- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. | The inexplicable hit the Virginia lacrosse team late in the regular season - it simply could not score.

The Cavaliers scored three goals in a half against Duke. Then five goals in three quarters against lowly Dartmouth. And, finally, five goals in a humbling ACC tournament loss to Duke.

It was a startling turn for a team with the look of a national title contender for nearly two months. Maybe Virginia wasn’t a sure thing, but a team with three 25-goal scorers back from a year earlier was dealing with something no one anticipated: a plummeting offense.

“Three weeks to a month ago, we had three games where we weren’t scoring that much, and we’re like, ‘What’s going on? Look at all the guys we have,’ ” attackman Garrett Billings said. “We were just trying to figure out what the problem is. I don’t even know what fixed it, but I’m glad it’s fixed.”

Indeed, the top-seeded Cavaliers (15-2) ripped through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, rolling up 37 goals to earn a semifinal date Saturday with fifth-seeded Cornell (12-3) at Gillette Stadium.

It even has invited comparisons - perhaps a bit over-the-top - to Virginia’s unbeaten national title team in 2006.

Certainly, some of the faces are familiar. Senior attackmen Danny Glading and Billings played prominent roles on the Cavaliers’ last national champion squad, which averaged 15.8 goals. But the quality of play was not nearly as steady this season.

Yet there are two demonstrable differences in Virginia in the past two weeks. The Cavaliers, who had a penchant for rushing things throughout the year, veered toward a more patient approach designed to uncover the vulnerability in an opponent.

To that end, Virginia juggled its midfield lines to ensure sophomore Shamel Bratton’s talents - and ability to draw a pole - were maximized. The ploy worked especially well early in the 19-8 quarterfinal rout of Johns Hopkins when Rhamel Bratton - Shamel’s twin - broke down a short stick defender for two of the Cavaliers’ first three goals.

“That is the kind of lacrosse we’ve strived to play all year,” Glading said. “In 2006, we just played unselfishly and moved the ball, and it didn’t matter who was at the end of the play. We were able to score a lot of goals. I don’t think we were at that level early this year. It never felt like we were playing that way. It wasn’t coming as easy as it was in 2006.”

That’s unsurprising, if only because the 2006 team was perhaps the sport’s best in the past decade. Those Cavaliers featured Matt Ward - winner of the Tewaaraton Trophy, awarded to the country’s top player - two lethal senior midfielders (Kyle Dixon and Matt Poskay) who efficiently complemented each other as well as a posse of underclassmen.

Plus, that team was rarely challenged, while Virginia squeaked out a series of close victories against top-10 opponents this year.

“Danny Glading was the third attackman on that team; I think that’s enough right there,” said associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale, Virginia’s offensive coordinator. “We’re playing well and we’re playing at the top of our game like that team was, but that team could run by you at every spot but one.”

Van Arsdale said he believes the 2003 team - which suffered back-to-back losses at midseason but rode a surging first midfield to a national title - provides a better comparison to this season. Regardless, no one will dispute that the Cavaliers are sharper now than at any other time this spring.

And while the explanations are still hard to pin down - maybe the losses to Duke stung especially hard, maybe a team that reached the semifinals a year ago just wanted the postseason to begin - Virginia evoked favorable memories with its unexpectedly dominant turn the past two weeks.

“It didn’t feel like we had that at all at any point this year,” head coach Dom Starsia said. “All the sudden we’re hitting at a faster clip right now. The teams are so different, and it happens to be that the 2006 team was a Virginia team, so I guess the comparisons are a little inevitable.”


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