For the first time in years, the No. 17 Virginia men’s lacrosse team began its season as an underdog. Ranked No. 7 in the preseason, there was no question that the team was talented, but after losing so much offensive firepower and leadership from last year’s squad, the Cavaliers were picked to finish last in the ACC by both the media and the coaches.
Fast forward four games, and Virginia (5-4) stood at 4-0, including an overtime win against a tough Drexel team. Undefeated and hungry to prove themselves, the Cavaliers traveled to the Carrier Dome to take on longtime rival Syracuse. However, the Orange came out on top of the back-and-forth game in overtime, sneaking a low-angle shot from the left wing by freshman goaltender Dan Marino.
The next weekend the team welcomed then-No. 3 Cornell to Charlottesville. Even after dropping a close one to Syracuse, coach Dom Starsia was quick to downplay the importance of any individual contest.
“We’re about to play a part of the schedule in which we’re playing a top-five or -six team every weekend,” Starsia said. “We have to get a couple of these. Next week, it’s not life or death, but it’s an important game and we want to continue to step forward. We’re going to have to play our best game in order to come out on top.”
After taking a four-goal lead midway through the third quarter against the Big Red, Cornell outscored Virginia 7-2 in the final 20 minutes, capped off by the game-winner with 13 seconds left to play. One week later the team would again fall late in the fourth quarter, this time done in by an Ohio State goal in transition, which was generated by a turnover off a faceoff won by Virginia. When junior attackman Nick O’Reilly’s potential game-tying shot hit the left pipe and bounced out of bounds with four seconds to play, many started to wonder when the Cavaliers might catch a break.
“We talked about the fact that … there’s no ‘deserve’ in sports, there’s only ‘do,’” Starsia said. “You either make the play that wins the game or you don’t … sports can be kind of unforgiving and we just have to make sure that we get it done when the opportunity presents itself next time.”
Certainly Virginia didn’t deserve to win the Face-Off Classic and the Doyle Smith Cup last Saturday against Johns Hopkins. The team was utterly embarrassed by its historic rival on national television, as the Blue Jays used a 9-0 run to amass an 11-1 lead early in the third quarter. Johns Hopkins would take a 15-8 victory and the game was never closer than six goals in the second half.
It’s been somewhat apparent that the attack isn’t as fluid as last year. Junior attackman Mark Cockerton has burst onto the scene and is tied for fourth in the nation in goals with 27, while O’Reilly has stepped into the role of field general nicely. But losing Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet is not just about production, it has affected the offense’s tempo and composure. Whereas in previous years the Cavaliers could always count on Stanwick to control the ball and deliver a smart, high-percentage possession, this year’s attack unit, lacking any seniors playing quality minutes, clearly does not boast the same experience as last year’s.
The new rules, particularly the shot clock, also factor somewhat into the discussion, but as the year goes on the Virginia offense should become more confident in late-game scenarios and begin finishing its games.
“We started the season and we knew that we were going to be able to generate opportunities from the midfield,” Starsia said. “But if we’re going to be the team we hope to be, our attack has to continue to improve so we can depend on them, because we just have to have that as the season goes on.”
The defense, returning two of three starters from last year’s team including All-American junior defenseman Scott McWilliams, was built to be the strength of a young Virginia team. By and large, the defense has lived up to expectations, as McWilliams is tied for the nation’s lead in caused turnovers with 25, and the defense as a whole is third with 90. The unit has shown that it can compete against top-caliber players such as Cornell senior attackman Rob Pannell, and the starting close defense leads the nation in scoring with nine points.
“I think part of that comes with the new rules, letting us get after our guys a little bit more once the shot clock goes on,” McWilliams said. “I think we definitely have athletic enough defensemen to take on that role and once we pick up the ball, push in transition to our offense.”
But late in games that same stout defense has been unable to bear down when the team has needed it most, as the Cavaliers on both ends of the field have fallen victim to unlucky bounces and mental mistakes late in the game.
“All week we’ve been talking about how we have to be a little bit smarter and tougher on both sides of the ball,” McWilliams said. “We’ve had too many mental mistakes … We see instances of greatness in each game, we just have to play like that for an entire game.”
Though the team’s mediocre record might suggest an overall weaker team than in previous years, the young team remains hungry for success, completing three one-goal losses against top-tier competition. The team is still looking for its first ranked win of the season, which it desperately needs if it hopes to buoy its tournament hopes.