a bulls-eye on its back and Virginia is no exception. Koontz said this challenge has spurred the team on to a higher level of play.

"Teams definitely gun for us," he said. "They circle us on their schedule and know that's probably going to be their biggest game. But that doesn't mean that they're going to come out and play harder than we are. We know that we have to come out and play just as hard as they do every game, or else teams will beat us."

But Starsia knows the Cav defense gives Virginia as good a shot as any team at the 2000 national title.

"When our defense plays well, it gives us a chance against any team," Starsia said.