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Shades of Success

Uncharactersistically rocky season challenges Starsia, players

It’s no secret that 2013 has been unkind to the Virginia men’s lacrosse team. Currently in the midst of a six-game losing streak, the longest single-season streak for the program since 1939, the Cavaliers sit at 5-7 and winless in the ACC, needing to defeat Bellarmine and win the ACC Tournament to finish above .500 and have a prayer at making the NCAA Tournament.

With each passing game, the margin for error grows slimmer. In early March, one-goal losses to Syracuse, Cornell and Ohio State were merely causes for concern rather than for panic. But a 15-8 thrashing at the hands of Johns Hopkins and losses to Maryland, North Carolina and Duke progressively elevated the team’s sense of urgency to the point where now each game is literally a must-win if the team hopes to stay alive for postseason contention. Still, coach Dom Starsia’s players insist that they are not dwelling on the losses or the historical implications of this season.

“Our thoughts really aren’t directed toward the losing streak at all,” junior defenseman Scott McWilliams said. “We have to keep coming out each and every day and keep the positivity up. That’s what we’ve been doing, we’ve had great weeks of practice the past two or three weeks and we just have to keep moving forward.”

The players know what’s at stake. They know that Starsia has only missed the NCAA Tournament once in his legendary 21-year reign as Virginia’s head coach, when the 2004 team went 5-8 in Starsia’s only losing season in Charlottesville.

What was not even considered possible a few weeks ago — namely, missing the postseason — is now discussed as a legitimate threat.

“Obviously, you want to make the tournament,” sophomore midfielder Ryan Tucker said. “But at the same time, if you don’t, you don’t. We’ve had some tough losses, but at the same time we could’ve won some of those games and we know that as much as anybody.”

Despite leading their opponents in virtually every statistical category, including ground balls — generally considered the best statistical indicator of effort — turnovers, caused turnovers, clears, man-up conversion percent and shots per game, the Cavaliers are shooting abysmally. Though the team outshoots its opponents by 12.3 shots per game, its .255 shooting percentage and .553 shots on goal percentage are by far the worst in the conference. No other ACC school shoots below .306 percent or .620 percent on goal.

“It’s hard to hammer shooters,” Starsia said. “Your yelling at someone to shoot the ball better is generally not going to get it done. We just have to figure out a way to break out of that.”

Whether or not the Cavaliers’ shooting and fortunes improve enough for them to finish the season in miraculous fashion and make the tournament remains to be seen. But for a team that lost prolific scorers such as Steele Stanwick, Chris Bocklet and Colin Briggs to graduation, this season figured to be an uphill battle from the start. Subsequently losing senior All-American midfielder and captain Chris LaPierre for the season to injury hardly helped matters.

“Just the fact that [LaPierre’s] the only sole captain in my 39 years of coaching speaks to his presence in the program,” Starsia said. “So there’s a couple little, subtle things and a couple of big things — both the practical pieces of it and the emotional pieces of it — that we’re trying to make up for there. It’s not a question of making excuses: I’ve got guys that are feverishly trying to fill in the blanks. It’s just a lot to ask.”

Even with all of the adversity the team has faced this season, Virginia has come excruciatingly close to notching several wins against marquee opponents. Unfortunately, close doesn’t cut it in a program accustomed to competing in the postseason on a yearly basis, a standard largely established by the four national championships earned under Starsia.

It would be easy to write off this season as a failure if the Cavaliers fail to win out and make the NCAA Tournament. But Starsia believes that both the players and coaches can still take positives away from this season, regardless of the outcome.

“I would tell you that just from the purely athletic side of things, this team may be playing as close to its potential as any I’ve had in recent memory,” Starsia said. “If your team comes out and works hard every day, if your team approaches their potential, if they do the things you ask them to do and you don’t make the playoffs, can you describe it as a successful season? I would tell you yes.”