With something to prove, Virginia found its groove

May 30, 2011|Mike Preston

In the end, the University of Virginia was a good team with great motivation.

When it came down to crunch time in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship Monday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, Virginia defeated Maryland, 9-7, because the Cavaliers had an edge.

They had something to prove.

A lot of them didn't want to address the issue after the game, but the underlying theme to their championship run was they wanted to prove to the lacrosse world that they could win a national championship without their star twin midfielders, the Brattons, who were suspended at the end of the season for personal reasons.

Teams, regardless of whether they're professional or amateur, often rally when they have a cause. Veteran teams usually play well the next season for the new coach after the old one is fired because they want to prove it was the old coach's fault. We saw that in the NFL when Ravens head coach John Harbaugh replaced Brian Billick.

Teams often play at a higher level if someone gets hurt or if there is an unexpected death or turn of events. In the case of Virginia, its rallying point was the dismissal of the Brattons, Shamel and Rhamel.

Four years ago, every college coach wanted the Brattons out of Huntington Station, N.Y. They had quick feet. They were fast. They could play defense, shoot well and force defenses into changes they didn't want to make. They were going to revolutionize the position.

But to get the Brattons, a lot of coaches, including Virginia's Dom Starsia, had to overlook the baggage that came with them, such as their obnoxious behavior and arrogant attitudes.

Every season there were numerous stories about the Brattons' self-destruction. Maybe they all weren't true, but there was enough this season for Starsia to suspend them at the end of the regular season.

Finally.

And that's when Virginia began its championship run.

"It was hard for him, and you don't like doing it," said Virginia long stick midfielder Bray Malphrus of the suspensions. "It's hard to suspend players, hard to tell them that they can't come out to practice anymore. It's gut-wrenching and no fun at all. It wasn't easy on him [Starsia] and he doesn't sleep anymore. He has definitely lost some years off his life.

"But it got to the point where we had some kids come to him and say we need to take care of this stuff, or we need to get rid of certain things. It got to the point where it was either going to be about individuals or team, and he chose team. Ultimately, he had the final say because it's his team, but we believed in each other. We believed in our team."

It wasn't an easy transition. Combined with the injuries to star junior attackman Steele Stanwick, the Cavaliers lost four of five in one stretch late in the regular season. But while struggling, they also found themselves. Instead of running the offense through the midfield and Brattons, they went through Stanwick.

Instead of playing run and gun, the Cavaliers went to a more deliberate offense that required quick passes and got everyone involved. They traded in their full pressure, man-to-man defense for a zone. All the new stuff was contrary to everything Starsia had preached in the past, but the Cavaliers believed.

It was all about team.

"It was hard at first, but we bought into it," said Stanwick. "We bought into it very quickly.

The Cavaliers could have folded, and teams with star players sometimes do. But the big difference between the eight good teams in Division I lacrosse and the rest is overall depth. Good players will play a reserve role at a school such as Virginia, Maryland or Johns Hopkins because those schools have a shot at a national championship.

That won't happen at a UMBC, Towson or Loyola. If those schools lose a front-line player or two, they might be finished for the season. That's where Starsia gets credit. He kept the egos in check. He kept the team moving until the end.

Before Saturday's semifinal game against Denver, Starsia suspended starting senior midfielder Colin Briggs for personal reasons. Briggs was reinstated for Monday's game, and led the Cavaliers with five goals.

But that's been the MO of this Virginia team in the playoffs. Whenever the Cavaliers needed a goal, they got one. If they needed goalie Adam Ghitelman to come up big, he delivered. If they needed a takeaway in crunch time, Malphrus gave them one.

On Sunday, Maryland senior defenseman Brett Schmidt took Stanwick out of the game, as he often has done during his time in a Terps uniform. But Briggs stepped up on offense as did sophomore attackman Matt White, who had three goals. Sophomore attackman Nick O'Reilly had four assists, as the Cavaliers took advantage of Maryland's big, but slow, sliding defense.

And once Virginia got the lead, Starsia had his offense slow the pace even more, and Maryland, after the first quarter, had problems trying to dissect the Cavaliers' zone, repeatedly jamming errant passes in the middle at the top of the crease.

Virginia was the team with the perfect plan and great motivation.

"The fact that we are here right now is a credit to the team and my family and the people at Virginia," said Starsia. "We had to reconfigure ourselves midway through the season. They had to decide that it was important enough to pick themselves up and get going again. The game today epitomized the kind of season that we've had, that we started out well, put goals in the second quarter when we got ahead a little bit and [that] gave us some confidence going into the locker room. I am very proud of these guys and what they have done."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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