The e-mail Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia fired off Monday morning to his players wasn’t the easiest thing he ever did.
After all, the Cavaliers were back in Charlottesville, not playing for a national title that afternoon. But the reality was, Virginia was bounced 15-6 by Cornell two days earlier in the semifinals.
“Look it hurts,” Starsia said. “But I’m going to only look at the season in the most positive light. When you consider what we went through in the fall and then we were No. 1 in January and the No. 1 seed going into the tournament, which is a testament to the effort over four months, and the way we played in the first two games … Villanova wasn’t an absolute gimme and Hopkins, we couldn’t have played much better.”
And then the pause.
“It’s almost as mystifying as what happened to us in the semifinals,” Starsia said.
Ultimately, recalling a 15-3 season fondly is the way to go. It speaks volumes that someone would dare consider a 15-win season a disappointment for Virginia.
The Cavaliers reached that figure only twice before, in 2003 and 2006. Both times, Virginia was the last team standing on Memorial Day.
Not this time. But a trip to the final four means things were far from all bad.
What just happened: Virginia won its first 12, which was merely the second best start in school history. But then the Cavaliers encountered their bugaboo, Duke, twice in two weeks and looked nothing like the team that had won at the Carrier Dome and Homewood, or even the one that eked out a seven-overtime defeat of Maryland at home.
But assigned the No. 1 seed for a solid all-around season, the Cavaliers very much looked the part of the favorite in destroying Villanova and Johns Hopkins.
It was probably the Cavaliers’ best two-game stretch since ‘06, but it didn’t translate in the semifinals. Virginia short-circuited at both ends of the field, and wound up with a final four loss for the second straight year.
Even a few days later, it’s hard to figure out exactly how it happened.
“Until the moment we faced off, I thought we were prepared,” Starsia said. “I don’t think we would change anything we did. The only thing I can say is that very early in the game I had a gut feeling of ‘Oh, this is going to be harder than we thought.’ Credit Cornell. They had an inspired weekend and carried the play to us.”
They’ll miss: The obvious absences that will make Virginia a different team are attackmen Danny Glading (32 goals, 31 assists) and Garrett Billings (38 goals, 21 assists), a pair of four-year fixtures who will leave the Cavaliers without their quarterback and top finisher.
But this is Virginia. And while it’s heresy to suggest Glading in particular won’t be missed, the truth is things will probably be fine. Virginia missed Matt Ward and Ben Rubeor after they left, but chugged along rather well. The highly regarded replacements for Glading and Billings should fare well next year.
Realistically, other losses could prove more crucial. The faceoff situation is back in flux with long pole Chad Gaudet’s stint over. And on defense, arguably the team’s most valuable player – long stick Mike Timms – is also gone.
“I feel like I’ll miss Mike Timms the most,” Starsia said. “I’ve never been around a guy who I have felt had as thorough an investment in the program. Maybe it’s because I see him more at my end of the field than I do Danny or Garrett. I’ve so enjoyed Michael. I’m going to miss his influence. He was somebody who didn’t talk a lot, but he could command the respect of the huddle. He was a coach on the field.”
Starters lost: Two attackmen (Billings and Glading), one midfielder (Steve Giannone), one d-middie (Timms), one defenseman (Matt Kelly).
Who’s rising: Pretty clearly, it’s some attackmen – notably rising sophomores Chris Bocklet and Matt Kugler.
Somebody is going to have to step in at attack. And while freshmen have been known to start for the Cavaliers (like Steele Stanwick this season), there’s a good chance two of the best bets are already in-house.
“With the schedule and all those close games, we never got a chance to get those guys out there,” Starsia said. “I like [midfielder] Colin Briggs, who redshirted a year ago with a broken foot and never really got caught up in conditioning. I think he has potential; he’s a talented offensive player in practice.”
With Kelly gone, the Cavaliers will need a replacement on close defense. One of the best possibilities is sophomore Matt Lovejoy, who had ankle surgery in January and missed the season.
On the spot: The midfield
It was very tempting to choose the close defense, which never seemed to be as good as it could have been this season. But for next spring, it’s going to be on a talented midfield to make up for whatever growing pains the young attack deals with in the early going.
It’s certainly possible. Virginia brings back five of its top seven midfielders, and the prospect of a line featuring Brian Carroll and both Rhamel and Shamel Bratton figures to provide opportunities for a youthful attack.
“Not only do Shamel, Rhamel, Brian Carroll and John Haldy need to grow up, they need to take over at the same time,” Starsia said.
That can happen, especially with a group that talented. But to expect another 12-0 start is pushing it, simply because that group isn’t quite as developed as the 2006 line of Kyle Dixon, Matt Poskay and Drew Thompson.
Far-too-premature prognosis: With Virginia – like Syracuse – you know there will be top-5 talent at Starsia’s disposal. He’s too good a recruiter and a coach to let things slip; even in the bizarre spring of 2004, the issue wasn’t capable players.
But Virginia has been glued to a regular cycle for the last decade or so, and it usually starts anew after three years.
In 2001, 2004 and 2007, the Cavaliers rebuilt a bit. The 2007 team was good enough to earn the No. 2 seed, but it regressed after April began and was bounced in the first round of the tournament.
In 2002, 2005 and 2008, Virginia was an factor from start to finish, taking fairly experienced teams with some upside to the semifinals before losing by a goal to the eventual national champion.
In 2003, 2006 and 2009, the Cavaliers brought loaded teams with potent midfields to the final. The first two times, they hauled home a title. This year, things didn’t break right.
I’m not calling an ‘01 or ‘04-like season next year. But 2007 wouldn’t be the worst guide – a 12-4 bunch that could adapt to tough situations.
The biggest offseason priority will be fixing the defense. The Cavaliers probably should have been better at that end of the field, and they’ll have back goalie Adam Ghitelman, close defensemen Ken Clausen and Ryan Nizolek and short stick middies Max Pomper and Mike Thompson.
That’s a good place to start from, even if this year wasn’t the crispest for Virginia in that area.
“[At times] we just depend on our athleticism too much and don’t pay attention to the details,” Starsia said. “In Mike Timms, who had a guy who never could have been more attentive. I thought we had the leader we needed back there. I’m not dropping this in anyone’s doorstep. I bear the full burden. We never quite got it done the way might have at the defensive end. You don’t give up the ghost. It wasn’t because we weren’t trying. But when it broke down, we looked like we weren’t connected or organized.”
Here’s guessing that problem gets solved. And as a result, the early forecast is Virginia is a borderline final four team. Moreover, the Cavaliers could land on the right side of that border, simply because they should bunch that will be playing their best at the end rather than the beginning of the season.