Can Va. avoid trap on top with Hopkins, UM on tap?

March 22, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

There is a lot of prestige with being declared No. 1 but also a trap door that has swallowed up the top teams within two weeks of earning that distinction. Virginia's lacrosse team became No. 1 on Monday, and Cavaliers coach Dom Starsia is concerned about a quick fall.

Preseason favorite Duke fell in the second week of the season to Maryland, and Maryland's reign at the top was only 8 days old when the Terps fell to Bucknell. Virginia (8-0) doesn't want to suffer the same fate, but this seems like the best time for it to happen.

Guess who is coming to dinner Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.?

It's none other than No. 10 Johns Hopkins, the defending national champion.

"It's like Hopkins wrote the script," said Starsia, in his 14th season at Virginia. "We get the No. 1 ranking, and they're coming in and finally getting healthy again. This is a dangerous situation.

"It would be just as arrogant of me to say the No. 1 ranking means nothing as it would for me to say it means everything," Starsia said. "But I have a senior-oriented team here, and we all understand that you don't win a championship in February or March. That's when you lay the groundwork, but you win the national title in May."

The lacrosse world, though, is looking to see if there is a clear-cut favorite to gain some separation from the rest of the field. People thought Princeton was back near the top until the Tigers lost to Hofstra last week. Another traditional great, Hopkins, has two losses, and No. 16 Syracuse has three.

Navy looked good until last weekend, when the Mids lost to Colgate, of all teams. That was unimaginable, almost as bad as Maryland's losing to Bucknell.

But Virginia has a chance to beat Hopkins on Saturday and No. 4 Maryland the next week.

"You don't coach differently when you're No. 1, but you do talk to the players a little differently," Starsia said. "Right now, we can't be any better than 8-0. But around here, and as long as I've been in this program, we never talk about going undefeated, not with the schedule we play, not with Hopkins this week, and Maryland the next.

"Those scores from last week gave me the perfect pre-game speech before we played Towson Sunday," Starsia said. "I told our kids you don't have to be a genius to figure out what is going on here. There is a lot more talent and parity in lacrosse than ever before. If you don't play hard and take care of your own business, someone can easily bite you."

It's advice that was well taken, but not necessarily needed. The Cavaliers have an outstanding group of seniors who have been through just about everything. They won a national championship as freshmen, but had a down year by Virginia standards as sophomores. Last year, the Cavaliers had a heartbreaking 9-8 loss to Hopkins in overtime in the NCAA semifinals.

The senior class has run the gamut of emotions, so being No. 1 isn't unsettling. The most impressive thing about this Virginia team is that the Cavaliers play the sport the way it was supposed to be played. They play like Syracuse, and run and run and run, similar to the old UNLV basketball teams.

The Cavaliers actually have fast breaks. They actually pressure teams defensively out past the restraining line. They don't make several dozen line changes during the game to slow the tempo like most modern-day teams, and you can watch a Virginia game without falling asleep.

Virginia has the nation's top scoring offense, averaging 15.4 goals. The Cavaliers have outshot opponents by a 428-212 margin and have outscored them 123-55. It's all about philosophy. Starsia doesn't just recruit lacrosse players, but athletes first, lacrosse players second, which is probably why they have that 412-278 advantage in ground balls. The Cavaliers are also unselfish, with 87 of their goals being assisted.

Star players?

There are seniors like attackmen Matt Poskay and Matt Ward, midfielder Kyle Dixon and defenseman Mike Culver. But there are young players like freshman defensemen Matt Kelly and Mike Timms and attackman Garrett Billings, as well as sophomore Ben Rubeor.

When this offense is on, it's show time.

"You should never have every kid back on the team from a year ago," Starsia said. "You need the new faces, the new infusion of blood. Sometimes we move the ball so well, and I see so much of it, I might take that for granted. Sometimes, I hear it [how well the Cavaliers move the ball] from other coaches. I hear the word unselfish used to describe our team. We've been preaching to keep everybody involved. We've got a lot of different weapons, and if you just get away from just being concerned about yourself, we have a chance to be pretty good."

In Virginia's case, it has gotten new athletes to complement the old ones. Combined, the Cavaliers should have enough talent to make a strong championship run. But that's in the future. This week, they're just trying to avoid the trap door that has swallowed up other No. 1 teams very quickly.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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