- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2011

BALTIMORE — Virginia’s path to a national championship was neither smooth nor orthodox nor stylistically representative of one of lacrosse’s most consistent programs.

It won’t stop the Cavaliers from savoring it for a long time.

Virginia completed its march to a fifth NCAA tournament crown Monday, outlasting Maryland 9-7 on a scorching 96 degree afternoon to collect its first title in five years.

Colin Briggs scored five goals as the seventh-seeded Cavaliers (13-5) finally arrived at a destination so many believed they would back in February - and a peak virtually no one thought it could reach just a month ago.

“To go out like this, it’s more than I can ask for,” defenseman Bray Malphrus said. “These past three weeks, I don’t want to sound cliche, but it’s been somewhat magical.”

Matt White scored three goals, and Nick O’Reilly added a goal and four assists before 35,661 at M&T Bank Stadium as Virginia became the lowest-seeded team to win a championship in the tournament’s 41-season history.

The Cavaliers also set a record for most losses by a champion.

The Cavaliers’ setbacks and seed, though, won’t be remembered nearly as long as the trophy taken back to Charlottesville on Monday night.

It was a championship borne of an extreme makeover on both ends of the field.

Virginia, long known as a bastion for aggressive, man-to-man defense, acknowledged at midseason that it could not hope to keep up with foes once defenseman Matt Lovejoy was lost with a shoulder injury in early April.

The adjustment to a zone defense came slowly, but eventually the Cavaliers adapted. And against Maryland, Virginia played almost exclusively zone in the final and held Maryland stars Joe Cummings and Ryan Young to a point apiece.

The offensive scheme was substantially retrofitted after midfielders Shamel Bratton (dismissal) and Rhamel Bratton (suspension) were removed in late April.

Attackman Steele Stanwick, already the ACC player of the year, became even more valuable in the postseason, with Chris Bocklet his primary target.

That pair combined for just a point against the Terps (13-5), and yet still the Cavaliers hauled home a championship.

“It’s been the most peculiar season I’ve ever been involved in,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “It may be that I would have said that I would have expected nothing less.”

In some ways, Monday was a microcosm of Virginia’s season - hardly perfect, but ultimately every bit as fulfilling as the three other titles the Cavaliers earned since 1999.

Virginia withstood stout saves from Maryland goalie Niko Amato, who made five of his eight stops in the first quarter. A 3-2 deficit turned into a 6-3 edge early in the third quarter, putting Virginia on the verge of a blowout.

The spunky Terps (13-5), who got a goal from Grant Catalino in the third quarter and then transition scores from Brian Farrell and Young early in the fourth to pull even and perhaps set the table for a thrilling finish.

The Cavaliers would have none of it, preventing Maryland from enjoying the long possessions that became its calling card in the postseason.

The Terps, which had less than four minutes of possession in the fourth quarter, didn’t touch the ball in the brief time it was tied. Virginia won the faceoff, and White scored with 10:03 to go off an O’Reilly feed to go up 7-6.

The Cavaliers then added two more goals, with Briggs - playing two days after serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules - icing it with 1:50 remaining to set off a sideline celebration.

“I would be hesitant to begin to describe to you that there was a master plan in place that somehow made this happen,” Starsia said. “I think we took this in very small pieces throughout the season.”

What started with a feel-good rout of Penn to close the regular season and continued with an overtime escape of Bucknell eventually turned in to something greater. The reinvented Cavaliers turned into the champions it was assumed they could become after three straight short-circuited semifinal appearances.

The on-field methods didn’t look like the sort of blueprint Virginia would follow.

Its results, though, are plenty familiar for a program accustomed to lacrosse’s grandest stage, even if a title didn’t seem all that likely as Virginia meandered through a competitive wilderness when it absorbed four losses in five games in the middle of the season.

“I don’t know,” Stanwick said when asked if he saw this outcome coming more than a month ago. “Probably not, to be honest. I always had faith in this team, but I don’t know if I thought this would be the end result. It just shows what this team is all about.”

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