- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

BALTIMORE — A year after simply trying to make it to the next day, the Virginia lacrosse program reached the sport’s summit with Monday’s 9-7 national title game defeat of Maryland.

And the thing is, the Cavaliers could soon return again, aided indirectly by some of this season’s tribulations.

Virginia’s well-timed resurgence earned the program its fourth national title under Hall of Fame coach Dom Starsia and at last provided a chance to exhale for a group that grew accustomed to bracing itself for body blows despite a plethora of talent.

The recent history is well known. The program was rocked in May 2010 when George Huguely, then a senior midfielder, was charged with murdering women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love. The scrutiny was more significant this season, and the Cavaliers dealt with suspensions of stars and a midseason slide.

The on-field microscope zeroed in specifically on a vaunted senior class familiar only with flameouts in the semifinals, at least until this weekend.

“This program’s been through a lot the past few years — tragedies, the ups and downs,” goalie Adam Ghitelman said. “You have to hand it to our leader, coach Starsia, and our coaches and staff and administrators for keeping us together and allowing us to continue doing this.”

The Cavaliers (13-5) made it to end of their first championship season since 2006 without two of their high-profile names. Brothers Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, stalwarts in the midfield for more than three years, were not on the sideline for the final four. Shamel Bratton was dismissed from the team in April, while Rhamel Bratton was indefinitely suspended and did not play in Virginia’s last five games.

Whether removing two possible All-Americans from the roster was ultimately beneficial (even with the final outcome) is arguable. With a shallower pool of midfielders, Virginia increased the degree of difficulty for its postseason run.

The Cavaliers’ offensive reinvention, though, was undeniable. So, too, was Virginia’s quirky head start on 2012. In need of midfielders, Virginia played sophomore Matt White and freshman Mark Cockerton away from their traditional roles as attackmen. Sophomore Nick O’Reilly, a tertiary piece at best for most of the season, became a valuable off-ball option as the third attackman.

Cockerton recorded multi-point games in both final four contests after managing just one goal in Virginia’s previous 10 games. White had 12 of his 27 points during the Cavaliers’ five-game winning streak to end the season. And O’Reilly, who didn’t play in the victory over Bucknell in the first round, had 10 of his 21 points this year in the last three games.

“You become a young team at the offensive end, and they’ve gotten great experience and confidence that we expected them to,” associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale said. ” Quite honestly, you thought as sophomores, guys like White and O’Reilly would have big years. … You’ve seen a lot of those sophomores grow up, and it made a big difference.”

It could pay off even more next spring. Of the 22 Cavaliers who logged time in the title game, just five were seniors.

Defenseman Bray Maphrus was a crucial leader and adapted with aplomb to Virginia’s midseason switch to a zone scheme. Ghitelman started 62 games and ranks second in school history with 586 saves. Two of the three primary members of its faceoff committee (Garett Ince and Brian McDermott) will be gone. Midfielder John Haldy (15 points) is the lone offensive piece to replace.

The Cavaliers’ primary story line entering next season will be their attempt to defend a title rather than themselves. Between now and February and probably beyond, though, will be opportunities to reflect upon Virginia’s ability to survive and eventually prosper in an atypical championship season.

“This group just had a perseverance about it that was a little unusual,” Starsia said. “At the end of the day, right now the thing is so unbelievable that I think this is clearly one that is and will be especially gratifying to look back on.”

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