- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2011

BALTIMORE — Virginia’s personnel changed dramatically as its uneven lacrosse season unfolded.

Its results, though, got even better.

While the seventh-seeded Cavaliers (12-5) don’t enter Monday’s title game at M&T Bank Stadium with a typically gaudy record, they possess a refurbished attitude to pair with their improved play over the last month

“I think it’s really defined our team,” midfielder Rob Emery said. “We really changed our style of play. Before, we were coming off the top and there was a lot of [isolation] and midfield dodges. Now, it’s ball movement. It’s opened up a whole new set of opportunities and we’ve really been capitalizing on them.”

Whether Virginia’s transformation from scuffling would-be contender to a thriving bunch a victory away from its fourth title since 1999 is a direct result of the dismissal of midfielder Shamel Bratton and suspension of midfielder Rhamel Bratton is debatable.

What isn’t is the Cavaliers, who shot less than 31 percent while plodding to an 8-5 start, have improved to nearly 40 percent since the banishment of the brothers Bratton.

Perhaps more curious is despite favoring a slower place, the Cavaliers have rattled off at least 13 goals in each of their NCAA tournament games.

“To be honest, we’re trying to figure that out, also,” midfielder John Haldy said.

The obvious catalyst is Virginia attackman Steele Stanwick, whose 20 points are five shy of the NCAA tournament record. Stanwick dealt with a nagging foot injury throughout the regular season, sitting only once in an attempt to nurse the ailment.

Stanwick said he is physically getting closer to where he would like. But one unquestioned effect from the Brattons’ departure is the junior is all but assured of touching the ball at least once on any settled possession.

“We are clearly so much more as a group than we are as the sum of our parts right now, at both ends of the field,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “Offensively, what this team has done is it has come to grips with who we are. Offensively, they’re willing to share the ball and move things and they’re willing to move it through Steele’s stick.”

Or, as Maryland coach John Tillman succinctly put it: “When they made the changes, everything runs through him, and why not?”

Indeed, Stanwick either scored or assisted on half of Virginia’s postseason goals to date. Meanwhile, his improvement helped the likes of Matt White (who came out of the midfield Saturday), midfielder Mark Cockerton and attackman Nick O’Reilly.

Virginia’s improvement wasn’t limited to offense. The Cavaliers settled into an increasingly confounding zone defense after defenseman Matt Lovejoy was injured in early April, gradually growing comfortable in a scheme diametrically opposed to the aggressive man-to-man approach Starsia historically espoused.

The more dramatic changes, though, remain on offense, where Virginia is scoring as it traditionally does but doing so in unexpected ways. And the Cavaliers should have some extra help Monday; Starsia said midfielder Colin Briggs, who was held out of Saturday’s victory for a team matter, will be available to play.

“I think we’re all buying in to the same offensive philosophy,” Stanwick said. “Even as a team, everyone’s buying into the team concepts.”

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