Feb. 15, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For the UVa men's lacrosse team, there was much to like about its season-opening win over Loyola in Baltimore last weekend. Still, the Cavaliers were far from flawless in their 13-12 victory.
Virginia's starting attackmen -- senior Owen Van Arsdale, junior James Pannell and sophomore Ryan Lukacovic -- combined for only three goals against the Greyhounds. Lukacovic scored two and Van Arsdale had one. Pannell missed all nine shots he took.
"I've always felt like you have to have good attack scoring if you're going to be a good offensive team," UVa coach Dom Starsia said. "It's like having big men in basketball. You have to score close to the basket. If you live and die with midfield shooting, you live and die with midfield shooting. It kind of comes and goes a little bit. And so for us to be the offensive team we want to be, we need our attack to step up."
The group came alive Saturday in the Wahoos' second game. Pannell, Lukacovic and Van Arsdale scored two goals apiece on a frigid, blustery night at Klöckner Stadium to help No. 9 Virginia defeat No. 16 Drexel 14-10 before a hardy crowd of 1,490. Pannell and Lukacovic added two assists apiece.
"This is more what I would have expected," Starsia said. "We're capable of being balanced. I thought you saw a little bit more of that today, and hopefully we continue to build on that."
Pannell scored 39 goals last season -- second only to Mark Cockerton on the team -- and was an honorable-mention All-American. So for Pannell to be shut out, as he was against Loyola on Feb. 7, was an uncommon occurrence.
"I definitely should have buried some shots," Pannell said Saturday, "but we still got that win, and everybody else was scoring. So I didn't really need to that day."
His breakthrough came with 26 seconds left in the first half Saturday. The goal pushed Virginia's lead to 8-6 and elicited a fist-pump from Pannell.
"I was definitely jacked up," he said. "Once you get that first one out of the way, it's much easier from then on."
The Cavaliers are coming off a season in which they finished 10-6 after losing to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA tournament's first round. Virginia's starting attack in 2014 consisted of Van Arsdale, Pannell and Cockerton, who was a senior.
Lukacovic backed up Van Arsdale at X, the position behind the goal from which one of the attackmen, essentially the unit's quarterback, operates.
"It was good for me, to be behind guys like Mark Cockerton and Owen and guys that have been around, veterans that really know what they're doing," Lukacovic said Saturday. "They helped me adapt to the game here at Virginia. Being behind Owen and letting him show me the way and kind of teach me where to look, how to control the ball, really helped me, and now I've been able to accept that role."
The left-handed Van Arsdale totaled 11 goals and a team-high 27 assists last season, but he's not an elite dodger, and he's more comfortable on the wing, his position this season.
"Owen's in a much better place this year than he was a year ago," Starsia said.
Lukacovic, who had 10 goals and eight assists as a freshman, has taken over at X, the position at which he starred for Chaminade High on Long Island, N.Y. The coaching staff did not believe Lukacovic was ready to handle that role full time in 2014, but he figured prominently in its plans for this season.
In the fall, Inside Lacrosse singled out UVa midfielder Zed Williams as one of the sophomores to watch in the college game, and "that's all perfectly fine," Starsia said in October. "But to me the guy on our team that I think will dictate a lot of the level that we're able to play at offensively is Lukacovic. I think he's ready for this, but he's going to have demonstrate it, because we're going to put a lot of weight on his shoulders. If he has a big year, I think we're going to be pretty good offensively."
Pannell, also from Long Island, played with Lukacovic on all-star teams. "We've always had a connection where he's always known where I've been on the field, and it's just been continuing this season," Pannell said. "It's great playing with him."
After two games, Lukacovic leads the `Hoos with eight points, on four goals and four assists. No. 5 can do more, Starsia believes.
On a team that starts only three seniors -- Van Arsdale, midfielder Ryan Tucker and defenseman Davi Sacco -- Lukacovic is "one of the young guys [whose] play has been little bit inconsistent," Starsia said. "It's been pretty good, but I think he can still play a much cleaner game, and I think that's still out there for him, so I expect him to continue to improve as we go on here."
The perils of February lacrosse were on full display Saturday night at Klöckner. Snow began to fall late in the first half, and swirling winds created a snow-globe effect over the field.
A thin layer of snow soon covered the field, and the start of the second half was delayed until the lines on the field to be cleared by blowers. Instead of the customary white ball, a yellow one was used in the second half to help players (and officials) spot it easier.
"It felt very old school," said Starsia, a former player and coach at Brown. "For somebody who spent 22 years in Rhode Island coaching, I probably ran into this a little bit more up there than I have down here."
Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at Virginia, did not want his players to use the weather as an excuse.
"At halftime I told them, `It's a beautiful day. It's our kind of day, and we just gotta be all over it,' " he said. "When conditions deteriorate like this, it becomes a little bit more of a game of effort and desire. I thought that we came out with some good energy in the second half, carried the play to them, and probably won the game in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter."
The `Hoos scored the first three goals of the second half to take control. Virginia built its lead to 14-8 in the final period before the Dragons (0-1) rallied. Tucker finished with two goals and two assists for the Cavaliers, and another senior middie, Tyler German, contributed two goals.
Starsia has become accustomed to tight games with Drexel, and so he was relieved to see his team with a significant lead throughout the fourth quarter.
"These one-goal games, they tear a page off of me," Starsia said, smiling.
Virginia travels to Rutgers (1-1) for a 1 p.m. game Saturday. Then comes UVa's annual showdown with Syracuse. In a game ESPNU will broadcast, the 'Hoos face the Orange on March 1, at noon at the Carrier Dome.
The Cavaliers' next home game is March 7 against Cornell, 1 p.m. at Klöckner.
Much work remains for the 'Hoos. In the opener, Loyola won 19 of 28 faceoffs and picked up 38 groundballs, 11 more than UVa.
"Our team prides itself on groundballs," Lukacovic said Saturday, "and we struggled with that last week."
The Dragons finished with 39 groundballs, to 36 for Virginia, but that was partly a result of their success on faceoffs. Drexel won 17 of 28 draws.
"When the faceoffs go the other way significantly, the groundball stats are skewed a little bit," Starsia said. "I thought our effort on the groundballs was much better, but at the same time we gotta get better yet. Any number of [the Dragons'] goals in the second half were generally second chances in the defensive end. We had shots at groundballs but we didn't pick `em up, and they wound up turning them into scoring opportunities."
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, German eluded Drexel players behind the UVa goal, then flung the ball high toward the opposite end of the field. So ended a game the `Hoos won't soon forget.
"Some crazy conditions, but it was definitely a lot of fun," Pannell said. "I'd much rather be playing than watching that one, for sure. It was pretty chilly out there at times."
Lukacovic said: "Never played in anything like this. It was a fun atmosphere. It might have been rough in the stands, but it was a lot of fun on the field."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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