March's best lacrosse game will be Sunday in Charlottesville

Syracuse, Virginia play the game the way it should be played

March 05, 2010|By Mike Preston

wo years ago, two of lacrosse's major powers decided to skip the annual Face-Off Classic in Baltimore and continue one of the game's fiercest rivalries.

While most of the area's fans will be at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, the best game in the month of March will be played Sunday at 1 p.m. in Charlottesville when No. 2 Virginia (3-0) hosts No. 1 Syracuse (2-0).

Syracuse has lost the past two to Virginia in the regular season, but the Orange has won the past two national championships.

"This game means a lot to the community," Syracuse coach John Desko said. "The players and the fans know this is a big game, and fans in general look forward to the Syracuse-Virginia game."

During the past 20 years, there aren't any programs that have had as much pure athletic talent as Syracuse or Virginia. No. 5 Johns Hopkins has won its share of titles in that span, but not even the Blue Jays draw as much raw athleticism as the Orange and Cavaliers.

Both these teams play the game the way it should be played. Neither Desko nor Virginia coach Dom Starsia micromanages the game or slows it down with a bunch of substitutions.

They prefer the upbeat transition game. It's showtime, and both these teams can turn it on. Both coaches like to press on defense and force turnovers, which they can turn into easy goals because of speed.

"They are willing to take gambles to produce opportunities," Starsia said of Syracuse, but he could have been talking about his own team. "They are reckless, but I use that as a compliment because it produces cockiness and swagger.

"Last year, when they were down by three goals late in the fourth quarter to Cornell in the title game, there wasn't another team in the country that thought they could come back but Syracuse," Starsia said. "They're going to play you for the entire time. They never give up."

Virginia holds a 13-12 advantage in the series, and the Cavaliers have won seven of the past nine meetings.

But Sunday's game might not be as high-scoring as previous ones between the schools. The Orangemen lost a lot of firepower from a year ago, in Matt Abbott, Dan Hardy, Kenny Nims and Pat Perritt.

Virginia is trying to rebuild its attack with two sophomores, Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet. Stanwick started as a freshman but played on the left side. Now, he's back to an old position at "X," where he is the primary feeder.

In addition, the Cavaliers might be without star midfielder Shamel Bratton, who is still nursing a leg injury.

"In the past, an average game was like 14-14," Starsia said. "This time, it's probably going to be something like 10-9. We're a lot alike at this time. We can create through our midfield, but if you win through your midfield, you die through your midfield. It's like having a bunch of 3-point shooters. When they're off, you lose."

Desko said: "We're still young between the lines, and at this point we're just trying to get better. With Virginia, they tend to amplify your mistakes and what you do wrong, they make it right for them."

In other words, because the season is young, this is a great barometer for both teams. Two of the Orange's starting attackmen, Cody Jamieson and Stephen Keogh, are from Canada, so Virginia must play outstanding defense around the crease.

If Shamel Bratton plays along with his twin brother, Rhamel, and the Cavaliers can get the midfield cranking as well as the attack, they can punish Syracuse.

It's tough to predict a winner.

"As long as I have been covering lacrosse, that has always been the best game in the month of March," ESPN's Quint Kessenich said. "It usually sets up the rest of the season. It's usually a high-scoring game, great action, both coaches - being this early in the season - don't over-control the game, and so it's a fun game for the fans to watch. … That's always a barometer. How many times has the winner of that game then been the No. 1 team in the nation?"

The game in March sets the stage for a great rematch in the postseason.

"After the game, we'll know a lot about our teams and who we are," Starsia said. "And we'll certainly know a lot about each other as well."

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