- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

Part of Virginia coach Dom Starsia’s job is to turn the multi-sport athletes he recruits into skilled, disciplined lacrosse players even if they haven’t concentrated on the sport until arriving on campus.

Still, even he was a bit surprised and amused at the lessons he had to impart three years ago to Ricky Smith, then a freshman with a penchant for penalties and big checks: Keep your feet on the ground and your hands on your stick.

Smith gradually incorporated the advice over his career, transforming himself from a reckless long pole to one of the nation’s most reliable close defensemen. All the while, he’s retained the athleticism needed to disrupt opponents as the No. 3 Cavaliers (11-2) prepare for tonight’s ACC tournament semifinal against No. 6 Maryland (9-4) in Durham, N.C.

“I never had that kind of coaching,” Smith said. “It took a little time. I thought he was trying to change my game. He wasn’t. He was trying to get me to understand it’s seven of us, and if one guy is going off on their own and off on a tangent, it kills the whole mojo.”

Smith has simply created consistency for Virginia this season. He took over the top spot on defense after Michael Culver’s graduation, and has 40 groundballs as the Cavaliers chase back-to-back national titles.

He’s also nurtured a group of two sophomores (Matt Kelly and Mike Timms) and a freshman (Ken Clausen) into the nation’s eighth-ranked defense at 7.08 goals a game despite the group’s inexperience.

“I always feel like on defense, there’s got to be a guy to whom I can say ‘It’s up to you. You’ve got to get this going,’” Starsia said. “Ricky’s that guy for me. In the past, maybe it was Culver, [Ryan] Curtis, [Mark] Koontz or [Brett] Hughes. This year’s it Ricky.”

That’s a who’s who of the dominant defensemen to pass through Charlottesville in the last decade, and Smith has earned his spot on the list. He worked up top as a freshman, but Starsia decided it was risky not having him on the field and moved him back to close defense the next year.

Despite playing closer to the goal, Smith remains a vital part of the Cavaliers’ transition game and can create opportunities anytime he darts toward the other end.

“He’s quite the playmaker,” goalie Kip Turner said. “He does not always do the most logical thing, but he always makes plays out of what he does.”

So much so that Turner believes it might be better to get the ball to Smith in transition than a short stick. Turner occasionally hears Smith after a save, but usually knows where he can locate him — somewhere near the middle of the field.

“He may have the best stick of all the defensemen I’ve coached in 33 years,” Starsia said. “He’s got the uncanny ability to be able to anticipate a save or a possession and get open on the back side. There are times I’ve looked up and we just made a save and he’s over the midline and I think ‘How did he get there?’ ”

Smith’s defense has become steadier, and his more judicious use of over-the-head checks have allowed him to actually surprise opponents. Matchups against top players have also led to a calmer approach, and he held Duke star Matt Danowski to a goal and three assists earlier this month.

His greatest asset remains his ability to ignite Virginia’s unsettled game. Smith has caused 27 turnovers, many of which led to easy goals and alleviated pressure on the offense.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Smith said. “That’s always been my first instinct. As soon as the ball is saved or I see an opportunity, I’ve been lucky enough to get up the field. A lot of my teammates have been able to trust me to handle the ball in the middle of the field, and I’m going to try to do that a lot this weekend.”

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