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Talented Virginia squad hopes to live up to high expectations

Team faces Drexel to open season; young players step into new positions

After falling just short of the national championship game last season, the Virginia men's lacrosse team starts its spring campaign ranked third in preseason polling and set to face off against a Drexel team it defeated 13-7 last season and has dominated 5-1 during the last decade.

Last season's strong showing against Drexel kicked off a 12-game winning streak, which included victories at then-No.1 Syracuse and a seven-overtime thriller against conference rival Maryland.\nThat Virginia team started the season ranked second in the country and, after the win at Syracuse, spent eight straight weeks as top dog nationally before two losses to Duke. Another loss to Cornell during the NCAA semifinals derailed an otherwise outstanding season.

This year's team travels to Philadelphia, Pa., with a similar bull's-eye on its back, courtesy of its preseason ranking and its breadth of talent across the board. But plenty of question marks surround the youthful squad, especially with regard to leadership. The graduation of veteran stars Danny Glading and Garrett Billings means unranked upstarts like Drexel will be gunning hard for an early-season upset.

The Cavaliers will look to shake off the preseason rust, especially in the wake of last weekend's scrappy scrimmage against Georgetown. Against the Hoyas, Virginia coach Dom Starsia used the three 15-minute scrimmage periods to allow his starters to get a taste of the action before the long season ahead. The end result was far from a perfect showing.

"We are getting close to the first game," Starsia said. "I wish we had been a little more alert. I think there were some good moments but I think there were too many little things that trapped us throughout the day."

Moreover, the youthful Cavaliers will need to step into the shoes of last year's seniors. As Virginia's top returning offensive weapon, sophomore attackman Steele Stanwick anchors the attack-line alongside sophomore Chris Bocklet and freshman Connor English.

Not surprisingly, with the unit so heavy with underclassmen, Starsia hopes the line will develop and polish its form heading into this season.

"I thought the young guys made some mistakes, but they also did some good things at the same time," Starsia said. "It was good work for us. Georgetown is a quality team. We are just going to have to be sharper as we move to our first game."

With 36 goals and 22 assists during his stellar freshman campaign, Stanwick hopes to find similar success with his new line-mates but acknowledged the team still has plenty of room for improvement.

"I think it was a good effort overall [against Georgetown], but I think we definitely could have been sharper on the offensive end." Stanwick said. "We weren't as sharp as we wanted to be. A little sloppy on some exchanges, shooting wasn't great - we just weren't making the plays that we usually make. It is a scrimmage and it's all about getting ready for Drexel, but at the same time, you always want to come out and do your best."

Stanwick will lead the extra-man offense for Virginia, an area of the game that the team will be keen to improve after converting a less-than-stellar 30 percent in 2009. With the Cavaliers looking to orchestrate a balanced offense, the attackmen may take on additional responsibilities.

"I think each game, we get a little more comfortable," Stanwick said. "I think the midfielders - as good as they are - they are going to need us to carry the ball and do a lot."

Apart from departing seniors, injuries also have cost the team veteran leadership during the preseason. Senior Brian Carroll is day-to-day, but Starsia said last week after the game against Georgetown he hopes the veteran will return for the game against Drexel.

But if Carroll cannot take the field, sophomore midfielder Colin Briggs will take his place on the first line.

Junior defender Matt Lovejoy, who himself suffered an injury during the 2009 season, will join senior defenseman Ryan Nizolek and 2010 Lowe's Senior CLASS Award candidate Ken Clausen on a defense that hopes to sturdy itself after allowing 8.36 goals on 30.4 shots per game last season.

"Our defense, the past couple of years, people have taken a lot of shots at us," Lovejoy said. "We are kind of taking it a little personally this year."

Virginia's not-so-secret weapon, star junior midfielder Shamel Bratton, returns to improve on his outstanding sophomore effort, during which he tallied 42 points on 31 goals and 11 assists. Shamel quarterbacks a midfield line that includes his twin brother, junior Rhamel Bratton, as well as senior Brian Carroll.

Even with such high expectations and goals, Virginia will look to overcome last year's disappointment at the NCAAs and develop its young talent into a prominent force deserving of the team's No. 3 national ranking.

"We had a great [offseason] as a team," Stanwick said. "We worked extremely hard and hit the ground running as a team when we came back from Christmas break. Everyone is hungry ... and we're ready to get after it this weekend against Drexel. We'll just have to continue to get better in practice every day and see what happens"

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