Tuesday, May 30, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — The Virginia men’s lacrosse team had emphatic answers to every challenge presented this season. In the second half of yesterday’s national championship game, the Cavaliers delivered one final overwhelming reply.

The top-seeded Cavaliers capitalized on a second-half spurt to upend Massachusetts 15-7 before a title game-record 47,062 at Lincoln Financial Field, completing the first 17-0 season in Division I history and cementing their place among the greatest teams in the sport’s history.

“To go 17-0 is something I don’t think anybody expected to do,” said attackman Matt Ward, the tournament’s most outstanding player. “Once we got rolling this season, we kind of wanted to do that as well. To go 17-0 is an amazing accomplishment.”

Ward scored five goals to give him a record 16 for the tournament, one more than Syracuse’s Gary Gait in 1990. Matt Poskay scored a career-high five times in his final game. And defenseman Michael Culver held Sean Morris to two assists, depriving the Minutemen (13-5) of their offensive star.

It was an especially sweet victory for those three, as well as the rest of the Cavaliers’ senior class, who combined for 12 of the team’s first 13 goals while securing a championship to bookend the one they won as freshmen in 2003. Since then, Virginia had endured a 5-8 season in 2004 and an overtime loss in last year’s semifinals before regaining its place atop the sport.

“Hopefully, this is the beginning of a legacy like this for Virginia lacrosse,” Culver said. “I hope it’s the first of many for these guys. I talked to a lot of first-year guys and said, ‘This is the start of something. Let’s not have this be the end of something.’ ”

The Cavaliers squandered a 4-1 lead and allowed Massachusetts to pull within 7-6 with 7:59 left in the third quarter. Minutemen defenseman Jack Reid committed a slashing penalty on the faceoff, and Poskay zipped in a goal past goalie Doc Schneider (17 saves).

Senior midfielder Kyle Dixon followed with a goal less than a minute later, and Poskay deposited Ben Rubeor’s slick feed from behind the cage with 5:45 left in the quarter to make it 10-6.

“The big boys — Dixon, Poskay, Ward — all stepped up and made plays in the third quarter when it had to happen,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “That’s what pulled it together for us.”

Virginia scored the next three goals, turning the game into the rout many expected. This was routine stuff for the Cavaliers, who won all but two games by at least five goals.

“It was an unspoken bond between the senior kids where we just had the confidence to look each other in the eye and know when a team was making a run on us, we needed to stop that and go on a run of our own,” Ward said. “I think that was kind of a characteristic of this team all year.”

The comparisons of Virginia to legendary juggernauts began more than a month ago, and the Cavaliers now have the credentials to be part of the discussion after becoming the 13th unbeaten team to win the tournament.

They did so with a flashy offense that always made the extra pass and exhibited pinpoint shooting skills, as well as a boisterous defense that helped the Cavaliers win by an average of 8.2 goals.

“There’s a lot of talk about [how Johns] Hopkins was the greatest team to ever play with their undefeated season [in 2005], but they had a lot of overtime games and one-goal games,” Dixon said. “We didn’t have a game within two goals in the playoffs. If you’re going to consider Hopkins that team, I think you have to put us right up there.”

There will be plenty of time for reflection now that the Cavaliers belong to history. Whether they would beat 1976 Cornell, 1990 Syracuse or 1998 Princeton could provoke lively debate for some time.

“The whole thing snuck up on us a little bit, but for us to come into the tournament and win out in kind of the way we were sort of expected to is a very special moment for our program,” Starsia said. “It’s definitely on a very short list of the top teams in Virginia lacrosse history.”

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