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Virginia’s young defense growing up fast

Goalie Matt Barrett impressing in the cage as No. 7 Cavaliers prepare for No. 8 Cornell

<p>Sophomore goalie Matt Barrett qualifies as a veteran on the youthful Virginia defense. He is currently eighth in the country in saves per game (13.25).</p>

Sophomore goalie Matt Barrett qualifies as a veteran on the youthful Virginia defense. He is currently eighth in the country in saves per game (13.25).

Coach Dom Starsia is in the midst of his 33rd season as a Division I lacrosse coach, and his 23rd at Virginia. So when the NCAA all-time winningest coach states he has never seen the turnover the Cavalier defense experienced going into this season, he is not kidding.

Through a combination of graduations, transfers and injuries, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team lost virtually every regular from 2014’s defense. The lone holdover is sophomore goalie Matt Barrett, who had his share of struggles a year ago.

But Virginia had no choice but to embrace the next-man-up mentality. The Cavaliers play one of the nation’s most difficult schedules year-in and year-out, which this year included an opener against a ranked Loyola squad in Baltimore, Maryland.

Starsia plugged in two true freshmen and a senior walk-on into his close-defense, and trusted a hoard of athletic, but mightily inexperienced, defensive midfielders.

But through four games, while Virginia still certainly has room to improve, the results have been quite impressive.

“I have to say we’re probably a little bit ahead of where I thought we would be right now,” Starsia said.

And Saturday, No. 7 Virginia (3-1, 0-1 ACC) will get the chance to showcase its young defense to the home Klöckner crowd for just the second time this season when it hosts No. 8 Cornell (3-1).

The Cavaliers have surrendered just 10.25 goals per game through four outings, which included two opponents — Syracuse and Albany — in the top 20 nationally in goals per game. Virginia’s best performance came in a snowy clash against Rutgers where the Scarlet Knights managed just five goals.

But perhaps equally impressive has been the unit’s adjustment to the clearing game. Virginia which, with the exception of last year, traditionally boasts one of the nation’s best clearing percentages, currently ranks fourth in the country in clearing at a clip of 92 percent.

Barrett said he believes the unit’s impressive start is a product of its cohesiveness.

“We know if we’re going to do well as a defense, we have to just play together — all seven guys,” Barrett said. “It’s more just about our communication — just playing good team defense and focusing on the scouting report more so than individual matchups.”

But while Barrett gives credit to the whole team for its defensive efforts, there is little doubt that the unit’s success starts with its sophomore net minder.

Barrett had his fair share of ups and downs a season ago after beating out current junior Dan Marino for his spot in the cage. Despite recording 149 saves — the second most by a freshman in program history — he had plenty of freshman moments, including being benched in a 17-15 loss late in the season against Duke.

This season, however, he is living up to his excitement as the No. 1 incoming goalie by Inside Lacrosse in the class of 2014. Headlined by a career-high 20-save performance Sunday against Syracuse, the sophomore is averaging 13.25 saves per game – good for eighth best in the country.

“He doesn’t have to be spectacular every single game,” Starsia said. “He gave us some great moments last year. He just needed to approach that level on a more consistent basis. That’s what he’s done as much as anything else [this season].”

Still, the defense is far from perfect, as Syracuse exposed in its 15-9 rout of Virginia last weekend. The Cavaliers were not helped by their faceoff unit, which won just seven of 27 attempts.

Virginia started the game with redshirt freshman Jason Murphy at the faceoff X, but he was pulled in favor of senior long-stick midfielder Tanner Ottenbreit quickly in a first half that saw the Cavaliers lose the faceoff battle, 2-9, against Syracuse sophomore midfielder Ben Williams, who is currently second in the country in faceoff win percentage.

And the matchup does not get any easier Saturday, as Cornell’s faceoff man, sophomore midfielder Domenic Massimilian, is ninth nationally in faceoff winning percentage and won 14 of 23 attempts against Syracuse and Williams in Cornell’s season-opening loss to the Orange.

Whoever takes the faceoffs for the Cavaliers will have to fare better in order to win Saturday, as Cornell poses two of the country’s best scoring threats. Senior midfielder Connor Buczek and senior attackman Matt Donovan are seventh and 12th in collegiate lacrosse in points per game, respectively.

Virginia lacks the All-American defensive star-power it had a year ago that had the potential to shut down this Big Red offense, but this year’s group has proven to be no slouch, which will prove critical as the Cavaliers continue into the heart of their schedule.

“They’ve shown the qualities of a more experienced group, and you like seeing that,” Starsia said. “I think this group was smart enough to know that they didn’t know anything starting out. They’ve been eager students and quick studies.”

Opening faceoff is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at Klöckner Stadium.