Trying Season Ends Early for Men's Lacrosse

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Nick O'Reilly

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Nick O'Reilly
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

April 29, 2013

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The calendar still shows April, and yet the season is over for the UVa men's lacrosse team. Forgive Dom Starsia and his players if they feel out of sorts. For only the second time in Starsia's 21 seasons as their head coach, the Cavaliers will be spectators when the NCAA tournament begins in May.

"It's gonna be strange to wake up tomorrow and not be getting ready for practice," Starsia said Sunday afternoon at Kenan Stadium, where host North Carolina defeated Virginia 16-13 in the ACC championship game.

"It's gonna sting a little bit," said junior defenseman Scott McWilliams, who helped the Cavaliers win the NCAA title in 2011. "But mainly I feel bad that we couldn't get this done for the seniors, because there was never a lack of effort this season."

A win over second-seeded UNC would have given the fourth-seeded Cavaliers the .500-or-better record required for consideration for the NCAAs, and they battled from start to finish Sunday. But Virginia (7-8), which averaged 13.5 goals in its final four games this season, could not match the firepower of the Tar Heels (12-3), who are ranked No. 1 in the USILA coaches' poll. And so for the first time since 2004 the Wahoos will sit out the NCAA tourney.

"It's always frustrating when a season ends and you don't win," senior midfielder Matt White said after his final game for UVa. "I think we left a lot of good lacrosse out there, and it's a bummer."

On an afternoon when the `Hoos got historic performances from White (career-high seven goals) and junior attackman Nick O'Reilly (career-high seven assists), they still trailed for the final 34 minutes, 7 seconds Sunday.

"At the end of the day, we just weren't quite good enough, frankly," said Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at Virginia. "But we worked hard trying to be, and it just didn't happen for us today."

In 2004, less than a year after they won the NCAA championship, the Cavaliers finished 5-8. That team, though, "had other issues that made the lacrosse-playing piece of it more complicated," Starsia said early this month. He had no complaints about the work ethic and commitment of his 2013 group.

"I told the team at the end that I was really proud of the effort overall," Starsia said. "This one hurts for the obvious reasons. I really felt like we had become a pretty good lacrosse team here by the end of the season, and I had hoped that they were going to get some satisfaction and be able to continue to play.

"Personally I wasn't obsessed about the playoff piece of it. It was more just being able to continue to play and keep these guys together. I thought they really deserved that.

"I did tell them in the locker room that I hope that future teams of ours distinguish themselves the way that this team did. That they play with the same kind of dignity and work the same way, and the other things will take care of themselves."

With their captain, All-America midfielder Chris LaPierre, sidelined by a knee injury, the Cavaliers dropped six straight games, beginning with a 12-11 loss to Cornell on March 9. But after falling 19-16 to its nemesis, Duke, on April 12, Virginia closed the regular season with a 12-7 win over Bellarmine and then pounded top-seeded Maryland 13-6 in the ACC semifinals Friday night.

"Earlier in the year we could have packed our bags," Starsia said. "We never did. We just continued to fight, and these last couple of weeks, in particular, I thought we showed the effects of continuing to work hard, and I thought we got better in the last couple of weeks. And to be at this point on the last day and have a shot at this thing, there was a lot to be proud of there.

"Carolina was just a little slicker in the unsettled game, converted a little bit more easily and comes out on top ... We're all big boys and we all keep score, but this team never gave in, always played hard, and I hope in the future some of my teams to be will follow the example of this group."

The ACC title was the first for the Tar Heels since 1996. Senior attackman Marcus Holman, who had five assists Sunday to become UNC's all-time leading scorer (207 points), was named the tournament's MVP.

In a game played in intermittent rain, five Carolina players scored at least two goals apiece Sunday, including faceoff specialist R.G. Keenan. When these teams met in the regular season at Klöckner Stadium, Keenan won only 5 of 16 draws in UNC's 10-7 victory over UVa. He won 18 of 32 in the rematch, and his goals came on fast breaks started by his clean wins at the faceoff X.

Virginia had other problems Sunday. The `Hoos were 0 for 5 on extra-man opportunities. The Heels, by contrast, were 3 for 4.

"I didn't think they were doing anything special on man-down [defense]," Starsia said. "I thought we got pretty good chances. We just didn't sink the shots, as much as anything else. Those kind of things make a difference, certainly."

After O'Reilly passed to sophomore middie Ryan Tucker for a goal with 30 seconds left in the second quarter, UVa led 5-3. But the Heels struck back with two seconds to play in the period to pull to 5-4. Then, with four seconds left in the opening half, UNC scored to stretch its lead to 10-7.

For the `Hoos, such breakdowns, if hard to explain, were all too familiar. Fifteen times this season UVa allowed a goal in the final 16 seconds of a quarter.

"It's kind of uncanny," Starsia said. "I don't know what the answer to that is, exactly ... Sometimes those kind of things happen. It seemed like we gave up more than our fair share this year."

In only one quarter did the Heels outscore UVa on Sunday -- the second -- but that period proved pivotal.

"The second quarter, I thought the faceoff piece of it just became problematic," Starsia said. "It felt like we never had the ball in the second quarter. That was the big thing ... It felt like we could get opportunities and get pretty good chances when we had the ball. In the second quarter it just wasn't happening. In the third quarter we kind of got back into it a little bit, started to win some faceoffs and win some ground-ball battles back and make some things happen."

O'Reilly said: "That's one thing that we do take pride in, that we have been fighting to the end all season long. Nothing changed today. We did keep fighting. We knew what was at stake."

Four Cavaliers made the all-tournament team: White, O'Reilly, junior attackman Mark Cockerton and senior defenseman Harry Prevas.

White's seven goals Sunday tied the ACC tournament single-game mark, and he set records for goals scored (10) and total points (13) in the four-team tourney. O'Reilly sets ACC tournament records for assists in one game and assists in two games (nine).

O'Reilly assisted on three of White's goals, including the final one, which pulled UVa to 14-12 with 8:45 left. Sophomore Tyler German won the ensuing faceoff for Virginia, but UNC goalie Kieran Burke stopped a shot by graduate student Charlie Streep, and then Davey Emala scored at the other end to make it 15-12.

In the second half, the Cavaliers outshot the Tar Heels 29-17, but the teams were even in the most important stat, goals scored, with six apiece. "I thought we had some layups we didn't convert," Starsia said.

The final goal of 2013 for UVa came from Cockerton and gave him a hat trick for the fifth straight game. He finished with the season with 49 goals, the fourth-most in the program's history.

Cockerton is among the starters who'll be back for Virginia in 2014. The Cavaliers also will get a boost from five players who redshirted this season because of injuries, most notably LaPierre. It's unclear if O'Reilly, who was suspended from the team last season for violating team rules, will return next year, but either way the `Hoos should have the pieces to rejoin the nation's elite.

"These things, they just happen," Starsia said. "You gotta live with them, you gotta work through it, and you gotta pick up the pieces and get going."

McWilliams said: "Everyone's just going to have to remember this feeling over the summer, and remember the sting that we get from this game and work a little bit harder each and every day we get a chance, so we can just keep improving every day and take no steps backwards."

His returning players will learn from this humbling experience, Starsia acknowledged Sunday.

Still, he said, "I would prefer to be playing. I'd prefer to have won today and continue to play and learn from that example. But we'll use this one as best we can. We got a lot of good players in that locker room, a lot of kids with a lot of pride, and we will be back."