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Virginia defense on the spot

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Any questions about Virginia’s offense melted away during Sunday’s first-round rout of Villanova.

The defense? It’s tough to say the Cavaliers were even tested enough to make a fair evaluation.

But the thing is, Virginia can be good back there. Good luck finding a defense as athletic as Ken Clausen, Matt Kelly and Ryan Nizolek. Good luck finding a pole left in the tournament field as capable as Mike Timms.

You won’t. But that’s also the group that’s been scorched twice by Duke, and helped let Johns Hopkins back into a mid-March game in Round One between the teams.

“Attentiveness away from the ball is an issue we’ve been talking about the last couple weeks,” coach Dom Starsia said. “Whenever we’ve fallen down, it’s generally been some variation of that. … We went into [Sunday’s] game thinking Villanova was a team that was going to beat you on the second pass, and so I thought we played very well.”

What’s striking about Virginia is the experience level on close defense. There’s a senior (Kelly) and two juniors, and all of them have started for a season and a half.

Kelly’s started since the 2006 title season. Clausen slid into a significant role immediately in 2007. Nizolek was a major factor in last year’s postseason.

“I think the level of familiarity is very helpful,” Starsia said. “I think they have always had a high bar for themselves. I think the last few weeks of the regular season was a little bit of a bitter pill for us to swallow. We’re not passing the buck. I’ve said to folks we’re an offensive lacrosse team, but we clearly weren’t as efficient as we needed to be on defense. Guys took that very personally.”

That’s no promise Virginia will suddenly start holding elite teams to six goals. But the Cavaliers might be measurably better in May than April, particularly on the defensive end. And the last time that happened Starsia headed home on Memorial Day with a championship trophy.

Patrick Stevens

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