Starsia: Competitive, not consumed Adversity gives Va. coach sense of unity, perspective

March 27, 1993|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Nearly eight years ago, Dom Starsia found out that his twin daughters were retarded. Two years later, one of his lacrosse players at Brown died in his sleep. Another Brown player was killed a year later after being struck by a car.

Dom Starsia can't help but preach togetherness.

"After the second player died, I was pretty hollow. I didn't know what was going on," said Starsia, Virginia's first-year coach whose team will meet No. 6 Johns Hopkins today at Homewood Field. "That's when life changed. I became more conscious of my language, because it's very easy to be critical of a kid.

"That's not to say that at times I'm not critical. But I have confidence in my ability, and I work hard. I know we're going to lose some games, but I am never going to degrade or harass players into winning."

Starsia, 40, seems to be the perfect fit for No. 5 Virginia, generally regarded as college lacrosse's biggest underachiever. What Starsia has done is mesh together a bunch of stars without bruising a lot of egos.

Instead of arguing, the Cavaliers are giving high fives. Passes are outnumbering temper tantrums.

The Cavaliers are 4-1 with two fourth-quarter comeback wins against Navy and Massachusetts. A year ago, Virginia would have folded under such pressure.

"He preaches family," said tri-captain Ray Kamrath, a fourth-year midfielder from Annapolis. "He's very intense, but close to his players. He treats you like an adult and not just like a player. Therefore, he gets all the talent to come to the surface. This bonding has helped bring about a new Virginia."

Starsia is no phony. His love for family is genuine. Dom and Krissy Starsia's two older children, Molly 11, and Joe, 10, are in the exceptionally gifted programs at their schools. Their twin daughters, Maggie and Emma, 7, were diagnosed as mildly to moderately retarded at 6 months.

"Krissy thought something was wrong because they didn't sit properly at 6 months, and they didn't have regular motor function," said Dom Starsia.

Starsia went through months of denial, getting more opinions and tests from doctors. Not just on the twins, but on himself and his wife.

"We had almost every test to see how this could happen," said Starsia. "All the tests showed that Krissy had carried the children full-term, and they were both good-sized babies. For a long period, I was in disbelief about how we had gone from one end of the spectrum to the other end.

"I always thought they would get better because they looked like regular babies."

The condition didn't change, but Starsia did. He takes the twins to Virginia's basketball games, and other social functions at the school. He brings them to practice. He even enrolled them at a regular school in Rhode Island. He said they were the first retarded children to attend a public school in east Providence.

"They usually put retarded children in self-contained classes," said Starsia. "I wanted my children to be productive members of society. Sometimes, though, I question that decision. I remember two years ago we were at a pool and there were some kids, 6 to 7 [years old], making fun of the twins.

"I never considered anyone making fun of them, and I wanted to tell the other kids, go get your father so I can beat the hell out of him. Kids can be cruel at times, and I wonder if it's going to get worse as they get older.

"I try not to look too far ahead, but sometimes I look at my life and wonder if I'm always going to be there for them. They are so angelic. Frankly, there are times I see it as a wonderful blessing. Other times I wonder why did it happen to us? I have not found an answer for that question."

Keeping perspective

Attackman Vin Marinelli had completed a successful freshman season at Brown. But one morning during the spring of 1987, Marinelli never woke up. He died from congenital heart disease. Marinelli was from Elmont, N.Y., close to Starsia's hometown of Valley Stream. Marinelli's father was a New York policeman. So is Starsia's.

Starsia had spent less time with Jim Tepper, a freshman defender. During the semester break in January of 1988, Tepper was working at a construction site when he walked out between two parked cars, and was struck by a passing one.

He died almost instantly.

"Those deaths were devastating," said Peter Lasagna, who was a Brown assistant at the time. "For those kids to experience that once was awful, but twice had them asking what was the purpose of living. How could this happen to kids who were two of the greatest in the world?

"Dom was from the same area as those kids, and he wore it on his sleeve just like the players. I think that helped the players. Dom handled it in customary Dom fashion. I remember him immediately calling these long team meetings, and he kept the lines of communication open.

"If we were going to suffer, we were going to suffer through this as friends," said Lasagna, who was promoted to head coach at Brown when Starsia took the Virginia job.

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