- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The end of Virginia’s regular-season finale brought relief and a reunion. The Cavaliers routed Penn to move past a miserable month, and coach Dom Starsia visited on the field with ex-assistant and Penn coach Mike Murphy along with their respective families.

One of the defining personalities of this year’s team soon joined them. Defenseman Bray Malphrus, as usual, was hard to miss.

“Bray comes over and he’s got a tank top on with the mohawk and the eye black all over his face,” Starsia said. “He couldn’t have been nicer to the kids, but he was as scary-looking as could be. I do think he’s just one of those characters or people you’re not going to forget easily.”

Malphrus stands out in part because of a look he’s adopted from San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson. But perhaps no member of the seventh-seeded Cavaliers (11-5) insisted the team stay the course through a turbulent spring quite like the Georgetown Prep product whose team will meet sixth-seeded Denver in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals in Baltimore.

It’s the fourth final four appearance for Malphrus, who acknowledged he was inconsolable earlier in his career when the Cavaliers lost in the semifinals. Yet a large part of what’s made him so valuable to this year’s team is his maturation during his career.

“You start to realize it’s less and less about winning and losing, and more about what we’re doing to develop 40 kids,” Malphrus said. “Sure, will winning a national championship have a lasting impression? No doubt. But if you can somehow produce a young man of solid moral standing, that’ll have a more lasting impact than him winning a championship. That’s an isolated incident.”

Malphrus‘ approach was particularly vital considering the tumult Virginia faced in the past 13 months. The program was scrutinized last May when then-senior George Huguely was charged with murdering women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love.

Malphrus helped craft and enforce a stricter standard of behavior for the Cavaliers, including a more rigid alcohol policy. But after a 19-10 loss at Duke on April 22 dropped Virginia to 8-5, the team bused back to Charlottesville and arrived deep in the night.

Malphrus and midfielder John Haldy, roommates for much of their careers, stayed up until the morning, dissecting how to salvage a season seemingly derailed despite their best efforts to create change. It was a brutal discussion.

“Are we failing as captains? Are we doing something wrong here?” Malphrus recalled saying. “We feel personally responsible for the program, and the program is failing. What are we doing wrong? We’ve asked a lot of kids to make huge sacrifices, unlike previous teams. Is this all for nothing?”

Malphrus conceded some doubts creeped in. Starsia implored him to remain devoted to his principles. And so the change the next week involved taking actual dye to his hair rather than figurative dynamite to a season’s worth of work.

He gave himself a mohawk, leaving it to an athletic trainer to dye it black. Malphrus dyed his beard, then slathered eye black over much of his face. All along, he insisted to teammates their postseason started a game early.

“He has a very intense outlook,” defenseman Chris Clements said. “He keeps us focused in moments when you can get unfocused and let yourself get away from the task at hand. He reels everyone in and says what everyone’s thinking but won’t say.”

Intriguingly, such candor wasn’t always an asset.

“He would admit that when he first got here, he didn’t deal well with other people,” Haldy said. “If someone had a different view than himself, he wouldn’t like you too much. This year, he’s really grown into someone who is more understanding of other people and other viewpoints. He’s more apt to listen to other people’s perspective. There are definitely times he gets a little intense. He gets pretty heated, which is fine. You need that from one of your vocal leaders.”

Starsia considered part of his job with Malphrus was “to soften his edges a little bit,” and both admit it occurred to a degree. But Starsia still sees Malphrus as one of the more dominant personalities to lead one of his teams, comparing this season to the manner Tucker Radebaugh was a driving force behind the Cavaliers’ 1999 national champs.

Malphrus might debate whether his impact is quite so profound, taking issue with the suggestions he willed Virginia into the final four.

“Can I affect change on another individual?” Malphrus asked. “You’d be remiss if you think you can change people somehow. I don’t have religious powers here. That would be god-like to change people. We’ve changed the culture a little bit and spent a lot of time emphasizing what it means to be a student-athlete.”

The payoff of the changes came Saturday, when Malphrus helped shut down Cornell star Rob Pannell to send the Cavaliers back to the final four. Nonetheless, Starsia said Malphrus‘ influence is far more visible on a daily basis around the team.

“He sets an example that is really hard to ignore,” Starsia said. “You can decide he’s crazy and that you’re not going to do it, but his work ethic is completely uncompromising.”

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