After a disappointing three-week stretch which saw the No. 14 Virginia men’s lacrosse team drop three of its four games by a combined three goals, the Cavaliers travel to M&T Bank Stadium Saturday for the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic, where they will meet No. 10 Johns Hopkins.
Virginia (5-3) is coming off a heartbreaking 11-10 home loss to No. 8 Ohio State. In a game that featured a one-hour and 43 minute lightning delay, the Cavaliers’ sloppy play and frustrating mistakes in the first three quarters cost them. In the third quarter, the Buckeyes scored on an open goal after Virginia turned the ball over while trying to clear a faceoff, and also capitalized on a pass that bounced off junior defenseman Scott McWilliams’ helmet.
Junior attackman Nick O’Reilly, who tallied four goals and an assist on the day, took a shot with four seconds left in an attempt to force overtime, but it missed the mark by mere inches, hitting the left pipe and bouncing out of bounds.
“I should have finished it,” O’Reilly said. “It was a great look, it just didn’t go.”
Now the Cavaliers, who are still seeking their first ranked win of the season, must try to regroup and reclaim the Doyle Smith Cup, the trophy given to the series’ regular season victor, from the Blue Jays (5-2). The two programs will meet for the 67th straight season, and Virginia enters the game having won six of the last eight matchups. The only other time the two historic programs have met inside M&T Bank Stadium, Virginia came away with a 9-7 win and the 2003 NCAA Championship.
Last year, however, then-No. 2 Johns Hopkins upset the top-ranked Cavaliers 11-10 in overtime in front of nearly 7,000 fans at Klöckner Stadium. Though attackman Steele Stanwick recorded two goals and three assists, three overtime turnovers by Virginia eventually set up then-junior midfielder John Ranagan’s game-winner with five seconds remaining in overtime.
Johns Hopkins is especially strong on the faceoff, winning an NCAA-leading 68.8 percent of their attempts, while the Cavaliers have struggled at times in that phase of the game this season. Virginia sophomore midfielder Mick Parks, who ranks No. 17 with an impressive 56.7 win percentage, has his work cut out for him this weekend against Blue Jay senior faceoff specialist Mike Poppleton, who leads with nation with a 71.1 win percentage.
“We need to be good there,” head coach Dom Starsia said. “When we’re a team that can win faceoffs, that creates momentum in a game for you. You score, you face off, you get the ball back and you’re back on offense again.”
Cavalier fans will recognize a very familiar last name in Saturday’s game, only this player will not be wearing a Virginia jersey. Sophomore attackman Wells Stanwick, younger brother of Virginia legend Steele, leads his team with 27 points, including 15 goals and a team-high 12 assists. Stanwick has proven to be a highly efficient shooter in 2013, finding the back of the net on 57.7 percent of his attempts, good enough for fourth in the nation. Against a scoring offense that is tied for fourth in the nation with 13.14 goals per game, the Virginia defense will have to be especially vigilant off-ball.
“I’m a little concerned about our play defensively away from the ball,” Starsia said. “That hurt us in the first game against Drexel. We were much better in the last couple of games, so we’re going to continue to get better at that.”
Sophomore goaltender Rhody Heller started just his second game in goal this season against Ohio State, replacing the usual starter, freshman goalie Dan Marino, in an attempt to change the team’s fortunes. Both goalies are an option against the Blue Jays, and Starsia has shown little hesitation to change goalies mid-game this season.
Arguably the biggest blow to the Cavaliers in recent weeks has not come during a game. Starsia announced Wednesday that senior midfielder and captain Chris LaPierre would sit out the remainder of the season due to a lower extremity injury, and is expected to file for a medical hardship waiver for an additional year of eligibility. LaPierre played in three games this season and last took the field against Vermont in a very limited capacity.
“The leadership is still there. . . he’s very engaged in what we’re doing,” Starsia said. “Our focus right now is to get Chris healthy. He remains the captain of this 2013 team and we look forward to keeping him as involved in the program as conditions allow.”
For the rest of the season however, others will have to carry the load in LaPierre’s absence. Virginia will look to move to 8-0 in Inside Lacrosse events and 5-0 in the Face-Off Classic behind O’Reilly, who leads the squad with 16 assists and 30 points, and its leading goal-scorer, junior attackman Mark Cockerton, who ranks third nationally with 23 goals. After coming in to the Ohio State game averaging 48 shots per game, the Cavalier offense was held to just 33 shots, an issue that the unit will look to remedy this weekend.
“We talked to the kids in December about increasing our shots per game, and we are averaging about 20 more shots per game. . . from a year ago,” Starsia said. “We need to continue to improve there, but I think we’re headed in a good direction that suits this team with the rules that are in play.”
Faceoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday and will be televised on ESPNU.