- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

The routine is 17 games old. Soon to be 18, maybe 19. Yet no matter how often it happens, the significance never diminishes for Max Pomper.

The senior affixes his eye black before each Virginia lacrosse game with “WB 23” on each patch. Eventually, he pulls out a Sharpie and scribbles the number 23 on his arm.

It’s a way to honor a fellow Long Islander whom Pomper teamed with in the Cavaliers’ defensive midfield for part of three seasons to begin his career.

It’s not entirely a reminder. After all, how could he ever forget? The breathtaking plays. The shared seven-hour rides home. A national title. The day-to-day details of film, practice and weightlifting. Or the evening that left an indelible imprint on the Virginia lacrosse program.

Will Barrow, one of Virginia’s senior captains a year ago, was found dead in his Charlottesville apartment Nov. 22. Two days later, Newsday reported it was an apparent suicide, sending a jolt that reverberated throughout the tight-knit sport.

“When you’re 21 years old and losing one of your best friends, it’s very hard,” Pomper said. “He had 40 best friends, and he touched their lives. It was an incredible shock and made us grow up. A lot of teams talk about how ‘we’re a family.’ In times like that, you realize your family is your 40 teammates.”

And so the players met, time and again, trying to make sense of the senseless while trying to continue to deal with everyday minutiae.

Six months later the Cavaliers are back in Foxborough, Mass., the site of Barrow’s final college game, for Saturday’s national semifinal against Cornell. And Barrow’s impact, while not always verbalized, remains a force for a team that now wears his name on its warmup shirts.

“This thing hit close to home for these college-age males,” coach Dom Starsia said. “We never try to ignore it. We address it when it comes up. It lives very close to the surface.”

‘A terrible night’

Fifth-year senior long pole Mike Timms was already home in Virginia Beach for Thanksgiving break when he received the news. He promptly returned to Charlottesville.

He wasn’t the only one to remain near campus. Pomper rushed with two friends about a block to Barrow’s apartment when he heard the news, then made the agonizing trek back to the house he and five teammates shared that quickly emerged as a team meeting place.

“It was a terrible night,” Pomper said.

Starsia, who had been inducted into the lacrosse hall of fame just two weeks earlier, encountered the greatest challenge of his career. So much of coaching is tailoring an approach for each individual player. This, though, eclipsed anything he had faced.

With fall ball long since gone, he couldn’t hold things together just with practices but was certain to set up as many meetings as possible while providing his mourning team a means to cope.

“Losing Will kind of made Dom more of a person,” Pomper said. “You got to know him more on a personal level. I cried right on his shoulder, and he was going through that same hurt. We were angry and confused, and so was coach. He was going through the same grieving process.”

The team gathered at Starsia’s house the next night, and Barrow’s father, George, made the drive down to be with them. A week later, the team met for Barrow’s funeral in New York.

“It was a rough week for everyone, trying to deal with it on their own and being with their families,” Timms said. “There was a lot of giving and taking and pulling in different directions. Dom and the coaches did a good job of keeping us together and also at the same time giving guys their space. There’s obviously no book for how to handle those situations, and it was probably handled as best as they could.”

It was just the start of a cathartic process. A program so accustomed to success - Virginia is making its 11th final four appearance in the past 16 years and has three national titles since 1999 - was struck with an incomprehensible turn no one was fully prepared for.

They found their answers in each other.

The Cavaliers returned in the spring as dialed in as nearly any other team Starsia coached, and Virginia bolted to a 12-0 start. Despite a pair of April stumbles, the Cavaliers earned the tournament’s No. 1 seed.

Throughout, there was a willingness to exert whatever was required to make the season a success.

“It was something that no one should have to go through at all, and it makes you grow up a lot,” senior attackman Danny Glading said. “People realize how precious the opportunity we have is. We can’t take any day for granted. We focused on work and being grateful for the opportunity we have.”

Barrow, though, was never far from anyone’s thoughts. When some veteran players wanted to honor their late friend on their warmup shirts, Starsia approved. So Barrow’s name went on the sleeve. A popular phrase within the team - “Just the boys,” something Barrow and others would say during practice - went on the back.

It is a fitting tribute, not just to Barrow but to the Cavaliers’ collective resilience. After all, they needed to rely on each other to move on and flourish in the past six months.

“Everyone was pitching in trying to help,” Starsia said. “I’m not trying to be melodramatic, but we just had a bunch of kids trying [to deal with things] in ways college kids aren’t generally asked to do.”

‘In all his glory’

In the first quarter of Virginia’s semifinal loss to Syracuse almost exactly a year ago, Barrow shredded the Orange defense, twisting around five defenders before firing a shot past goalie John Galloway.

It was a microcosm of Barrow’s abilities in one short clip. The remarkable quickness stood out, but so too did his awareness of the commotion around him and just the hint of swagger after uncorking the unexpected.

“There’s a picture from after that goal of him looking up to the crowd with his hands outreached as if to say, ‘What else do you want do you want me to do?’ ” Pomper said. “A lot of guys have [that photo] of Will right after that goal in all his glory. He took on the whole Syracuse defense, and they couldn’t catch him.”

It’s one of several images Pomper keeps around the house. Another is a glimpse of the sideline, the two Long Island natives with their arms around each other. Barrow was the guy with the wide smile, a man with an eagerness to compete, the player so many teammates looked up to.

“He was a real gregarious guy that was a real kind of people person,” Starsia said. “He happened to be a tremendous athlete, but that wasn’t what stood out. He was someone who loved being around the team and had an infectious personality.”

That wasn’t lost on his old teammates. Barrow’s name doesn’t always come up - his influence more understood and unspoken than anything else.

But when games approach, it’s a little different. The eye black comes out, the Sharpie cap pops off and the T-shirts go on.

And the memories come back again.

“The kid was amazing,” Pomper said. “We’re completely honoring him with the way we’re playing.”

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