- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. — Virginia mastered the art of predictability last spring, blitzing opponents week after week with a relentless offense capable of shredding nearly any defense or goalie on its way to a perfect season and a national title.

This year’s Cavaliers have achieved a less impressive though still relatively effective manner of conducting business: Playing well for spurts and relying on a staunch defense to make up for offensive deficiencies.

The approach has led to four victories by a goal — the latest an 11-10 outlasting of Maryland in Friday’s ACC tournament semifinals — that carried No. 3 Virginia (12-2) into today’s conference title game against No. 2 Duke (12-2).

“I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it’s been a miracle season in a lot of ways,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “Coming off last year with the change in motivation, the emotion of all that, the change in personnel, the inexperience of this group, the fact we’ve been able to win has just been startling to me. Then we get into these games and do things that are uncharacteristic.”

Indeed, the Cavaliers were so smooth in the middle two quarters against the Terrapins, dominating possession and wearing down. Yet they also made inexplicable errors early and late, falling behind 4-1 and later surrendering three extra-man chances to abet Maryland’s rally in the fourth quarter.

It also wasn’t an aberration, but rather part of a month-long trend of close calls. Virginia trailed Binghamton entering the fourth quarter and needed overtime to turn back North Carolina. After a loss at Duke, the Cavaliers averted overtime against unranked Dartmouth only with a man-down goal in the closing minutes.

“To call it a miracle is a little bit of an overstatement,” midfielder Steve Giannone said. “We work hard day in and day out, and we’ve let ourselves get into some close games that should have been a little bit more in our favor. Although we’re a young team, we’re getting better and better each game.”

That is especially true of the offense, which relied heavily on attackmen Garrett Billings, Danny Glading and Ben Rubeor early in the season. Senior midfielder Drew Thompson has struggled all season to create offense with a pole glued to him, leaving Virginia dependent on the maturation of midfielders Giannone, Brian Carroll and Jack Riley for long-term success.

The three combined for five goals against Maryland, an encouraging prospect with the NCAA tournament just two weeks away.

“The attack has been able to carry us for most of the season,” Giannone said. “Now to get into the postseason, other teams are matching up better and they know how to defend a little better, so we need big things from the midfield.”

A similar performance could be crucial for the Cavaliers today. Virginia is just more than two weeks removed from its 7-6 setback against the talented Blue Devils. And while Starsia and defenseman Ricky Smith both conceded Virginia hasn’t been at its best of late, there is a sense a breakout performance might not be far away.

“We’re 12-2 right now. Who would have thought? [We’re] playing for the ACC championship,” Starsia said. “Over the last couple of weeks we haven’t played our best lacrosse and hopefully that big fish is still out there and we’re going to catch him one of these days.”

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