Virginia perfectly capable of 17-0

Great mix of offense, defense makes Cavs heavy NCAA favorite

College lacrosse

May 11, 2006|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

University of Virginia men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia thought April 8 might be the day his team would receive its comeuppance.

Having beaten Maryland on the road a week earlier by 10 goals, the Cavaliers had concluded an unusually flat week of practice, before traveling to Chapel Hill, N.C. Virginia warmed up sluggishly in the pouring rain as it prepared to play rival North Carolina, which had just been eliminated from postseason contention.

"I turned to one of my assistants and told him I didn't have a good feeling about this," Starsia said. "It was one of the formulas for disaster."

Then, just like that, Virginia flipped a switch and punched out the Tar Heels, jumping to a 6-1 lead after one quarter and rolling to a 21-13 victory.

It has been that type of spring for the 13-0 Cavaliers, who threaten to turn the NCAA tournament into Virginia's World, with 15 other participants merely playing in it. The top-ranked, top-seeded Cavaliers, the only undefeated team left in Division I, are the whole package.

With an offense that flows through seven different options and boasts great passers and shooters, led by attackmen Ben Rubeor and Matt Ward and midfielder Matt Poskay, the Cavs lead the nation in scoring with an average of 15.6 goals. More than two-thirds of their 203 goals have been assisted. Five players have scored at least 20 goals. Five have at least 15 assists.

The defense, which gets lost in Virginia's scoring binges, is a big, athletic group led by senior Michael Culver. It pushes out to force turnovers as well as it sits back and stifles. Virginia has allowed an average of only 7.2 goals, seventh in the country. Many opponents have gone on meaningless runs against Cavs backups in the fourth quarter, when the outcome has been decided.

Virginia has won by an average of 8.4 goals, tops in the nation. It has owned the middle of the field with its speed and hustle, has grabbed 191 more ground balls than its opponents, and has won 60 percent of its faceoffs. Junior goalie Kip Turner spends much time as a spectator, but still has a strong save percentage (.599) and has surrendered just 6.36 goals per game -- fifth in the country.

"It's as well-rounded and as deep as any team I've seen in a long time," said Towson coach Tony Seaman, who should know. On March 19, Seaman watched visiting Virginia toy with his Tigers while taking a 13-1 lead early in the second half. Starsia began emptying his bench after that, leading to a more respectable, 14-7 final score.

"It's not like you can stop one or two guys and feel good," Seaman said. "They pass the ball better, harder and more efficiently than anybody else, and they shoot it better and more often than anybody else. Your goalie has to be out of his mind [to beat them]. He has to play the game of his life."

Princeton, with possibly the game's best goalie in sophomore Alex Hewitt, is the only team that has made the Cavaliers break a serious sweat. He saved 20 shots March 12, in a 7-6 loss. Otherwise, Virginia's lowest margin of victory has been five goals. The Cavs have trailed only once at halftime.

"We pride ourselves in getting after you and playing hard. That hasn't always been associated with Virginia. We always have talent," Starsia said. "We ride hard, we pick the ball up off the ground. We've been very focused on the quality of our effort every day."

Added Poskay, who leads the team with 29 goals: "We have 3:30 practices, and we have guys on the field at 2:45 shooting and half the team is there at 3. Guys want to be there, and the seniors are a perfect example. We know what happens when you don't do the work."

Three years removed from a national title, two years removed from missing the tournament with a 5-8 record, and one year after a stunning 9-8 loss to Johns Hopkins in the national semifinals, the seniors such as Ward, Culver and midfielder Kyle Dixon have an extra sense of urgency.

That has translated to guys like freshman attackmen Danny Glading (20 goals, 15 assists) and Garrett Billings (24, 11) and freshman defenders Mike Timms and Matt Kelly. Rubeor, a sophomore who played at Loyola High, has been dazzling with 26 goals and 16 assists in only 11 games.

Nothing has interrupted Virginia's march, as it aims to become the first team to win it all with a 17-0 record, beginning with Saturday's first-round date against visiting Notre Dame.

Will a broken right hand knock Ward (26, 19) out and cause a stumble? What about Virginia's extended layoff? Mainly due to Duke's canceled season, the Cavs have played just twice since April 8.

Maryland senior attackman Joe Walters, whose Terps have lost twice to the Cavs by a combined score of 26-10 this year, sees only one way to take down what is clearly the game's best team.

"There's no sense sugar-coating it," Walters said. "I think you've got to play a perfect game."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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