Starsia isn't shy about winning

May 30, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia-- --Somehow, someway, Virginia men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia always seems to slip under the radar. Princeton's Bill Tierney is the defensive genius. Maryland's Dave Cottle is the offensive innovator. Syracuse's John Desko has all those championship rings.

And Starsia?

He could be just another car salesman. Maybe he likes it that way.

While his players were being interviewed after yesterday's 15-7 win over Massachusetts in the NCAA Division I lacrosse championship game, Starsia slipped away for a few minutes.

The man doesn't like the lights and cameras, only on-the-field action.

"Without him, we're nothing," said Virginia midfielder Kyle Dixon. "He is the centerfold of this program. He is the guy we get our energy from."

Starsia, 54, couldn't escape the spotlight yesterday. His Cavaliers put the exclamation point on a 17-0 season that included so many offensive shows that fans started comparing the Cavaliers to the great Syracuse teams of the late 1980s led by midfielders Paul and Gary Gait.

Showtime came to Charlottesville, Va.

But instead of talking about lacrosse, Starsia is just as content talking about his family, the weather or the stock market. He is extremely modest, though lacrosse insiders know he is one of the best teachers, motivators and tacticians in the game.

Isn't this national championship No. 3? Wasn't this tournament appearance No. 18 overall? Isn't Starsia one of only three coaches to win 100 games at two schools?

He has built this Virginia team in his image. The Cavaliers have a flamboyant offense, but all they talk about is the team concept and a strong work ethic, the same things that Starsia, a father of four, constantly preaches.

"He has a special approach," Dixon said. "He can scream, but he's not the yelling and screaming type. He's down to earth, very calm. All season long, he has kept us on an even keel. Whenever a team has gone on a run on us during the season, he has remained calm and kept us calm. Usually, we stop them and then go on a run of our own."

Virginia had one of those moments yesterday. The Cavaliers took a 4-1 first-quarter lead, but the Minutemen outscored them 3-1 in the second quarter to trail only 5-4 at the half. Virginia wasn't used to being in that situation. A year ago, the Cavaliers fell here, 9-8, to Johns Hopkins in overtime in the semifinals.

Halftime could have turned into chaos. The Cavaliers were tight and tentative.

"Guys were yelling and screaming about blowing the lead. You could feel a little panic," Dixon said. "Coach steps in, gets everybody quiet, tells them to refocus and how we're still up by a goal. He keeps us balanced."

Said Starsia: "We've sort of stumbled in the second quarter lately, so there was no need for a big halftime speech. I thought that we got a little careless on defense and a bit stubborn shooting the ball. But I thought our big guys like Dixon, [Matt] Ward and [Matt] Poskay came through and got good shots."

Of course, Starsia wouldn't take credit for redirecting the offense in the third quarter and getting more shots from the top of the crease. That's not his style. Nor will he talk much about coordinating his defense, which is one of the best in the nation.

But Virginia owes a lot to Starsia.

When he came to the campus from Brown in 1993, the Cavaliers had a reputation for being soft and chokers. Starsia started out imitating the playing style of predecessor Ace Adams with a deliberate offense.

A few years later, though, after a chat with then-Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., Starsia started to change. He began recruiting athletes instead of just lacrosse players. Instead of slowing it down, he started letting his players run the field.

Instead of hiding in a zone or playing a tight man-to-man, he allowed his defensemen to exert pressure all over the field. He also allowed them to lead fast breaks.

Yesterday, defenseman Ricky Smith took an outlet pass from goalie Kip Turner with 3:22 left in the third quarter. Smith split two defenders near the restraining line and passed to attackman Ward, who scored on a 12-yard shot to give Virginia an 11-6 lead.

Starsia's heart pumped harder with each stride Smith took.

"It's one of those things where you're going, `No, no, no ... yeah,'" Starsia said. "That's some good coaching right there."

Minutes later in the fourth quarter, Smith and another defenseman, freshman Matt Kelly, were leading a fast break.

"Ricky is the kind of guy who makes you pull your hair out a little bit," Starsia said. "But he epitomizes who we are. We like to take chances and push the ball. People criticize him because he makes mistakes, but I weigh the opportunities he creates for us going from offense to defense, especially in the transition.

"So many coaches are afraid of that part of the game right now. For us, you tolerate a little of that because it pays off for us in the long run."

Starsia's recruiting philosophy has produced 75 All-Americans at Virginia. In an era of parity, the Cavaliers were unbeaten and performed at a high level every time they took the field.

Starsia kept them focused on the next opponent, whether it was North Carolina, Maryland or Bellarmine. It was the perfect season for a team that had no weaknesses.

"Perfect, I hate using that word with anything I'm connected with," Starsia said, laughing.

Said Dixon: "Yeah, he's like that, but he's the guy who keeps it all together around here."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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