Feb. 28, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Mark Cockerton's performance at the NCAA men's lacrosse Final Four in 2011 was only a prelude, his teammates and coaches at UVa believed, and there was little reason to think otherwise.
Cockerton, then a freshman, had three goals and an assist in Virginia's rout of Denver in the seminals. Two days later, he contributed two assists to help UVa defeat Maryland for the NCAA title.
"I would certainly like to think that people only just saw the tip of iceberg last spring on the final weekend," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said in September 2011.
Alas, reality did not match expectations in 2012, when Cockerton, who's from Oshawa, Ontario, played more midfield than attack. In practice, his shots continued to find the back of the net. In games, however, he was hardly a factor over the last half of the season.
Of the 16 goals Cockerton scored as a sophomore, 14 came in Virginia's first eight games. In the final eight games he had two goals and one assist.
"I would tell you that it's probably as extraordinary that he struggled to score last year as what he's doing right now," Starsia said Tuesday night after Cockerton rang up six goals in UVa's 18-11 win over Mount St. Mary's at the University Hall Turf Field.
"I would have expected more of this than that."
Even so, Starsia said, he saw signs during practice last fall that Cockerton, whom Inside Lacrosse ranked No. 3 among the recruits who graduated from high school in 2010, might be headed toward a breakthrough year.
"From early in the fall, he just seemed like a different guy," Starsia said. "Just much more determined and much more comfortable."
Cockerton, now a full-time starter at attack, his natural position, sat out the Feb. 16 opener against Drexel because of a team matter. In his 2013 debut, he scored a career-high six goals Feb. 19 in an 18-4 rout of VMI at Klöckner Stadium.
Four days later, Cockerton totaled five goals in UVa's 13-7 win at Stony Brook. Three days later, on a miserably wet night against Mount St. Mary's, the 5-10, 185-pound left-hander equaled his career high in goals and recorded his first assist of the season in Virginia's 18-11 victory.
With 17 goals this season, Cockerton has eight more than his closest teammate, senior Matt White, who has played in every game.
"We clearly need what he can give to us," Starsia said, "and no one would have expected this start, in spite of the fact that we thought we was going to get off to a good start."
From a team that finished 12-4 after losing in the NCAA quarterfinals, the Wahoos lost such stars as Steele Stanwick, Chris Bocklet and Colin Briggs. Their departures left a void Cockerton is helping to fill.
"This year he's found his confidence and he's found his stride," said his classmate Rob Emery, a midfielder who scored a season-high four goals against Mount St. Mary's.
"Clearly you can just look at the stat line, and he's putting up some pretty incredible numbers. It's been a treat to watch, and it's not anything out of the norm. He's doing this stuff every single day at practice, and it blows all of our minds every single time."
So, what derailed Cockerton last season?
"I just feel like I didn't have the confidence I have this year," he said Tuesday night. "Being a sophomore, I was an underclassman, and I was kind of scared to make plays. This year I just have a lot of confidence going, and it's working out. I feel like the more confidence I get, the better I'll play, and I just have a lot right now."
Cockerton, like many Canadians who play the field game in the United States, is an accomplished box lacrosse player. In August 2011, he helped the Whitby Warriors win the coveted Minto Cup -- the trophy awarded annually to the top junior (21 and under) men's box team in Canada.
By the time Cockerton returned to Charlottesville for his second year, then, he'd earned two championship rings in a three-and-a-half-month span, and his confidence level was high as he went through fall practice with the `Hoos.
"Then I went home for winter break, and I just kind of lost it," Cockerton recalled. "I played pretty well at the start of the year. Then I made a couple bad plays about halfway through the year, and I just lost it all. Hopefully that doesn't happen this year.
"I was kind of just scared to make plays in the game. I didn't want to mess up, and I feel like this year having that confidence, I feel like I can make plays, and if I mess up, it's all going to be good."
That he's playing alongside attackman Nick O'Reilly again might be one explanation for Cockerton's prodigious scoring this season.
O'Reilly, a 6-0, 180-pound redshirt junior from Long Island, N.Y., sat out last season for violating team rules. In Virginia's final three games in the 2011 NCAA tournament, O'Reilly had six assists (and four goals). He leads the `Hoos with 13 assists this season.
"I love playing with O'Reilly," Cockerton said. "He's probably one of the best passers I've ever played with. He's always looking for me, and that's another reason I've been playing so well."
Cockerton's brother, Matt, is a senior attackman for the Cavaliers. Their father, Stan Cockerton, had a legendary career at NC State (which no longer has a lacrosse program). The elder Cockerton made the All-America first team three times and scored 193 career goals -- an NCAA record that stood until 2008.
His prowess in box lacrosse notwithstanding, Cockerton has a more versatile game than many Canadians who play the field game.
"He's much more of a ball-carrier," Starsia said.
Virginia's associate head coach, Marc Van Arsdale, saw Cockerton play in high school, Starsia recalled, "and Marc said to me, `He's more than just a typical Canadian.' Some Canadian kids, they might score four or five goals, and they have the ball in their stick 30 seconds for the whole game."
Former UVa star Garrett Billings was one such player, Starsia said. Not Cockerton.
"Mark can pick the ball up off the endline and make things happen," Starsia said, "so he's got a more complete game, he's got a better field game than some Canadian guys. But the bottom line also is that for a lefty, especially, we need him to be a scorer. He just gets a lot of opportunities, and we need him to cash in, and he clearly has gotten off to a good start."
Another stellar game from Cockerton on Friday night would increase Virginia's chances of remaining unbeaten. At 6 o'clock, sixth-ranked UVa (4-0) takes on No. 16 Syracuse (1-1) at the Carrier Dome, the site of several epic confrontations between two of the sport's perennial powers.
"I think you get two programs that respect each other a great deal and have typically played the game at a fast pace," Starsia said.
His coaching philosophy, Starsia said, is "somewhat modeled after some of the Syracuse teams that I watched when I was growing up in the game. The way Virginia and Syracuse play, they go up and down the field, they play kind of fearlessly, and it's a great game to watch, and it's a great game to be involved in. It just seems it brings out the best in both teams."
UVa midfielder Chris LaPierre, who suffered a knee injury during practice last month, was ineffective against Drexel. He hasn't played since then but could return to face the Orange.
The 6-2, 210-pound senior might have been able to play Tuesday night, Starsia said after the game, "but with the conditions and the new surface and things like that, we just thought that this wasn't the right setting."
LaPierre, a second-team All-American last season, is the Cavaliers' captain, and he makes his presence known even when he's not playing.
"The leadership, I think, is still there," Starsia said Tuesday night. "At one point during the game I turned to him and said, `Hey, you're yelling more than I do.' So he's very engaged in what we're doing. He's very much involved."
The Mount St. Mary's game was scheduled to be played at Klöckner Stadium, but standing water there resulted in a change of venue. A cold rain continued to fall throughout the proceedings at the Turf Field.
"It was awful," Cockerton said. "It was some of the worst conditions I've ever played in."
Given that, Starsia later said with a smile, "70 and overcast in the Dome Friday sounds pretty good."