- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

Virginia coach Dom Starsia paced through his frustrated team’s locker room a year ago after a final four setback, stopping at one point to talk with a player tethered to the sideline for nearly two months to finish the season.

He leaned in to Adam Ghitelman, a freshman goalie who was deposed after absorbing his first career loss in 10 starts at the end of March.

“This is your team now,” Starsia whispered.

Is it ever.

A season after stopping less than half the shots on goal he faced, Ghitelman is the stable force in the cage the top-seeded Cavaliers (15-2) dreamed he would become when he arrived after a stellar high school career on Long Island. What, then, can explain what he dryly calls his “transformation” that helped Virginia reach the NCAA tournament semifinals, where it will meet fifth-seeded Cornell (12-3) on Saturday?

“I’ve probably been asked that question a hundred times,” Ghitelman said.

The answer isn’t complex.

Ghitelman wasn’t the only problem a year ago as the Cavaliers carved out close victory after close victory. And while it stung to lose his job to senior Bud Petit, he had time to sit back and realize he still had three years left to play.

He also found something to occupy his time in the offseason, starting six of seven games for the United States in the under-19 world championships. Ghitelman notched a .604 save percentage, including a 19-save performance in the gold medal game as the Americans upended the slick-shooting Canadians.

It was a summer, Starsia believed, that at least brought Ghitelman back to where he was at the start of his freshman season. When his team convened last fall, Starsia delivered a powerful message sure to assuage any lingering doubts.

“He basically told me I’m his guy for the next three years at the beginning of the year,” Ghitelman said. “One thing I try to make sure to do is not let Dom down and try to keep that going.”

A little extra work helps as well. Faceoff specialist Chad Gaudet often jogs onto the practice field, only to see Ghitelman running off at the same time. The sophomore often arrives 45 minutes early to take extra shooting before the full practice begins.

He also has demonstrated the ability to move past shaky outings. A week after getting shelled for 15 goals at dimly lit Homewood Field against Johns Hopkins, Ghitelman made 22 saves in a seven-overtime thriller against Maryland. He was also lit up in the ACC tournament against Duke, but in two NCAA tournament games he has made 18 saves and yielded five goals.

“Anybody who questions him at this point is nuts,” Gaudet said. “I can’t think of another goalie I’d rather have in a big game or big situations.”

Neither can Starsia, who said after Sunday’s 19-8 quarterfinal rout of Johns Hopkins it took questions from reporters to remind him Ghitelman never played in the crucible of the NCAA tournament before this season.

Then again, Ghitelman appeared as comfortable as any goalie last weekend, stopping seven shots in the first half as Virginia built a 12-4 lead at the break.

“I forget those things because he’s a very poised kid,” Starsia said. “There’s just some kids you can talk to. Adam is one of those. He’s just as likely to pat me on the back as me having to lift him up.”

Ghitelman will arrive in Foxborough, Mass., with a dramatically different vantage point of the final four. Rather than watching a double-overtime classic, he’ll play a substantial role as the Cavaliers chase their fourth national title since 1999.

One thing is for sure: He’ll hear a lot more about his penchant for big games this year than his short-circuited debut.

“It’ll probably be questions about how I’m playing instead of my transformation,” Ghitelman said. “It’s just mental. When someone scores on me, I don’t even think about it anymore. I’m just playing and trying to stop the ball as best I can. I don’t need to make it any more complicated than that.”

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