Initial impressions of Virginia lacrosse will change once you get below the surface.
After the Cavaliers disposed of North Carolina in an NCAA quarterfinal last Saturday, the Tar Heels pointed to the victors' experience as a determining factor. Who are Virginia's top point-getters? A sophomore, Tim Whiteley, and a freshman, Michael Watson.
It's a program in transition, and second-year coach Dom Starsia is stepping up the tempo and cutting back on recruiting in Baltimore. So where did Whiteley and Watson first polish their attack act? St. Paul's School, which has a stick tradition as storied as any school in Baltimore.
Starsia is interested in production, not age and hometown, and Whiteley and Watson have delivered during Virginia's drive to its first Final Four in six years. Virginia meets defending champion Syracuse in the first semifinal, at noon Saturday at Byrd Stadium in College Park.
Whiteley's 60 points, on 22 goals and 38 assists, lead the Cavaliers. With 25 goals and 18 assists, Watson is No. 2. They're two-thirds of the Atlantic Coast Conference all-star attack.
Watson succeeded Whiteley as the ACC Rookie of the Year. In 1993, he followed him as the winner of the C. Markland Kelly Award, given to the top prep player in Baltimore. Watson and Whiteley have been friends and teammates since middle school, earned four varsity letters apiece at St. Paul's, both come from jock families and room together on the road.
"There's something they bring to the table that very few teammates, other than the Gaits [former Syracuse stars Gary and Paul], did," Maryland coach Dick Edell said. "They've been playing together for years. So many things are done instinctively, and when you have a grasp on what's going on inside the other guy's head, you've got an advantage."
One of their rare differences can be quantified: Whiteley, the feeder, left St. Paul's as the Crusaders' all-time assist leader with Watson got the record for goals, 151. They also had different experiences in adjusting to NCAA Division I competition.
"Michael's playing with much more poise than even I thought he would," Starsia said. "You expect a freshman to have his ups and downs, but he hasn't made us suffer through that. That wasn't the case with Tim last year. North Carolina really shook him up in the regular season, and it took him awhile to come back from that."
A year after the offense revolved around all-time goal and point leader Kevin Pehlke, ball movement has become Virginia's forte. With Watson and Whiteley in the lead, Virginia has set a school record with 232 goals. The Cavaliers are averaging 15.5 goals, the second-highest average in their history.
"A lot of guys who were stars in high school never gave the ball up, and it's taken me a year to convince everyone to give it up," Starsia said. "Tim and Michael have a lot to do with that.
"They would just as soon pass the ball as score. They have genuine concern for each other and their teammates."
Starsia said it's an improvement on the dissension he found two years ago when "there was sort of some cat-fighting going on here."
Watson anchored Starsia's first recruiting class. The group that will arrive in Charlottesville in the fall probably will have just one Baltimorean, Karl Zeller, a defenseman from Loyola High. It's a departure from the 1980s, when Virginia annually landed several All-Metros, but often had little in the postseason to show for it.
"Next year we've got kids from Virginia, Canada, upstate New York, Long Island and other places coming in," Starsia said. "What was lost down here were the tough, hard-nosed athletes from the areas that don't have a lacrosse tradition. They can play, and you need them to complement the lead guys who come from the traditional areas."
.` Guys like Whiteley and Watson.
VIRGINIA AT A GLANCE
Conference: Atlantic Coast
Coach: Dom Starsia, 22-8 (two seasons)
1994 record: 12-3
Final Four history: Won championship in 1972; lost in final in 1980, 1986; lost in semifinals in 1973, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1988.
Road to Final Four: Beat 12th-seeded Notre Dame, 23-4, in first round; beat fourth-seeded North Carolina, 12-10, in quarterfinals.
Tomorrow's preview: Syracuse
+ Friday's preview: Princeton