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Virginia opens against Drexel

Despite losing powerhouses Stanwick, Bocklet, Briggs, coach anticipates successful season run

Lacrosse season is officially underway, and the Cavaliers have found themselves in unfamiliar territory. With new faces, new jerseys and new rules, it may take some lacrosse fans time to adjust to Virginia’s new look.

The Virginia men’s lacrosse team comes into the season ranked No. 9 in three of the four major polls and last in the ACC in all four — a stark contrast to a squad which entered the 2012 season as the defending national champions and with the No. 1 overall ranking. But the Cavaliers aren’t paying mind to the rankings or lowering their expectations, senior defenseman Harry Prevas said.

“Even the year we won the national championship … midway through the year nobody [thought] we [could] do anything, we shouldn’t even make the tournament,” Prevas said. “So it really doesn’t change that much for us and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The 2012 campaign was less than fruitful, as the Cavaliers lost 12-10 in a heartbreaking quarterfinals matchup in the NCAA Tournament against Notre Dame. Despite heading into the final quarter tied 6-6, the Fighting Irish went on a 6-2 run that effectively eliminated Virginia and ensured that for the first time since 2007 the Cavaliers would fail to advance to the semifinal round.

Now, Virginia is faced with filling the gigantic shoes left behind by five graduating USILA All-Americans. Seniors accounted for about 55 percent of the team’s total points in 2012. Among those who graduated were captain and first team All-American attackman Steele Stanwick — who ranks first all-time in program history in points, fourth in assists and seventh in goals — and All-American attackman Chris Bocklet, No. 5 all-time in goals scored at Virginia. Stanwick and Bocklet combined for 124 of the Cavaliers’ 306 points last season, leaving gaping holes at attack.

“We’re a program that graduates good players every year,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “You don’t graduate Steele Stanwick every year, or Chris Bocklet and Colin Briggs together, but we’ve got the players that can step in … It just may take us a little while before we resemble a Virginia lacrosse team at the offensive end in particular.”

The Cavaliers return sophomore attackman Owen Van Arsdale, however, who started all 14 regular season games in 2012, as well as versatile senior Matt White, the No. 28 pick in the 2013 Major League Lacrosse Draft who started every regular season game at midfield before getting the call to start both 2012 postseason games at attack.

Despite graduating All-American Briggs, third on the team in points with 36 last season, Starsia expects the midfield to be one of the team’s strengths with the return of USILA All-Americans junior Rob Emery and senior captain Chris LaPierre, as well as key contributors in sophomore Ryan Tucker and junior Mark Cockerton.

“We expect some of the returning guys to grow up a little bit,” Starsia said. “Rob Emery, certainly, Ryan Tucker is going to carry a lot of it, Matt White has been bumping in between the attack and the midfield, so we feel like we’ve got some experience there.”

LaPierre, recently selected No. 2 overall in the 2013 MLL Draft and named the first solo captain for Virginia since 1981, will look to be a force on both offense and defense, as well as in transition. He led the team in groundballs in 2012 with 63 and is notable for his ability to be a “one-man clear.”

“He’s been coming back from a little bit of a leg injury,” Starsia said. “But he’s a special young man, and he was anxious to be the captain of this team. He’s done a very good job putting us in the position that we’re in now.”

Faceoff specialist Ryan Benincasa graduated 10th all-time in Virginia history in faceoff wins with 291. Sophomore midfielder Mick Parks will take over the primary responsibility of handling faceoffs, although LaPierre, Tucker and sophomore midfielder Tyler German may see action as well.

Who Starsia will tap as the team’s starting goaltender remains the biggest question for Virginia. With the departure of honorable mention All-American net-minder Rob Fortunato, senior Conor McGee and sophomore Rhody Heller competed for the position in the fall, with freshman Dan Marino entering the fray in the spring after recovering from a broken thumb.

“In particular with Rhody Heller and Dan Marino, they both had a good preseason … They split time and both had their moments,” Starsia said. “It’s going to be a tight call no matter what it is, and we’d probably like another day or so before we pull the trigger on that.”

The defense did not see as much turnover as the offense, but still lost All-American Matt Lovejoy and longstick midfielder and captain Chris Clements. Retaining All-American junior Scott McWilliams and a 16-game starter in Prevas though will help. Sophomore Greg Danseglio is expected to be the third starter, and Prevas believes defense will be one of the team’s strengths.

“We’ve got a lot of new guys, but I’ve got Scott and Greg down on the defense with me and I’m pretty familiar with those guys,” Prevas said. “[Greg’s] ready to play, and we’ve got [freshman defenseman] Tanner Scales and [sophomore longstick midfielder] Tanner Ottenbreit helping us out too … I think we’re pretty solid at the defensive position right now.”

New personnel aside, rule changes will also force the Cavaliers to take on a whole new image this season. With the elimination of the sideline substitution horn and the complete overhaul of the stall warning to include a 30-second shot clock once the stall warning is in effect, look for midfielders, especially Emery and LaPierre, to increasingly play on both ends of the field and a faster pace of play overall.

“I think in theory … people are going to be pleased with the new rules,” Starsia said. “If you’re willing to leave people in the game, you can play the game at a quicker tempo. I think we’re one of the programs that sees that as an advantage and sees that as something that we want to do. The rule changes suit us from both a personnel standpoint … and from a personality standpoint in the sense that I think it’s who we want to be.”

This season Virginia fans will have plenty of opportunity to see how the rule changes play out firsthand, as the Cavaliers will play nine of their 13 regular season games at home.

“There’s no better place to play lacrosse than Klöckner Stadium,” White said. “That’s just the absolute best place to play.”

The Cavaliers will face Drexel at home Saturday in the season opener.

“It’s a huge game for us,” White said. “There’s a lot of question marks surrounding our program this year, and we want to go out there and give it our best effort. I think when we do that, a lot of questions will be answered.”