The No. 6 Virginia men’s lacrosse team will head to Syracuse, N.Y. to take on the No. 18 Orange in the Carrier Dome Friday evening in the team’s first true road test and first matchup against a ranked opponent this season.
The annual regular-season series between the two storied programs began in 1995, and in the 25 meetings since coach Dom Starsia took the helm at Virginia in 1993, the Cavaliers (4-0) hold a slim 15-13 series lead, 17 games of which were decided by one or two goals. The two teams have combined for nine of the last 14 NCAA Championships, and the success of both programs adds even more intensity to the rivalry.
Virginia has won seven of the last eight regular season matchups between the teams, falling 12-10 to the Orange (1-1) in 2011 in its last trip to the Carrier Dome before triumphing last year at Klöckner Stadium 14-10.
“I think you have two programs that respect each other a great deal and have typically played the game at a fast pace,” Starsia said. “The way Virginia and Syracuse play, they go up and down the field, they play fearlessly. It’s a great game to watch and it’s a great game to be involved in, and it just seems like it brings out the best in both teams.”
In the Cavaliers’ last game before hitting the road for New York, the team pulled away from Mount St. Mary’s in the fourth quarter for an 18-11 victory. Junior attackman Mark Cockerton and junior midfielder Rob Emery each recorded a career high in points with seven and five, respectively, while redshirt junior attackman Nick O’Reilly also tallied four assists and a goal during the downpour on the University Hall Turf Field.
“This year we don’t have that superstar guy, so we’re all working together as a team,” Cockerton said.
Virginia was able to dominate the Mount by peppering the goal with shots, outshooting the Mountaineers 51-34, as well as clearing the ball a perfect 18-of-18, compared to the Mount’s 11-of-20 success rate. The Cavaliers have increased their shots per game from last season from 36.5 to 55.5 during the first four games against the same four opponents.
“We talked to the kids in December about increasing our shots per game,” Starsia said. “So we’re doing what we talked about trying to do. Now the shot selection, the quality of the shots we’re getting in every instance is not perfect, 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.”
Despite the early season success, Virginia’s offense may run into trouble against a staunch Syracuse defense that has allowed only nine goals and 35 shots per game and features first-team All-American and reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Week senior Brian Megill.
“Syracuse is very good defensively,” Starsia said. “They’re a little bit of a work in progress offensively — they’re a little bit like us I’d say. So this could be a little bit more of a low-scoring game than you’d see ordinarily because you have two teams that are still trying to figure it out on offense and have a little bit more experience at the defensive end of the field.”
Syracuse does boast noteworthy talents on the offensive side as well, however, as senior midfielder JoJo Marasco and junior attackman Derek Maltz — who were both named preseason honorable mention All-Americans and to the Tewaaraton Award watch list along with Megill — have combined for 11 of the Orange’s 34 points through two games.
Though Virginia’s offense has scored an average of 15.5 goals per game this season, Starsia is still concerned about the early identity of the unit that graduated major contributors in All-American attackmen Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet and midfielder Colin Briggs with last year’s squad.
“We’re not going to be the team we want to be unless our attack continues to develop,” Starsia said. “We started the season and we knew that we were going to be able to generate opportunities from the midfield, but … 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.”
A more pressing concern for Virginia is that senior All-American and captain Chris LaPierre may be forced to miss his fourth straight game with a sprained knee. Starsia said Tuesday evening he hopes to see LaPierre return within the next week or two, and described his status for Friday as a possible. A dominating two-way midfielder, LaPierre’s presence will certainly be missed if he is unable to take the field against the Orange.
“The leadership is still there … he’s very engaged in what we’re doing, so that piece is still in place,” Starsia said. “I think essentially we don’t have our best player yet.”
Another question mark is how freshman goaltender Dan Marino will handle the bright lights in his first start in the historic rivalry, especially in hostile territory. But Starsia does not believe the noise will shake his goalie’s composure.
“He’s a pretty cool cat, I don’t know that he’ll get ruffled by the whole thing,” Starsia said. “For a kid going into the Dome, especially a freshman who’s never been in there, never seen that background and all, it’s going to be different. And he’s somebody that we’ll keep an eye on as the game goes on certainly, but I think Dan will be alright.”
After a succession of chilly games in Charlottesville and Stony Brook to open the season, the Cavaliers are looking forward to playing indoors this weekend.
“Seventy and overcast in the Dome on Friday sounds pretty good,” Starsia said. “I think we should head toward Syracuse.”
Faceoff is slated for 6 p.m.