After a disappointing 2013 season, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team is ready to get back out onto the field and restore its winning reputation. Ranked in the top 10 nationally in all four major preseason polls, the Cavaliers are aiming for nothing short of an eighth NCAA title.
The Cavaliers began last season with the hope of mirroring the results of the 2011 squad, which brought Virginia its seventh national title. Through the first four games, this goal seemed attainable — probable, even — with Virginia easily ripping through its early opponents.
Disaster struck for the team, however, when star senior midfielder Chris LaPierre’s nicked-up knee turned out to be a season-ending injury that crippled the traditionally stout Cavalier defense. As a result, Virginia’s shot at a return to the championship quickly faded, and the team dropped seven of its last nine games. The Cavaliers finished with a 7-8 record — the first losing season for the program since 2004.
“It was tough,” LaPierre said. “I’m definitely one of those guys who likes to be a leader of the team. I like to lead by example on the field.”
Luckily the All-American was granted a medical hardship waiver and is back for a fifth year to help Virginia make another run at the title. In addition to LaPierre, Virginia returns eight other athletes that were a part of the 2011 National Championship squad. This experience will undoubtedly play an integral role in determining the team’s success this year.
“The interesting part of this sport, as opposed to football and basketball, is that barely any of these guys are on full scholarships,” coach Dom Starsia said. “You can tell these guys didn’t come back here just to spin their wheels. They’ve experienced something special and they want to get that done again.”
In addition to the immense experience the Cavaliers boast, the coaching staff has also brought in a phenomenal recruiting class, highlighted by freshman midfielder Zed Williams. Williams, the No. 4 recruit in the country, enters Charlottesville with high expectations — the Irving, N.Y. native shattered numerous records at the high school level, eclipsing the national record for career goals with 444.
Starsia and company also managed to bring in a highly touted prospect on the defensive side of the field — senior Lynchburg College transfer Joseph Lisicky. The powerful defenseman was the NCAA Division III Preseason Player of the Year a season ago before being sidelined with a foot injury, and promises to shore up the already staunch Virginia backline.
“He’s a physical force, so you can understand why he was such a dominating player at that level,” Starsia said. “He has given us another weapon on the field and he will be someone you see out there early in the season getting some opportunities.”
While the Cavaliers are unquestionably loaded with talent, their upcoming season remains flagged by a bit of uncertainty. Most pressingly, Virginia must iron out its goaltending situation — a major struggle last year which has yet to be fully resolved. If Sunday’s scrimmage against Navy is any indication, freshman Matt Barrett and junior Rhody Heller are the frontrunners for the job. It was announced Wednesday afternoon Barrett would start in goal for the first game of the season, though this does not guarantee he has definitively won the position.
“There are some question marks going into the season,” Starsia said. “We weren’t good enough in goal last year, so that’s something we’re going to keep an eye on early. I feel good, but it’s certainly something we will have to watch.”
The team faces a grueling schedule this season that will force it to perform at the highest level each and every week. Eight of the Cavaliers’ 14 opponents in their 2014 campaign are ranked in the preseason top-20, with all six ACC teams currently ranked in the top-10 nationally. No. 8 Virginia is at the bottom of this list.
Unfortunately for Virginia, there will be little time to prepare for the daunting slate ahead. The season opener pits the Cavaliers against No. 12 Loyola, who moved from the ECAC to the Patriot League during the offseason. The Greyhounds — the 2012 National Champions — are coming off a similarly heartbreaking year, which came to an end in a double overtime loss to Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“They won the championship a few years ago, and while they did lose a few guys that were a part of their run the past two years, they’re still a very experienced team,” LaPierre said. “Coach always says, ‘There are no big games,’ but when you open the season against someone like Loyola, you definitely have to get going in gear a little bit sooner.”
Regardless of the challenges Virginia faces at present and down the road, the team is confident it can return the program to its past glory. With a team chock-full of talent, that goal is certainly attainable.
“You come to Virginia and you expect to win championships,” LaPierre said. “Everyone realizes we have to get back to our winning ways. I think we’ll do that this year.”
The Cavaliers’ quest for an eighth national title begins Thursday at 7 p.m. at Klöckner Stadium.