The eighth-ranked Virginia men’s lacrosse team entered the season looking for retribution, having finished just 7-8 a year ago and failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. The 2014 edition of the Cavaliers faced its share of adversity throughout the regular season, highlighted by facing seven opponents currently ranked in the top-10 in the country.
While this grueling schedule has left Virginia a tad beat up, the squad has already surpassed its win total from last year — currently sitting at 9-5. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, four of their five losses have come at the hands of ACC foes, leaving them on the outside of the conference tournament.
Despite missing the chance to bring home a seventh conference tournament title, Virginia remains on track to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament and looks poised to make a deep run.
At first glance, the integral piece of the Virginia team may seem to be its offense — among the nation’s best at 12.93 goals per game — however, this is not actually the most important component for its success. Rather, a great deal of the Cavaliers’ favorable postseason position can be attributed to freshman goaltender Matt Barrett.
The Glenmoore, Pennsylvania native came to Virginia as the most highly-touted goalie recruit in the nation. However, Barrett faced stiff competition when he arrived in Charlottesville, with the Cavaliers returning three goalies from the 2013 campaign. The former Under Armour All-American was able to quickly adapt to college play, though, and made his presence felt early on.
“With the pace of the game and how fast guys get the ball out of their sticks, it was definitely a little rough to adjust from high school at first,” Barrett said. “I think I got used to it after a couple days … just staying after and shooting with the older guys, so it wasn’t too bad of an adjustment.”
Barrett’s quick adjustment allowed him to settle in and hone his already high-level skill set. When opening night came Feb. 6, it was the freshman who stood in the crease, ready to face the dangerous Loyola attack. Though the game took extra time, the Cavaliers won 13-12 behind Barrett’s eight saves in what has become the Greyhounds’ only loss of the season.
“It was a pretty crazy first start for me,” Barrett said. “I’ve never seen a game like that before but it was awesome. It was good to get a game like that under my belt. It really helped the whole team to know that we’re capable of finishing games like that and coming back from a big run by Loyola.”
The win was the first of Virginia’s 6-0 start. Three of those games were decided by a single goal, meaning that every flash of Barrett’s stick was critical, and he consistently came through. The highlight of the opening stretch, however, was the Cavaliers’ first road trip, when the team travelled to Drexel — near where Barrett grew up.
“I always thought he got off to a good start and he was playing well,” coach Dom Starsia said. “Then we go to Drexel in our third game, and he plays great. I was concerned about him going home, but he played great.”
Barrett’s performance in his homecoming was nothing short of brilliant. He recorded 16 saves to help keep his team’s record unblemished and earn himself the honor of ACC Defensive Player of the Week.
Later in the season when Virginia entered conference play, however, wins became harder to come by. The Cavaliers played four consecutive games against top-10 opponents, falling twice. Barrett’s play remained solid, though, averaging 10 saves per game during the stretch.
“I remember back in 2008 when Adam Ghitelman was our freshman starter and we were 9-1 and we had to make a change in the goal because he was starting to come apart at the seams,” Starsia said. “You look for that in a freshman goalie, even though we might be winning, the pressure week-in and week-out with this kind of competition, he’s never been through that before. But not with Matt — he is the most unflappable kid I have ever been around.”
After an easy rout of VMI, in which Barrett gave up no goals in just under 20 minutes of work, the Cavaliers entered the true gauntlet of their season — facing Maryland, North Carolina and Duke in consecutive weeks, dropping all three.
This losing streak was perhaps the defining moment of Barrett’s season. He was pulled from the Duke game after making just three saves and giving up 12 goals. However, proving his level-headedness, the freshman returned to the crease the following week against Bellarmine, recording 13 dazzling saves to earn his team a victory on senior day.
“I knew that, when they gave me the starting job, I wasn’t going to save every ball,” Barrett said. “I don’t get too high or too low after saves or goals.”
Heading into the postseason, Barrett ranks No. 47 nationally and in the top-10 among freshmen, with 9.29 saves per game. He has amassed 130 saves with a .473 save percentage through 14 games and is steadily improving every week. With numbers like these, Virginia likely feels confident that its return to glory is not all that far away.
“He’s had a very solid freshman year,” Starsia said. “We’ve continued to ride him and I think he’s capable of playing well on a big stage, and we’re going to need that going forward.”