Virginia goalie Adam Ghitelman makes a second-half save. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Virginia's resilient Cavaliers keep reinventing themselves through injury and mishap this season. On Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium, they rattled Denver with a suffocating zone defense and an almost flawless first half to take a 14-8 victory in an NCAA Division I men's lacrosse semifinal.
In a year when even some of their own fans had written them off, the Cavaliers advance to Monday's championship game for the first time since 2006. They will face Maryland, a 9-4 winner over Duke in Saturday's second semifinal.
"I try not to be prone to hyperbole," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said after stopping a 12-game Denver winning streak. "But I'm not sure I've had a group that's played as close to its potential as this group."
Virginia's potential seemed elusive when Starsia lost his best defenseman, Matt Lovejoy, and kicked midfielder Shamel Bratton off the team in the past month.
But Starsia switched to a zone defense and turned midfielder Bray Malphrus into a close defender.
It took Denver three quarters to figure out the zone, and by then, it was too late.
"When they first put [the zone scheme] in, I hated it," said Malphrus, whose thick, black beard is topped by a thick, black mohawk. "I was at [Virginia assistant] coach [John] Walker's throat every day. Then he pulled me aside one day and said, 'You've got to believe in us.'"
There was no doubting the zone Saturday. Goalie Adam Ghitelman stoned the Pioneers early and the Cavaliers built on their momentum for a 9-2 first-half lead. Virginia won 17 of 26 ground balls and eight of 13 faceoffs in the half.
"If you talk about how you like to script a first half, it probably wouldn't have been much different than what you saw on the field," Starsia said. "We were going to try to attack Denver from behind and use an attackman on the first midfield spot to take it behind the goal. It takes a little bit of time to get that organized offensively."
Virginia found its rhythm early. The Cavaliers led 4-2 when they scored five unanswered goals to close the half. Two came on extra-man advantages, resulting in shots by Rob Emory to the top left of the net and by Matt White to the far side of the net.
Another run of four straight goals in the third quarter effectively put the game away at 13-3. Tewaaraton Award finalist Steele Stanwick led the way with three goals and two assists. Attackmen Chris Bocklet and Mark Cockerton, who had been locked in the bathroom at the stadium for the first 15 minutes of Friday's practice, both had hat tricks to spread the wealth.
In the end, perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams was in the nets. Ghitelman, a senior, made seven of his 10 saves in the first three quarters, while Denver freshman Jamie Faus stopped only four shots through three quarters.
"I thought we put some pressure on the young kid in goal and took advantage of the opportunities we did create," Starsia said.
The Cavaliers beat Faus high to the net early, then went low after getting the lead. Neither Faus nor the Pioneers responded to their first-ever Final Four appearance.
"I've been here three times and I was shaking like crazy before the game," said Stanwick, a Baltimore native who played at Loyola. "I don't want to know what [Faus] was thinking."
Said Bocklet: "He's a great goalie, but putting good shots on him early was the key."