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Cavaliers lean on rookie sticks

After losing two All-ACC performers, squad grooms fresh-faced attackline as fall ball begins

During most of the 2009 season, Virginia found itself seated atop the national ranking, and for good reason. Wins on the road against then-No. 1 Syracuse, then-No. 9 Johns Hopkins, then-No. 10 North Carolina as well as a home win against then-No. 4 Cornell seemingly helped cement the Cavaliers' domination of Division I men's lacrosse.

After two blowout losses to conference rival Duke, however, doubts that many of Virginia's key wins were flukes began to fester - a perception only substantiated by the fact that so many of the Cavaliers' big games had been won by only razor-thin margins.

Virginia bounced back from its 16-5 loss against the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament, however, to open the NCAA Tournament on fire. After defeating Villanova 18-6, the Cavaliers cruised by Johns Hopkins 19-8, handing the Blue Jays their biggest loss in NCAA Tournament history. While the Cavaliers managed to defeat Hopkins two times in the same season, they were not so lucky in their second meeting with Cornell. In the national semifinals held in Foxborough, Mass., Virginia was sent home with a convincing 15-6 defeat at the hands of the Big Red.

Now, after three months spent dwelling on their postseason woes, the Cavaliers are back on the field, using fall ball as a chance to prepare for yet another trying lacrosse season.

"No matter what we are doing, you want to play well," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said of the offseason practice. "As much as anything, you are introducing the freshmen to what you are doing, trying to get them acclimated. [We are trying] to determine which are going to help us a little bit."

Virginia's biggest area of concern this season is undoubtedly its attack. After boasting one of the nation's top attack lines in 2009, the Cavaliers graduated two All-ACC performers in Danny Glading and Garrett Billings. In a departure from past seasons when the Cavalier offense was led by at least one returning senior starter, the team's most experienced attackman this spring is only a sophomore - Baltimore native Steele Stanwick.

Stanwick's numbers as a freshmen were impressive, as he finished second in points for the Cavaliers with 36 goals and 22 assists, but he often faced opponents' weakest defenders, with Glading and Billings attracting the most attention from defenses. This season though, Stanwick will be the one charged with handling teams' strongest defenders.

As of now, it appears Stanwick will be joined by freshman Connor English and sophomore Chris Bocklet on the attack line. But with many months left before the season, Starsia emphasizes that the starting situation could easily change with up-and-comers like sophomore Matt Kugler and freshman Matt White, among others, waiting in the wings.

"We are going to be into the season before [the attack line] begins to determine itself," Starsia said. "If you have three guys and you are all set like last year, that's fine ... Being as young as we are, I think we are probably going to freak out a little bit. We are better off having four or five guys so that we have a little flexibility as we get into the spring."

Virginia might be losing experience on attack, but it should be able to put together a strong offensive midfield in 2010 - an advantage the Cavaliers will attempt to exploit in hopes of increasing their scoring production.

"We will [change our offensive strategy]," Starsia said. "[But] we don't need to decide exactly how we are going to play all that right now. The thought that we are going to be a team that attacks from the midfield is certainly there."

Starsia noted that junior midfielders John Haldy and Rhamel and Shamel Bratton, not to mention senior Brian Carroll, bring the experience necessary to recoup Virginia's losses.

The Cavaliers also look to field a more well-versed lineup on the other end of the field. Seniors Ken Clausen and Ryan Nizolek return for close defense, while junior Matt Lovejoy returns to the lineup after missing most of last season because of an ankle injury. In addition to a solid starting three, the Virginia defense will be supplemented by promising freshmen Howie Long and Harry Prevas. At long stick middie, junior Bray Malphrus, who saw limited playing time last year, will take the position of veteran Mike Timms.

"As a unit, we have been working on getting tougher," Clausen said. "That's been a theme we have had throughout the whole fall. We've been trying to have consistency more than anything."

Consistency is one thing the Virginia defense lacked during its dramatic 2009 season. In the Syracuse game, for instance, Virginia found itself up five goals with five minutes left, but what appeared to be a comfortable cushion turned into a tight one-goal lead by the end of regulation. During their first matchup against Hopkins, the Cavaliers suffered a similar defensive lapse. Sitting on a 12-8 lead going into the third quarter, Virginia gave up seven goals in 15 minutes and was forced to fight its way to yet another one-goal victory.

For the Cavaliers to find themselves in a mix for the national championship again in 2010, they will need to solve these occasional defensive miscues and overcome an inexperienced attack.

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