May 29, 2011

NCAA Division I Final: Emotional, Physical Scars Reveal Two Teams' Flaws, Resiliency

by Gary Lambrecht |

Joe Cummings' recovered from a late-season hand injury in time to stabilize an efficient, opportunistic Maryland offense.

© Lee Weissman

BALTIMORE -- The Maryland Terrapins and Virginia Cavaliers are familiar with each other as longtime Atlantic Coast Conference combatants. But the last two teams standing in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament are connected by another thread that deeply defines each of them in 2011.

These teams have seen so much, been knocked down so much, and have hammered away so much in the face of the obstacles – some self-inflicted, some thrust upon them – that have blocked their paths.

These teams are flawed, as their combined nine losses attest. In a year that lacked a truly great squad and seemed to invite an underdog to join the sport's biggest party, the seventh-seeded Cavs (11-5) and unseeded Terps (12-4) have suffered their share of bad luck, tragedy, embarrassment and poor play.

Through it all, Virginia and Maryland patched their tires effectively enough to ride into the season's final weekend. As Memorial Day participants, they are this year's ultimate survivors.

"You think about some of the things we've had to get through and some of the things [Maryland] has had to get through this year," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "I'm reluctant to throw the word 'character' around when you're talking about things that happen in sports. But scars are a pretty good indication of character."

Consider some of the snapshots that formed the scars incurred by both programs.

Maryland, which can smell its first NCAA championship since 1975, has been a wreck at times this spring. On the field, the senior-laden Terps suffered three confidence-wounding collapses at home against North Carolina, Johns Hopkins and Colgate, yet have bounced back each time. They have endured late-season hand injuries to senior attackman Grant Catalino and junior midfielder Joe Cummings, who have recovered in time to stabilize an efficient, opportunistic offense.

And that's just the surface, fun-and-games stuff. The day after a heartbreaking, 12-11, overtime loss to Hopkins on April 16, Maria Young, the mother of senior attackman Ryan Young, died after a three-year battle with cancer. The team bused up to Long Island for Mrs. Young's funeral and continues to grieve with their teammate.

The emotional grinder that gripped Maryland in the ensuing weeks – the Terps stormed into Durham to win the ACC tournament, then flopped on Senior Day in the regular-season finale against Colgate – came to another head in the days following Selection Sunday.

First-year coach John Tillman, who replaced Dave Cottle in a highly controversial move last summer, called on Cottle, looking for some advice and a spark for a team that was showing signs of fatigue. Before the Terps, who were chastened by their unseeded tournament position, left to face North Carolina in the first round, Cottle delivered a fiery speech to his old players, urging them to play with pack-of-wolves passion.

"I'm reluctant to throw the word 'character' around when you're talking about things that happen in sports," said Virginia head coach Dom Starsia. "But scars are a pretty good indication of character."

© Lee Weissman

Judging by the way Maryland bludgeoned North Carolina and Duke and stood tall at Syracuse in overtime to get to this moment, the Terps got the message. Maryland's defense has allowed just 15 goals in 12 quarters, and all you need to do is count the Duke players on their back in Saturday's 9-4, semifinal whipping to get a feel for the Terps' passion right now.

"When the journey is hard, it's that much more rewarding. This wasn't easy," said Tillman, who went out of his way to praise Cottle's program-building in the minutes following the 6-5 victory at Syracuse. "It goes back to what you hope for, as somebody in the education business. You teach these guys that life is not fair. Sometimes you're going to get a bad call. Sometimes you're going to get a raw deal from your boss. You've got to deal with it.

"If you win a game, 20-2, you don't learn much about yourself. It's when you get smacked in the face, how do you respond to it?"

Virginia brings another boatload of resolve to the season's final day. This is the Virginia's fourth consecutive trip to final four weekend, yet its first time in the final since the undefeated team won it all in 2006. A year after the Cavs were reeling in the wake of the Yeardley Love murder and ran out of gas in the national semifinals, Team Drama was put to the test in countless ways in 2011.

Injuries and discipline problems nearly swallowed up this crew. Junior attackman Steele Stanwick, the best player left in the tournament, was severely hobbled with a foot injury during a midseason, 1-4 slide. Junior defenseman Matt Lovejoy suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during the same breakdown, which included a 19-10 defeat to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals.

Then, there was the soap opera known as The Brattons. Twin brothers and midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton were a constant source of distraction and frustration in Charlottesville, where the running question revolving around them was, "Will they get suspended this week?"

Shamel's third suspension was his last, and in late April, he was dismissed from the team. Rhamel had been suspended indefinitely. Starsia ruled him out of the final four last week, thus ending a sad chapter in the school's proud lacrosse history.

What has happened on the heels of this messiness has been remarkable.

Virginia is a team transformed. With players such as attackman Mark Cockerton and midfielder Rob Emery making plays, the offense has found new life. Stanwick is running the show as the clear quarterback who touches the ball on every possession. And the defense, which has switched primarily to a 3-3-1 zone that is anti-Starsia at his core, has responded to necessity.

Even on Saturday, when it thrashed Denver, 14-8, to earn a shot at its fourth NCAA crown in 13 seasons, the Cavaliers were not drama-free. Junior midfielder Colin Briggs was suspended for the game for a team policy violation.

But, like their counterparts from College Park, the Cavs just kept on keeping on.

"There is no question our team is battle-hardened, and so is Maryland," Starsia said. "Any time a team gets off the canvas a couple of times, that's noteworthy."

"All of the things that have happened to us pretty much got us to this point," said Maryland senior midfielder Dan Burns.

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