After starting the season undefeated through February, the No. 17 Virginia men’s lacrosse team has lost four of its five games in March and will close out the disastrous month by opening conference play Saturday against No. 2 Maryland at Klöckner Stadium.
The formerly top-ranked Terrapins (6-1, 1-1 ACC) are coming off their first blemish of the season, a 10-8 home loss to No. 6 North Carolina. After falling behind 8-2 in the third quarter, Maryland mounted a furious comeback that fell just short. With a win in Charlottesville, the Terrapins would finish their ACC schedule at 2-1 and put even more pressure on No. 10 Duke and the Tar Heels, both 1-1 in conference play, to win their games against Virginia (5-4, 0-0 ACC) in order to contend for the top seed in the ACC Tournament.
Like Maryland, the Cavaliers also enter Saturday’s contest coming off a loss. Johns Hopkins defeated Virginia 15-8 in last week’s Face-Off Classic at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, its most lopsided win in the series since a 22-13 thrashing at Homewood Field in 1995. Still looking for their first ranked win of the season — No. 14 Drexel was unranked when Virginia defeated the Dragons — the Cavaliers know they must correct their errors in conference games or they may miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
“For both teams coming off of a loss, it makes the game even a little bit more edgy, frankly,” coach Dom Starsia said. “We’ve had opportunities to win these games and we haven’t made the play, and next time the opportunity presents itself we just have to get on the other side of it.”
Sophomore goalkeeper Rhody Heller is coming off a career-high 13 saves against Johns Hopkins, but he also gave up a career-worst 15 goals. Heller has started three of the last four games in place of the early-season starter, freshman Dan Marino, and is posting a .478 save percentage while allowing 12.38 goals per game. The move to Heller was an attempt to change the Cavaliers’ fortunes, but it appears to have done little to help so far.
In between the pipes for the Terrapins, first-team All-ACC junior goaltender Niko Amato is fifth in the nation with 7.10 goals against average and seventh with a .587 save percentage. All-American senior longstick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt and sophomore defenseman Goran Murray join Amato on a stingy defensive unit that ranks third in the nation, allowing just 7.29 goals per game, meaning the Cavalier offense will have to make the most of its possessions.
“When you’re playing a great team you always want to win the possession battle,” junior attackman Nick O’Reilly said. “You want to not force things and try to control the ball … making sure you get good possessions and take good shots. You don’t want to settle for anything less.”
O’Reilly leads the Cavaliers with a team-high 33 points, followed closely by junior attackman Mark Cockerton’s 31. Cockerton’s 27 goals are good for fourth in the nation, and the starting attack unit is responsible for 48.6 percent of the team’s total points and 54.5 percent of the team’s assists.
The Virginia defense will be tested by the Terrapin offense, which can score from both the attack and midfield and averages the second most goals per game in the nation at 14.0. The starting attack of seniors Owen Blye and Kevin Cooper and sophomore Jay Carlson have combined for 38 goals and 18 assists, with Carlson scoring on an efficient 63.2 percent of his shots. Starting at the midfield, seniors Jake Bernhardt, John Haus and Mike Chanenchuk are also a force, contributing 32 goals and 16 assists.
“All week we’ve been talking about how we have to be a little bit smarter and tougher on both sides of the ball,” junior defenseman Scott McWilliams said. “We’ve had too many mental mistakes, and all week we’ve just focusing on eliminating those mistakes. We see instances of greatness in each game, we just have to play like that for an entire game.”
Saturday will mark the 65th consecutive season that the two teams have met in a series that dates back to 1926. Maryland leads the all-time series 45-43, but Virginia is 24-12 under Starsia, including a 9-7 win in the 2011 NCAA Championship. The Cavaliers enter the weekend seeking their third straight win against the Terrapins, and their 12th in the last 14 meetings.