Great expectations haven’t been met for Virginia lacrosse

UVa.’s touted seniors still in search of a championship

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. | The mood in the stands at Virginia’s Klockner Stadium had gone from boisterous enthusiasm to a nervous energy. It was a brisk, windy February afternoon, but more than 3,000 fans — many who had to skip work or leave early to make the 5 p.m. start — were there to see the top-ranked Cavaliers open the 2011 men’s lacrosse season. They were there to watch the start of a championship run, to see the UVa. seniors, the sport’s “Greatest Recruiting Class Ever,” secure its legacy.

But maybe they should have been clued in early that it wasn’t going to be that simple. Virginia — the team with the loaded roster and the Hall of Fame coach, the overwhelming favorite to win it all — was locked in a 9-9 tie with Drexel as the scoreboard clock ticked away the seconds in the fourth quarter.

Then Shamel Bratton, the most heralded of all the Cavaliers, took possession. The senior midfielder raced into the offensive zone. Sprinting to his right, he blew by a pair of Drexel defenders and fired a 15-yard shot over the left shoulder of Dragons goalie Mark Manos.

A couple of minutes later, Bratton had the ball again and his eyes lit up. He faked left then dodged right before scooping a left-handed shot past Manos. Virginia was up two goals. The game was in hand. Bratton never had any doubt, never stopped smiling.

“Pressure,” he said as a high school senior in a quote now famous in lacrosse circles, “makes diamonds.”

A team in turmoil

The mood at Klockner had gone from a sense of dread to fans wondering if they could really believe what they were watching. Fewer than 2,500 had shown up to see the Cavaliers’ final regular-season game, knowing even if they saw another loss they could at least enjoy the final Saturday in April in the perfect 71-degree weather.

Virginia had lost four of five. Shamel Bratton was off the team. His twin brother, Rhamel, suspended indefinitely. The hubris that helped make them stars also factored in their fall from grace. The Cavaliers no longer were title contenders, let alone the favorites. The once promising season all but lost.

Except the game began and suddenly … maybe it wasn’t. Junior Steele Stanwick was running the most efficient offense any of the fans had seen this year, whipping the ball around the field, dealing sharp assists to Chris Bocklet, John Haldy and Rob Emery. Nearly everyone was getting into the act on offense, and the much-maligned UVa. defense had the Penn Quakers in a stranglehold.

When it was over the team rushed the field, congratulating each other on a dominating 11-2 victory. “I thought it was the best full 60 minutes we have played the entire season,” Cavs coach Dom Starsia said.

Shamel Bratton was gone, but he might have been right. The pressure — the weight of the world, it seemed at times — could still produce a gem.

Starsia never did think it was fair.

“Some guy at Inside Lacrosse might have been sitting in a corner office someplace and decided this was the best recruiting class ever, and that’s how they got anointed as such,” he said.

Before they even arrived on The Grounds at UVa., the Cavaliers seniors had been dubbed as the class that might change the sport. Inside Lacrosse magazine put them on the cover with the headline “The Greatest Recruiting Class Ever?” But at the time it hardly seemed like a question. College coaches predicted they would win multiple national championships.

The Brattons were the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked recruits in the country, and the Long Islanders were perhaps the best high school athletes in New York. The twins’ highlight videos were YouTube sensations. Set to a Jay-Z soundtrack, there were shots of the twins returning kickoffs for touchdowns and unleashing bone-crushing hits on the football field. Then there was Shamel tossing alley-oop inbounds passes to a high-flying Rhamel on the basketball court and, of course, both ripping goals from 20 yards out and playing lockdown defense on the lacrosse field.

College coaches in all three sports wanted the Brattons, but lacrosse and Virginia won out.

Another Long Island star, Adam Ghitelman, had been friends with the Brattons since fourth grade, and the No. 4 overall recruit and top goalie in the class also chose the Cavaliers. Bray Malphrus, a long-stick midfielder from Georgetown Prep, was the No. 5 player in the class and one of eight Virginia signees in the top 25.

The class that couldn’t miss

When they all came together in 2007, the lacrosse community wasn’t asking if they’d win a title, but how many.

Results on the field their first year varied. Ghitelman earned the starting goalie job and helped the Cavaliers to a 9-0 start, but he was benched late in the regular season after Virginia dropped two of three ACC games. The Cavs recovered and, with Malphrus and the Brattons contributing, they advanced to the NCAA semifinals, falling to Syracuse in double overtime.
Virginia started the next season 12-0 before losing twice to archrival Duke late in the season and being blown out by Cornell in the NCAA semis.

By the time the 2010 season was in full swing, the Cavaliers were living up to expectations. UVa. finished the regular season 14-1 and snapped an eight-game losing streak to Duke in the ACC tournament.

Ghitelman was playing like the best goalie in the country, even scoring a goal in the win over the Blue Devils. The Brattons were playing at an All-America level and Malphrus was shutting down scorers and striking fear in opposing attackmen with his hits.

