Loyola grad Stanwick adds toughness to Virginia

Junior attackman has powered Cavaliers' turnaround

May 27, 2011|By Mike Preston

Some of Steele Stanwick's University of Virginia teammates have nicknamed him "Grandpa" because the Loyola graduate either walks like a really old man, or has one leg longer than the other.

The limp is clearly noticeable.

"He has always run like an old man, and combined with the injuries, he looked pathetic there for a while," said Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia.

But in the past two weeks, Stanwick, a junior attackman from Baltimore, has regained his All-American form from a year ago. He has carried the Cavaliers into the Final Four, limp and all.

In an opening-round NCAA tournament win against Bucknell, Steele had five assists and three goals — two of which came in crunch time as Virginia edged the Bison, 13-12, in overtime. Against Cornell last week, Steele finished with three goals and four assists as the Cavaliers upset the Big Red, 13-9.

Since the NCAA tournament began nearly three weeks ago, there hasn't been a hotter player. Stanwick is sizzling.

"Now, with [Shamel and Rhamel Bratton] gone, you don't have that situation where they just held the ball and dodged," ESPN analyst Mark Dixon said. "Now, Steele is able to orchestrate things from behind. The ball is in his stick 80 percent of the time and he just opens things up so well for them by distributing the ball. So I think if Virginia wins the championship, and he's the main reason why, you could see the Tewaaraton headed to Charlottesville."

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The best college lacrosse player in the country is Cornell attackman Rob Pannell, but it's easy to understand how Stanwick has closed the gap in the past couple of weeks.

Stanwick suffered a sprain and reported ligament damage in his right foot in the second half of the Ohio State game on March 19th. He seldom practiced before the next five games, and after hurting his left calf against North Carolina on April 9, he missed the Duke game seven days later.

If having Stanwick playing at about 50 to 60 percent wasn't bad enough, Starsia dismissed Shamel Bratton and suspended twin brother Rhamel at the end of the regular season.

Missing this kind of firepower would cause an energy crisis in most countries, much less Virginia's lacrosse team. With Stanwick slowed by injury, Virginia lost four of its next five after the Ohio State game.

"In that stretch, we played Hopkins, Maryland, Carolina, Duke and Duke," Starsia said. "We got beat by some great teams who knew us well and what we were about at that time. They were like sharks and they smelled blood."

No one was more frustrated than Stanwick.

"I have one of those bodies that's always sore, always aching," Stanwick said. "And the foot and calf injuries didn't really help with that. If I had taken six weeks off everything it would have been fine, but since I played every week, I just aggravated it even more. It's hard to rest in the middle of the season because you want to play.

"Every week it got better, but it just kept nagging me. But after the ACC tournament, when we got that extra week of rest, everything kind of turned around."

Once the Cavaliers parted ways with the Brattons, they basically had a trial week to work out their new offense. It worked against Penn for an 11-2 win on April 30. And then it has worked the past two weeks against Bucknell and Cornell.

With Steele healthy and the Brattons gone, it allowed for more ball movement instead of feeding the twins so much.

"We didn't change anything drastically," Stanwick said. "I think you keep playing your game. Naturally, with them out of the lineup, the ball moved a little bit quicker, and naturally I got more touches. We were able to do other things with other people because of the ball movement.

"I think we just had to realize who we were, that we were different and everybody bought into it quickly. I wasn't surprised that we adapted so quickly, but I was surprised that some guys stepped up."

It's Stanwick's offense now. He is the quarterback, and just about everything runs through him. In the past, Virginia had a run-and-gun offense. Not anymore. The team has undergone a facelift, both on offense and defense.

"The fact that we're playing zone on defense means we have to be smart with the ball on the offensive end, and we can't be as run-and-gun or as careless with the ball in previous years," Stanwick said.

That's why Stanwick runs the offense. With three days left in the 2011 season, he's finally close to 100 percent healthy.

"He's a tough kid," Starsia said. "He doesn't look like an outside linebacker, but he has an element of toughness to his game, and you have to have that to be a good attackman. Steele has special hands. He can put the right touch on any pass. He doesn't just get you the ball when you're open, but when you're cleanly open to get off a shot. He works extremely hard, but clearly the ability to make passes in tight situations is a gift."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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