- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The scene repeats itself to the point where defenseman Mike Culver and midfielder J.J. Morrissey can only laugh at its absurdity.

The Virginia seniors arrive at their apartment every day to find a visitor lounging on the couch, watching a movie unavailable in his room upstairs, rattling off lines from “Bio-Dome”, feasting on whatever is available and checking for updates and stats on several lacrosse Web sites, often more than one at a time.

Such is life with Matt Ward, the 5-foot-10, 203-pound senior whose nicknames include “Piggy” and “Gordo”, as a neighbor.

“You can expect him every day to come home and be sitting on our couch and making his mess,” Morrissey said. “We will come home from class and we’ll walk in and he’s lying on his stomach, legs up in the air, holding the remote control, watching TV.”

It sounds like the premise for an entertaining sitcom character. But as badly as several television networks could use one, the top-seeded Cavaliers (15-0) have a greater need for Ward heading into Saturday’s NCAA semifinal against Syracuse (10-4) in Philadelphia.

Sure, they need the 33 goals and 25 assists from the Tewaaraton Trophy finalist. But Ward brings other things — the toughness to play through a broken hand earlier this month and the experience few other players can match.

“In many ways, he’s the pulse of this team,” Culver said. “As a fellow captain, I kind of look up to him as well. The way he reacted to a down year in 2004 kind of set the tone for this program.”

That was one of the sport’s most bizarre seasons. The Cavaliers won the national title in 2003 with Ward starting as a freshman, but stumbled to 5-8 and missed the tournament.

Ward never faltered. He was one of the few bright spots that year, and his steadiness as a junior was critical as the Cavaliers returned to the final four. This year, Ward is the hub of Virginia’s efficient offense.

“I certainly get a lot of attention and defensive focus, and it’s enabled me to handle the pressure and it’s enabled everyone else to get some opportunities,” Ward said. “I’ve tried to play to what my team needs. Maybe I don’t carry the ball as much, but that’s just because we have more options. I’m definitely enjoying the ride”

That Ward turned into one of the sport’s stars is no surprise to Rob Bordley, who coached him at Bethesda’s Landon School. He watched Ward star as a fullback and linebacker in football and a point guard in basketball.

His first inkling of Ward’s potential came at a winter indoor game on a dirt field at an old riding center with a leaky roof in Fairfax.

“It was a barbaric place to play,” Bordley said. “I can remember as a ninth-grader before the season had begun, he just did some things that indicated that he understood the game and had great vision. I remember thinking ‘This is going to be a special player.’ And he was one of the greatest we ever had.”

That’s not to say Ward is a textbook attackman. He doesn’t play with the elegance of former Virginia star Conor Gill, and probably won’t soon pop up on many instructional videos.

No one in Virginia’s program is complaining.

“His skills are serviceable but he plays with such a ferocity that that’s what makes him effective,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “He plays attack like a middle linebacker. You’re not finding a lot of attackmen who were high school middle linebackers. I think he’d just as soon take a piece of you with him on the way to the cage.”

That attitude was prevalent three years ago and remains so today. Ward ranks among Virginia’s groundball leaders with 45. (“He’s the only player in Division I lacrosse who can get his uniform muddy playing on a turf field,” Culver said). And he’s still one of the most creative attackmen in the game.

“When the kids on your team who play them talk about him in tones of respect, that says a lot,” Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. “Our players respect Matt Ward. He plays the game with such an effort and passion that it’s worth respecting.”

Ward’s passion rubs off on his teammates. He’s the one who gives the pregame speeches, the guy who excites the Cavaliers.

He’s also the man who provides the confidence to a team that has every reason to feel good about its chances of hoisting a championship trophy on Monday.

“He’s the guy we fall back on,” Morrissey said. “He’s our leader for sure. He’s meant more than goals or assists. That’s what people on the outside see, but they don’t get to see what goes on off the field. He gets us ready.”

That will happen, Ward hopes, twice more before his career finally ends. A week from now, there will be no more games to play and less time to extol the virtues of “National Treasure” to amused teammates before he moves out (“I don’t think ‘The Da Vinci Code’ holds anything on it,” Ward said).

But there will always be the couch — and a magical season — to remember.

“I would love to sit back and kind of relish the moment,” Ward said. “I hate the fact I’m moving away from some of my closest friends. I would love to spend more time there. No matter what happens, I’ll be back on that couch and they’ll be wondering, ‘What is he doing there?’ ”

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