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Men's lacrosse preps for Penn

Cavaliers look to add finishing touches before post-season play

When the ACC released its annual 18-member All-Conference team Wednesday, Virginia fans found just one Cavalier representative — sophomore goalie Matt Barrett. But judging from a 0-4 conference record, those numbers should have sounded just about right.

Virginia struggled in ACC action this season, to say the least. The Cavaliers were blown-out by Duke and Syracuse, committed 18 turnovers in a 10-6 loss against North Carolina and used a late three-goal run to make an 11-9 loss to Notre Dame look respectable.

Due to the removal of Maryland from the conference, No. 8 Virginia (9-4, 0-4 ACC) will face Pennsylvania (6-6, 3-3 Ivy) to conclude its regular season in the ACC/Penn Challenge. Virginia will be left out of the ACC tournament for the second consecutive season.

Thankfully, the Cavaliers will not compete in the midst of a losing streak since they had lost their previous two games to North Carolina and Duke, respectively, entering Saturday’s showdown against a solid, fourteenth-ranked Georgetown team.

But after overcoming a slow start that saw the Hoyas jump out to a 3-0 lead, Virginia finally seemed to find its mojo that had been missing for about three weeks since its 14-7 win against Richmond back on March 28.

Virginia dominated the second quarter and beyond, using a 7-0 run to quell any hope of an upset and sure up its case for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.

“It was a good win,” coach Dom Starsia said. “It propels us into our final game of the regular season.”

In a contest against an inferior Pennsylvania squad, avoiding the loss is likely all that will be necessary for the Cavaliers to earn a top-eight seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, securing them a first-round home matchup.

But Virginia will look to use the game as the final tune-up before postseason play begins. The Cavaliers, as evidenced by their four conference losses, still have plenty of work to do before they are ready to compete for a national championship.

Perhaps most importantly, Virginia will look to get on the board first, a theme that has plagued the team all season. Although the Cavaliers overcame the 3-0 deficit against Georgetown, losses against Syracuse and Notre Dame were doomed from the start after Virginia fell into a hole early on.

“I think almost every game the other team has scored the first goal,” sophomore attackman Ryan Lukacovic said. “I don’t know if that’s waking us up or getting us going. I don’t think we [are] seeing anything different — it [is] just people getting their feet under them and getting the butterflies out of their stomach.”

Such symptoms are typical of teams as young as Virginia. Those youthful mistakes, especially defensive ones, have still not hindered the Cavaliers’ performance as much as expected entering the season due to the quick learning curve of the underclassmen, especially sophomore long-stick midfielder Michael Howard.

Starsia raved about the Richmond, Virginia native’s athletic abilities entering the season. But at that point, it was all talk — Howard played sparingly in just three games a season ago.

Now however, Howard is 6 feet 5 inches tall, 220 pounds and is one of the strongest players on the team. According to Starsia, he has blossomed into one of Virginia’s best all-around players.

His role varies based on the matchup — against Duke, he played in the midfield against All-American junior midfielder Myles Jones, while he started on close defense against Georgetown Saturday. Although Starsia said he ultimately sees Jones as a close defender, now he is just trying to get the sophomore on the field as much as possible.

“I think you’re seeing a young guy that’s just starting to come into his own,” Starsia said. “He has a terrific future ahead of him.”

And Starsia, along with the rest of his team, is hoping that future includes a deep run in the NCAA tournament over the next few weeks. Since Virginia won the national championship in 2011, the Cavaliers have yet to go farther than the second-round.

But now the focus remains on Pennsylvania, a team Virginia has defeated in the four previous consecutive meetings.

The Quakers endured a four-game losing streak midseason but now appear to have hit their stride, winning their past three contests against No. 10 Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth.

Still, Virginia’s only four losses have come against the top-four teams in the RPI rankings. Penn currently ranks twenty-first in the computer-generated poll. Barring a loss, which seems unlikely, the Cavaliers seem poised to enter the NCAA tournament on a positive note.

“Now we’re just going up to UPenn and try to better our seed in the tournament,” senior defenseman Davi Sacco said. “That’s all we’re focusing on right now.”

Opening faceoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. The game will be streamed live on ESPN3.