Growing Gill levies pain on Virginia's opponents

Sophomore impresses with `high lacrosse IQ'

March 31, 2000|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

He delivers some of the smartest, most precise passes in college lacrosse, and that is only part of the bad news for Virginia's opponents.

Sophomore attackman Conor Gill is getting bigger and stronger. He is better equipped to take on bulky defensemen while bulling his way to the goal. And his shots, which have lost no accuracy, are only gaining in velocity.

Gill is too young to be one of the Cavaliers' co-captains, yet there is no mistaking the glue he provides for a team stocked with exceptional talent. And there is no doubt that the pulse of Virginia's high-powered offense originates with the soft-spoken, lanky kid from St. Paul's School.

"In recent vintage, I can't remember a youngster that has made a significant splash so quickly," said Maryland coach Dick Edell, whose Terrapins will grapple with Gill tonight, when the Cavaliers come to College Park.

"He enjoys setting someone else up to score as much as he enjoys scoring himself. Not every attackman is like that," Edell added. "The bad news is he's only a midseason sophomore. We're concerned."

It's not as if Gill is sneaking up on anyone. From the time he arrived in Charlottesville and took over as the quarterback of the offense, Gill has turned heads, starting with those of his older teammates. Then came his signature weekend last May at Byrd Stadium, where he basically carried the Cavaliers to their first national title in 27 years.

First, in what might have been the loudest outbursts in the history of the NCAA tournament, Gill scored five first-quarter goals -- within a span of 3: 08 -- to spark Virginia to a 16-11 victory over Johns Hopkins in the semifinals. Two days later, Gill scored, then assisted on the Cavaliers' final two goals in a 12-10 decision over Syracuse.

"That was out of control. I've seen tapes of it, and I don't remember it all. It was ridiculous," said Gill, recalling his five-goal outburst. "People say I scored five goals, but most of the goals were in transition, right on the crease. The credit has to go to our faceoff men and our wing men. It wasn't me doing all of the work."

Go ahead, try to get Gill to recognize himself as a special talent. Ask him how he developed such a feel for the game, how he can make a pinpoint pass from 15 yards away to a cutting teammate in traffic look so effortless, and you'll hear about how poorly he has played.

Gill remains embarrassed over his lethargic showing in a season-opening loss to Syracuse four weeks ago. He watched the tape of the 13-12 overtime defeat once, then pronounced his effort as "half-speed."

He was back to full speed a week ago, dropping four goals and two assists on Johns Hopkins in a 16-8 victory. Two of those goals came during a decisive 6-0 run in the fourth quarter. Typically, Gill made his 6-foot-2, 190-pound presence felt in crunch time.

On the season, Gill has nine goals and a team-high 10 assists. He finished last year with 22 goals and 30 assists. The numbers only begin to explain his awareness, vision and ability to anticipate.

"He's got that intangible thing that is tough to quantify or describe," said senior attackman Drew McKnight. "I don't know if it's a flare for the dramatic. It's a knack for doing the spectacular."

McKnight remembers eyeing Gill from the sideline for the first time. During the fall season of 1998, McKnight was laid up after having shoulder surgery. Gill was a freshman stepping in to run the offense.

"Watching him might have been better than playing with him," McKnight said.

"Conor's knowledge of the game was better than any freshman I've ever seen," said senior midfielder Jay Jalbert. "His skills were impeccable. All of the older guys noticed right away. He has a quiet confidence about him, a calmness on the field. It's kind of soothing, how smooth he is."

His teammates also enjoy Gill's self-deprecating, wry sense of humor. Jalbert said Gill takes pride in needling other players, usually by thinking of nicknames for them. Gill has been dubbed "Pez," a reference to his long neck. And he takes no trash talk to the field.

"[Gill] is not the one who sets up the pranks, but he likes to get involved," Jalbert said.

Although he is prone to the occasional acrobatic behind-the-back shot, Gill's game stresses efficiency over razzle-dazzle.

Watch him swing the ball from side to side from behind the cage, lulling the defense, waiting for a shooter to break open. Watch him bait a goalkeeper into thinking he will pass, before zipping an 8-yard shot by him. He already is among the premier fast-break shooters in the game.

"We move when Conor has the ball. You know if you make a meaningful cut, you're going to get the ball in a good spot [to shoot]. He has a high lacrosse IQ," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said.

"He's polite, mature, a classy-looking kid, well-respected in this office. I thought he was elegant the first time I saw him play. Some people say he could be more aggressive, but his demeanor belies an intense, athletic temperament."

And after adding nearly 20 pounds through weight training, Gill is now big enough to take on the stout defenders that sometimes eliminated him as a scoring threat last year. The more he beats defenders one-on-one, the more his reputation as a pure feeder will fade. The more effective he becomes as a scorer, the more dangerous he will be as a passer.

"Having those big goons chasing you definitely makes you want to run faster," Gill said. "I'm going to have to get better at dodging every year. I think I'm making better decisions this year. I forced the ball sometimes last year."

"He's not the strongest kid, and he's not going to blow by people. He is such a smart kid," Starsia said. "His special skill is with his eyes and his hands, but he's a more complete player than that."

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