- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

It’s difficult to imagine what Tillman Johnson can do to follow up his play late last season. However, the Virginia lacrosse goalie has something in mind.

Johnson, who made 32 saves and allowed only 10 goals to earn Most Outstanding Player honors in last year’s final four, again will be the anchor for the Cavaliers, who begin their season today against Drexel in Haverford, Pa. The senior, a first-team All-American a year ago, wants to be even steadier than he was last season for the defending national champs.

“My main goal is playing as consistent as possible and starting off a bit better,” Johnson said. “People keep talking about the final four. That was one weekend. I’d love to strive for that every game.”

The Annapolis native had some trouble early last season but was arguably the best player in the country during Virginia’s nine-game winning streak to finish the season, saving more than 67 percent of the shots he faced.

A repeat performance wouldn’t surprise his teammates.

“An encore is what he does every day,” senior defenseman Brett Hughes said. “It’s an ongoing symphony. Every day, even if he doesn’t have his best day, it’s not from lack of effort. He’s willing to put out everything he has for our last go-round.”

Virginia may need Johnson at his best in the first half of the season because the program could be forced to work through some growing pains. Graduation decimated the Cavaliers (15-2 last season) in the midfield, and the roles of the team’s attacking players has shifted. Attackmen John Christmas, Matt Ward and Joe Yevoli combined for 85 goals last season but could fall back on veteran midfielders Billy Glading, Chris Rotelli and A.J. Shannon to take charge at critical times.

Now the Cavaliers’ first midfield line is composed of three sophomores — Kyle Dixon, Foster Gilbert and Matt Poskay — who have combined for 17 goals and 17 assists in their short careers.

There’s nearly as much inexperience elsewhere, though Johnson and Hughes are likely All-Americans and Jack deVilliers, who won 59 percent of his faceoffs last year, also returns. Sophomores Michael Culver and Steve Holmes and freshman Ricky Smith will be in the defensive mix with Hughes.

“We just have a lot of new faces,” coach Dom Starsia said. “We try not to say we’re young because it sounds like a bit of a cop-out. We haven’t demonstrated [anything this year]. Hopefully, that will happen this season.”

The heavy losses have prompted the Cavaliers to avoid thinking of this season solely as a defense of a title. Instead, the emphasis is on navigating a tough early stretch of games — Syracuse, Princeton and Johns Hopkins visit Charlottesville next month, and the Cavaliers start April with a visit to Maryland — and trying to earn a shot at the program’s third national championship in six years.

“You do put it behind you, but you’re lying to yourself if you say you forget,” Hughes said. “But when we step on the field, nothing from last year carries over except some of the same faces and our prime objective. Besides that, we’re trying to look at it as we’re on the road to a new national title.”

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