The Cavaliers were favored to win it all but once again faltered a game away from a title shot, losing 14-13 to Duke.

Three seasons, zero titles.

“I’m kind of our toughest critic, and I go head-to-head with coach Starsia on this all the time,” Malphrus said, “I kind of look at the bottom line, and we haven’t won yet. So personally, I would say we haven’t lived up to what we are capable of.”

The results actually have been fairly remarkable considering all they’ve been through.

“At times, I’m amazed how vulnerable college-aged boys can be,” Starsia said. “But at the same time, sometimes I’m amazed at how resilient they can be. Lacrosse is something they probably all know best, and I think for all of us this lacrosse field has probably been a little refuge over the years.”

In the fall of 2008, a few months after the tournament loss to Syracuse, the program was hit with the first in a series of heartbreaking tragedies.

Will Barrow, a senior captain on the 2008 team, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Charlottesville apartment. Barrow, like the Brattons, was an African-American midfielder from Long Island and one of the most popular Cavaliers of all time after helping Virginia to a national championship in 2006.

The next summer Michael Colley, who worked with the team almost daily as its media relations director, died of a heart attack.

Then came the most devastating blow of them all. In the early morning hours of May 3, 2010, police were called to the apartment of Virginia women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love, where they found her dead in her bedroom. Hours later, men’s senior midfielder George Huguely was arrested.

The Cavaliers entered the NCAA tournament mourning the death of a dear friend — several members of the men’s team served as pallbearers at Love’s funeral — and trying to comprehend that a teammate sat in jail, charged with her murder.
Four days after Love’s death the players helped Starsia mourn the loss of his father, who had been living with the coach.

“Looking back on it, I’m amazed we were able to come out and win a playoff game after everything that happened,” Malphrus said.

Coping with tragedies

At times it all seemed like too much. They’d grieved and listened to critics call them losers and speculate about their character. But they can’t picture themselves anywhere else or going through life as part of any other group.

“Success on the field means so much to us,” Rhamel Bratton said before the season started. “It’s the only time it’s just us out here, and we don’t have to worry about all the stuff outside. That’s the reason we all came here , and it’s why we all met each other.”

But simply stepping onto the field didn’t guarantee success. The Cavaliers weren’t in sync. In the wake of the tragedies and other off-the-field incidents, the players voted to institute stricter training rules, which the Brattons, supposed to be superstars and senior leaders, apparently had trouble following.

Shamel, who did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him, was suspended for games against Stony Brook (in February) and Maryland (in April). Rhamel also served a suspension at Stony Brook.
On April 29, Shamel, a two-time, first-team All-American, was dismissed from the squad for violation of team policies. Rhamel was suspended indefinitely, leaving open the possibility of a return in the postseason.

Disciplinary action taken

Rumors that the Brattons were no longer on the team already were circulating when the Cavaliers began showing up for practice the Thursday before the Penn game, rumors Starsia would neither confirm nor deny.

Yet if it was a team in chaos, the players didn’t act like it. They joked around while talking to each other and reporters. Malphrus cheerfully made poker analogies and to a man they talked about how the entire squad was now on the same page.

“I love the group of kids we have in the locker room, and I wouldn’t change it,” Malphrus said.

It seemed strange at the time. Here they were, mired in a slump and in the midst of losing two of their best players - two of the most productive midfielders in the program’s glorious history - and the players were talking about their great team chemistry.

But it became clear they were right.

Heading into Sunday’s NCAA tournament opener against Bucknell, Shamel Bratton led the Cavaliers with 90 shots, six more than Chris Bocklet, despite playing in three fewer games. The Brattons combined to shoot 23 percent.

The Virginia offense had been stagnant, relying on players to go one-on-one for scoring attempts. Only 52.5 percent of the Cavaliers goals were assisted - down 8 percent from a year before.

But Virginia heads into the NCAA tourney feeling free and loose. Eight of UVa.’s 11 goals against the Quakers were assisted — five by Stanwick — and the Virginia radio play-by-play team was less than subtle in its insinuation that the Cavs were better without the Brattons.

“That’s when our offense is at its best, when we are moving the ball from up top and behind,” senior midfielder John Haldy said.

Still hope for the season

More than any other sport, lacrosse ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Faceoff wins can lead to quick goals and turn around a blowout in a matter of seconds. Virginia hopes a season can change just as quickly.

“It’s been tough, I won’t lie,” Haldy said. “It’s not easy losing four of five, but we try to keep it all in perspective because we still have a great opportunity ahead of us in the next couple of weeks.”

Even without the Brattons — Rhamel could return if the Cavaliers advance past the first round — Virginia arguably has the most offensive weapons in the nation and experience in goal, often a recipe for postseason success.

“At the end of the day, the way you go into the playoffs doesn’t matter,” senior faceoff specialist Garett Ince said. “It’s the way you come out of it. We don’t look back on our season, just focus on the here and now.”

For Ince and the rest of the remnants of “The Greatest Recruiting Class Ever,” that means an opportunity to add a happy ending to their four-year story of frustration and pain.

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