On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in front of a season-high 6,787 fans at Klöckner Stadium, the No. 18 Virginia men’s lacrosse team continued its recent slide and entered uncharted territory. The Cavaliers’ 10-7 loss to No. 4 North Carolina marked the first five-game losing streak in coach Dom Starsia’s 21-year career and the program’s first since 1966.
Virginia (5-6, 0-2 ACC) started the game on an off note, falling behind 4-0 in the first 10 minutes. North Carolina (8-3, 2-1 ACC) sophomore attackman Joey Sankey opened the game by beating his man from behind the goal and scoring on a diving shot, followed by two from senior attackman Marcus Holman.
“It’s tough,” sophomore goaltender Rhody Heller said. “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s definitely tough to come back from that. It’d be nice to get out to a lead, but it’s just something that we have to work on and keep on getting better at.”
Sophomore midfielder Chad Tutton added a fourth goal for the Tar Heels with 5:16 left in the first period when he beat Cavalier sophomore defenseman Greg Danseglio with a slick face dodge. Down four goals and a man due to an illegal body check, Starsia called a timeout.
“I don’t like to call timeouts in that situation ordinarily, I hate to give the other team the satisfaction of that huddle,” Starsia said. “But I felt like we needed to catch our breath a little bit, and that’s all we did really … And the guys did respond. With a younger team, maybe I need to think about doing that a little more often, just to give us a chance to get our legs under us.”
Starsia’s timeout paid off when junior attackman Nick O’Reilly quickly scored a pair of goals after killing the one-minute penalty. O’Reilly couldn’t handle a clear from senior defenseman Harry Prevas with 11 seconds left in the quarter, but the errant pass was picked up by junior attackman Mark Cockerton and finished from the right wing, cutting the deficit to one goal.
After a series of big saves by Heller to start the second quarter, Tutton finally blew one by him off a Holman assist. Senior midfielder Charlie Streep then drew a slash penalty against North Carolina and on the ensuing man-up opportunity, O’Reilly threw a skip pass to sophomore midfielder Ryan Tucker, who buried a high-to-low rip to stay within one goal. With two seconds left in the half, however, a wide-open Holman scored on the crease off a one-handed feed from Tutton to enter the break leading 6-4.
“We come out every day giving it our all, effort-wise,” Heller said. “We’re always hustling, it just hasn’t gone our way yet. And I think that if we keep on being persistent on that end, I think it’ll start clicking for us.”
The Tar Heels scored two more consecutive goals after halftime to push their lead back to four. Virginia finally answered, with junior midfielder Rob Emery scoring his first goal since March 23 off an assist from senior midfielder Matt White.
Though the Cavaliers shot the ball 51 times in the game to North Carolina’s 32, Tar Heel freshman goalkeeper Kieran Burke was superb, saving a career-best 23 shots including 14 in the second half, to stymie the Virginia offense.
“I hoped today that we might get a little scent of blood in the water, shooting-wise,” Starsia said. “Young kid in the goal for them, and instead he steps up and has a career day. I thought that we had a lot of good opportunities and we either didn’t make a good shot when we had to, or [Burke] made a couple of really nice stops.”
Burke and Heller each held the opposing offenses scoreless for more than 10 minutes to start the final quarter. Virginia showed signs of life when White squeezed a pass between two defenders to Cockerton, who scored his second on the afternoon to make the score 8-6 with less than five minutes to play.
But a late White turnover would eventually lead to another Tar Heel goal, with Sankey scoring on an open goal after the attackman came down with a Holman clear that Heller attempted to intercept. Another Virginia turnover would lead to an insurance goal by sophomore attackman Jimmy Bitter, who pushed the North Carolina lead to 10-6 with 45 seconds remaining. Holman tallied three goals and three assists on the day, while Bitter and Tutton each recorded two goals and an assist.
Though Cockerton would finish an impressive underhand shot for his team-high third goal with 30 seconds to play, it proved too little, too late for the Cavaliers.
Virginia must now win two of its remaining three games to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers travel to Durham, N.C. Friday to take on No. 7 Duke in both teams’ ACC finale.
“I haven’t been around a team that consistently gives us this kind of effort especially when you consider that we haven’t been winning on Saturdays, that they just keep coming back and throwing their face in the fan,” Starsia said. “So there’s a lot to be admired here, but at the same time we’re all big boys and we play to win the game … and our intent will be to get that going here with Duke.”