To understand U.Va.’s identity, start with its most visible player, Steele Stanwick

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The most striking sight at the peak of the incline on the walk into Klockner Stadium isn’t the flags heralding Virginia’s lacrosse championships. Nor is it an often-packed grandstand.

It’s just off to the left, where a neatly stacked pile of youth No. 6 jerseys sits. Or maybe it’s just off the field, where young fans peer across the way and eagerly wait to catch a glimpse of pregame work on a mid-April afternoon.

This is the Steele Stanwick Effect. For all of the senior attackman’s on-field feats, it is perhaps more impressive how smoothly he navigates a volume of attention few in the game ever encounter.

“He is the closest thing our sport has right now to a rock star,” Virginia assistant coach Marc Van Arsdale says. “When kids come to camp, they want to know, ‘When is Steele going to be here?’ Everyone wants to see his locker when you go into the locker room.”

For certain, some of it is simply performance. Stanwick won the Tewaaraton Award last year as the nation’s top player and was named the ACC player of the year the past two seasons. He is Virginia’s all-time leader in points (260). In the Cavaliers’ most recent game, he leapfrogged such names as Gary Gait, Eamon McEneaney and Tom Marechek to move into 21st on the NCAA career scoring list.

Yet as fifth-seeded Virginia (11-3) prepares to play host to Princeton (11-4) on Sunday in an NCAA tournament first-round game, it is clear Stanwick’s appeal is rooted in something greater.

Perhaps some of it is on-field vision. A knack for timely production is a plus. There’s no doubt the name helps. A personality rooted deeply in family is especially important.

“He’s always been a very laid-back and down to earth guy, yet very driven as well,” says Tad Stanwick, Steele’s older brother. “I think that’s something my parents tried to instill in all of us, to be humble and gracious in whatever you do. That’s Steele in a nutshell.”

Often, it comes back to his number more than the numbers. When Cook Out, a popular North Carolina-based burger and milkshake chain, opened a Charlottesville location in March, it pinned a No. 6 Virginia lacrosse jersey just to the right of the counter.

And when Virginia suffered a blowout loss to Duke last month, coach Dom Starsia lingered on the field with his family for 15 minutes. When he got up to leave, a throng of young fans remained, clustered around Steele Stanwick with the hopes of leaving with an autograph.

None departed disappointed.

“It’s really cool,” Stanwick says. “Not everyone gets to experience that. For me, I’ve been very fortunate to have that. It’s definitely gotten a little more prevalent in the last year or so. You see more 6s, which is great to see. It kind of pumps me up, to be honest. It gets me excited.”

Grounded and poised

Summon the subject of Stanwick, and Wyatt Melzer wears a knowing grin. The pair have roomed together for four years, and few understand how the Cavaliers’ star ticks like the long stick midfielder.

He sees the aftereffects of facing the nation’s top defensemen week after week. He pokes fun at the guy teammates call “Grandpa” for the effort needed just to be ready on game day.

Yes, there is teasing over the adulation Stanwick receives. No matter how good Stanwick is, he isn’t immune to the sorts of good-natured verbal jabs that exist on any team. It’s how he prefers it.

“On the field, he’s Steele Stanwick or SS6 or whatever we call it,” Melzer says. “He’s got a little persona. He’s sort of like Superman — he’s kind of a regular guy off the field.”

And, well, he looks like a regular guy. At 6-foot and 190 pounds, Stanwick doesn’t stand out on size alone. Feel free to debate his athleticism (Van Arsdale insists it’s an underrated facet of his game, and there’s merit to his argument), but Stanwick typically does not physically dominate a game.

But he can control things intellectually, often zipping passes to where a teammate will be rather than where he is. Much of it stems from a childhood in Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood, where lacrosse was a common thread in a family with eight children.

In a separate garage, Stanwick would play wall ball, firing shots on a 6-by-6 square his father painted on brick after putting on some music. On the weekends, father and sons would trek to Johns Hopkins and fire hundreds of shots.

Homewood Field was so near, the warbles from the public address system easily echoed the half-mile to the Stanwick home. Stanwick regularly attended Hopkins and Loyola games, as well as contests for all his siblings.

The family “didn’t believe in baby sitters,” Stanwick recalls, instead cramming everyone into a huge Suburban with an additional back seat retrofitted so everyone would fit.

There was plenty to watch, plenty to absorb, all of which developed Stanwick’s understanding of the sport. But he also learned humility, a trait he quickly came to value.

“Probably my No. 1 pet peeve was people calling me cocky when I was younger,” he says. “From a young age, I tried to stay as humble as I could. For me, that was always the most important thing. Being from a big family, I’m the fifth born. My trophies are being put behind the girls’ trophies at home. It put me right in place and let me know where I stand.”

Still, it would be easy to forget a few of those lessons. From Starsia’s particularly personal perspective, it has not happened at Virginia.

“I have two special needs handicapped children, 27 years old, and he couldn’t be more thoughtful and gracious around them,” Starsia says. “He’s their favorite guy. They ask about him every night when I come home. I put a lot of credence in the way the guys are around the girls. Nobody has to go out of their way for the girls, but you see a little something about who you are with the guys who do extend themselves. … Steele from the first moment just dove in.”

‘A real pied piper’

Virginia nursed a two-goal lead at Maryland earlier this season, and two defensemen swarmed Stanwick and knocked him to the ground.

It was no problem. From his knees, he punched a shot into the cage, and the Cavaliers went on to win 12-8.

“He makes the incredible kind of look common,” Melzer says. “He’s never been the one to boast about it and make a big deal and we’re the ones who say, ‘Dude, that was impressive.’ He says ‘Really, I just kind of threw it in there.’ “

An unusual level of ambidexterity amplifies Stanwick’s options. Van Arsdale, like most coaches, believes it is important for a player to develop both hands equally. Realistically, he knows there are few who actually can.

Yet it’s often tough to tell Stanwick is right-handed. Starsia marvels at the senior’s work with his off-handed low-to-high shot.

“He actually shoots that shot left-handed as well most of the left-handers you can think of, and that’s his off hand,” Starsia says. “You’re not getting there without the 10,000 hours, but I’m not sure 10,000 hours would get you to be Steele Stanwick skill-wise.”

Nor does it fully capture the influence he has on the rest of the Virginia offense.

“He makes other people better around him, and I think that’s evident in how you see the Virginia lacrosse team playing this year and the run they went on last year,” says Maryland attackman Joe Cummings, who teamed with Stanwick in high school. “He makes people around him better and having the opportunity to play with him was awesome because he has great vision.”

It translates elsewhere. Van Arsdale notes “brains and attitude are part of talent.” Stanwick is a capable confluence of all three.

“He’s a real pied piper,” Starsia said. “It’s that whole Steele Stanwick thing. The name and his persona, the way he plays. I don’t think you have to be a very educated lacrosse fan to appreciate what he does on the field. There’s such an elegance and grace about how he plays. He’s admired by friends and foes, I think.”

And fans. The throng of kids, No. 6 jerseys and lacrosse sticks in tow, will await him after Sunday’s game.

No more than four games remain in Stanwick’s time at Virginia, time enough for both he and everyone else to appreciate his college career.

“He obviously gets a lot of attention, but he doesn’t need that fanfare to where it affects who he is,” Tad Stanwick says. “He’s just a very down-to-earth guy. Since he’s laid back, I think he’s able to enjoy it. I think he takes it in and enjoys every second. He realizes nothing lasts forever and how fortunate he is.”

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