Cavs' steady hand who comes to pass

Conor Gill: Virginia's senior attackman, who went to St. Paul's School, ranks second in the nation in assists with 41, and is second on the school's all-time assist list with 145.

College Lacrosse

May 24, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Conor Gill would be the first to admit he is not the flashiest player.

You won't see Gill running past defenders, or dazzling with behind-the-back passes or other acrobatics. He is not the best ballhandler in traffic, and the velocity of his shots will not raise eyebrows.

But try finding somebody better at reading a defense and finding a seam to exploit with a pinpoint pass. Try finding a more low-key, unselfish force on a collegiate lacrosse field. And try imagining the Virginia Cavaliers in this weekend's NCAA tournament semifinals without the steadying hand of the 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior attackman from St. Paul's School.

"I'm not particularly quick or fast. I can't blow by a lot of defenders. Feeding is what I do best," said Gill, who will lead Virginia (11-3) into its third final four in four seasons tomorrow against Syracuse (13-2) at Rutgers Stadium. "Passing the ball is what people will remember about me. It's what I've been blessed with. It's what got me here."

Passing the ball is also what figures to make Gill the first three-time, first-team All-American in Virginia history. He ranks second in the nation in assists with 41 (2.93 per game), stands second on the school's all-time assist list with 145, and he is the prime reason why Cavaliers freshman attackmen Joe Yevoli and John Christmas made such a loud entrance on the Division I stage this spring.

Yevoli and Christmas are the team's top scorers, having combined for 63 goals. Yevoli, with a team-leading 37 goals - the most ever recorded by a Virginia freshman - is coming off a four-goal performance in last week's 11-10 quarterfinal victory over Cornell.

But that victory really belonged to Gill, who had a hand in every goal but the game-winner by Christmas and produced one of his greatest days with one goal and a tournament-record nine assists. He alone seemed to dissect the Big Red's top-ranked defense. Talk about a signature effort.

"[Gill] has got that knack. He's always got his head up looking to pass. He's always going to the cage to pass," Yevoli said. "He throws passes you don't expect. After a while, you realize you always have to have your stick up, ready. He is going to find you if you're open."

If he can lead Virginia to two more victories and its second NCAA title, Gill will have come full circle in a career that has featured its ups and downs.

It began with a stellar freshman season in 1999, when Gill joined a team loaded with talent and fueled the offense - all the way to the school's second NCAA championship. People still talk about his five-goal outburst in a 16-11, semifinal victory over Johns Hopkins at Byrd Stadium.

Gill earned his initial first-team All-America honors as a sophomore, when he scored a career-high 66 points, including 40 assists. But even his two-goal, five-assist day wasn't enough to keep the defending national champs from falling to Syracuse in the final four.

Then came the most troubling year. First, because Virginia was short on scorers, Gill was forced to give up some of his passing strength in the interest of shooting. Not only did Virginia struggle all season on offense, but Gill took a beating in the process.

There was the gash on the palm of his hand he suffered in the ACC tournament that required 20 stitches. Later in the regular-season finale, an 11-8 victory over Butler that put the 7-6 Cavs in the NCAAs, Gill overcame a shot to the chin - that one required six stitches - by having a hand in every second-half goal.

Virginia then lost a first-round game to Hofstra, and Gill went on to experience more disappointment during his summer tryout for the U.S. men's team at the University of Delaware.

"Leaving Delaware, I didn't expect to make it. It's not like I was mad about it," said Gill, who will graduate next fall with a sociology degree. "I learned a lot from the experience."

Virginia coach Dom Starsia said Gill brought a renewed focus, better health, and a senior's maturity to Charlottesville last fall. He said Gill's riding game has never been better, his practice habits have never been sharper, and his offensive skills are as good as ever. And ever since Virginia lost senior defenseman Mark Koontz to a knee injury a month ago, Gill has assumed more of a vocal leadership role.

Starsia also scoffs at the whispers that Gill, since he isn't known for scoring goals, has thrived on the reputation established with that amazing freshman finish.

"The great athletes jump out at you, but there are guys who separate themselves from the pack with lacrosse I.Q., instincts for the game and stickwork," said Starsia, who counts Gill among the greatest passers he has ever seen and will miss his toughness and consistency.

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