HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. —- Virginia’s lacrosse season meandered to many unexpected places throughout a chaotic regular season.
It will end, though, where it usually does: On the final weekend of the year.
The seventh-seeded Cavaliers stifled Cornell star Rob Pannell and in turn disrupted the second-seeded Big Red’s offense en route to a 13-9 victory Saturday at Shuart Stadium in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
Virginia (11-5) will meet the winner of the day’s second quarterfinal —- between Johns Hopkins and Denver —- on Saturday at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.
It wasn’t the place the Cavaliers appeared headed less than a month ago. It had two starters suspended, another lost to injury. Yet Virginia managed to advance to its fourth straight semifinal appearance with burst of offense and one of its best defensive outings of the season.
“Through some turmoil during this past season, the core group of this team stayed together the whole time,” said Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who passed Jack Emmer for first in career Division I victories with 327. “We practiced well throughout. It was a joy to be on the practice field on a daily basis. When it required, we made some changes in who we are and who we were on the field. It just took us a little while to get that done.”
One of the Cavaliers’ in-season adjustments was to embrace a zone defense, though out of necessity more than desire. With defenseman Matt Lovejoy lost for the season with an injury, it was Virginia’s path to remaining competitive.
Saturday, it was a combination of multiple defenses that confounded the Big Red (14-3), whose 11-game winning streak was snapped. Virginia bottled up Pannell’s distributing tendencies during a victory in March, but it was Lovejoy who marked him that afternoon.
This time, Bray Malphrus spent some time on Pannell, though the Cavaliers eventually leaned on its zone for much of the second half.
“First and foremost, he’s looking to feed,” Malphrus said. “That’s why he’s a spectacular player. He elevates the game of the other five guys around him around him. We put an emphasis on that. We knew we had to cover up off ball, and a lot of that credit goes to the other kids playing defense. When Pannell had the ball in his stick, you had to match up inside and not give anybody any space.”
Even when Cornell bolted to a 4-1 lead, it wasn’t because of Pannell’s table-setting. The junior —- the favorite to win the Tewaaraton Award —- snagged three goals but did not record an assist in either of his games against Virginia.
That in turn denied opportunities to the likes of attackman David Lau, who didn’t score. The Big Red’s starting midfield combined for one goal, eventually forcing shots as they grew impatient.
“They did a good job of supporting each other,” Cornell coach Ben DeLuca said. “Their short sticks in particular did a good job of supporting those guys up top and managing the off-ball motion our offense wants to try to implement t create scoring chances. I think our offense fed into that a little bit. To a certain degree, I think our offense settled for shots on the perimeter.”
The Cavaliers, however, spread the ball around effectively throughout the second quarter. Virginia dominated possession, and Steele Stanwick had five of his seven points in the period. But the Cavaliers also got a pair of goals from attackman Nick O’Reilly, who didn’t play a week earlier when Virginia escaped Bucknell in overtime.
The Virginia blitz produced nine goals in less than 18 minutes (and seven in the second quarter), leaving Cornell stunned and facing a 10-4 deficit at the break.
“It’s been a while since we played a quarter like that,” Stanwick said.
Not to mention a couple months since the immediate future seemed so promising. The Cavaliers dealt with Lovejoy’s injury, the dismissal of Shamel Bratton and the indefinite suspension of Rhamel Bratton in various ways, and a stretch with four losses in five games was anything but promising.
Yet Virginia closed the regular season with a demolition of Penn, then received a dominant outing from Stanwick to make the quarterfinals. Now, they’re back where they almost always wind up, even if this was in unorthodox fashion for their usually dominant program.
“These past couple of weeks, we’ve just blossomed a little bit,” Starsia said. “I don’t think we’re fooling anybody. We’re not the team we were six weeks ago physically, and we’ve kind of come to terms with who we are and we’re better at being who we are a month ago.”
—- Patrick Stevens