The No. 18 Virginia men’s lacrosse team will look to secure its first ACC win and make a statement against No. 4 North Carolina Saturday, after a 9-7 home loss against No. 1 Maryland in its conference opener dropped the Cavaliers to 5-5 on the season.
Virginia (5-5, 0-1 ACC) is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in coach Dom Starsia’s 21-year tenure and the first time since 2004, when the team went a disappointing 5-8. The Cavaliers must win two of their remaining four games, including an ACC Tournament semifinal, to be eligible for postseason consideration.
“There are no guarantees, but if we can win a couple of these ball games I’ve always felt like if we just qualify for the tournament, we’re going to be selected,” Starsia said. “We’re going to be at the very top of strength of schedule and RPI with the people that we play, so I think we have a playoff resume, if we can qualify.”
Against Maryland last Saturday, Virginia’s late comeback attempt was stifled when junior goaltender Niko Amato made an incredible kick-save on sophomore midfielder Ryan Tucker’s shot that would have been the fourth consecutive goal for the Cavaliers and could have pulled them to within one with less than a minute to play.
Junior defenseman Scott McWilliams led a stout defensive effort against the Terrapins, allowing only nine goals to the nation’s third-ranked offense that averages 13.38 goals per game. Sophomore goaltender Rhody Heller also had a stellar game, saving nine shots. The Virginia defense has caused 98 turnovers so far this season, with McWilliams ranking second in the nation with 27 and freshman defenseman Tanner Scales not far behind with 20. However, McWilliams still believes there’s room for the defense to improve.
“We’ve been lacking the communication a little bit on the defensive side,” McWilliams said. “It was apparent in the film that we saw all week and we wanted to make sure that we really focused on that.”
Now the Cavaliers must prepare for the Tar Heels’ (7-3, 1-1 ACC) impending visit to Klöckner Stadium. North Carolina needs a win to prevent Maryland from clinching the top seed in the ACC Tournament, while Virginia needs an impressive outing to boost its NCAA Tournament resume. The Tar Heels are the only team to knock off the Terrapins this season, which they did in College Park, 10-8, behind sophomore attackmen Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter, who recorded four goals and two goals with three assists, respectively.
Along with Sankey and Bitter, senior Marcus Holman rounds out a reliable starting attack unit that is responsible for 59.6 percent of all points scored and 64.5 percent of assists. Holman ranks fifth in the country averaging 4.70 points per game and leads the Tar Heels with 47 points and 23 assists.
Starsia, meanwhile, continues to emphasize the importance of being able to rely on his attack unit for scoring, particularly due to the uncertainty of midfield scoring. Though senior Matt White, junior Rob Emery and Tucker are the three highest goal-scorers after junior attackmen Nick O’Reilly and Mark Cockerton, the unit struggled against the Terrapins. Tucker scored twice, but White could not find the back of net on any of his seven shots and Emery was limited to just two shots and no points.
“[Defenders] pay a lot of attention to [Emery],” Starsia said. “They slide to him early, they don’t want him to beat them off the dodge. We’re working on some different things with him and we’ll continue to … see if we can shake him free. 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.”
Despite scoring on only seven of the team’s 41 shots against Maryland, Starsia remains optimistic. At 12.50 turnovers per game, only Hofstra is turning the ball over less than Virginia. Cockerton has also been a bright spot for the Cavaliers, ranking third in the nation averaging 3.22 goals per game and fourth overall with 29 total goals.
“We’ve actually been better offensively overall than I imagined we would be,” Starsia said. “But we play a very unforgiving schedule, and playing well and doing a good job is not always enough.”
After defeating the Tar Heels 15-10 during the regular season in Chapel Hill last year, Virginia fell 11-9 in a rematch at Klöckner Stadium in the 2012 ACC Tournament semifinals. This weekend will be the 75th all-time meeting between the two programs, a series in which Virginia owns a 49-25 advantage. The 2013 Cavaliers are only the second Starsia-led Virginia team to lose four consecutive games, along with the 2004 squad, and are looking to avoid becoming the first ever to lose five in a row when they face off Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
“There’s been a sense of urgency since the first loss,” McWilliams said. “We’re not used to this … but we have to stick together as a team and keep working hard and the wins will eventually come.”