May 30, 2011

Virginia's Offensive Renaissance a Case of Addition by Subtraction

by Joel Censer | | NCAA Championship Game Blog Replay

Despite a quiet championship game statistically, Steele Stanwick continued to generate offense out of Virginia's two-man sets that evolved after the dismissal and indefinite suspension of Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, respectively.

BALTIMORE -- Virginia's offense this year did not evoke many memories of past Cavalier men's lacrosse teams. The Wahoos have -- at least since Dom Starsia took over as coach in 1992 -- a long history of superior athletes on the offensive side of the field. Considering past Virginia championship squads, it's hard not to remember attackmen and midfielders -- John Christmas, Jay Jalbert, Kyle Dixon and Matt Ward, for instance -- who could blow by their guy or muscle their way to the net.

This postseason, however, instead of just the heavy dose of split-dodging histrionics, the Wahoos rode a more patient, methodical, probing offensive attack to their first championship since 2006.

The change was initiated when Shamel Bratton was kicked off the team and Rhamel Bratton suspended before the regular season finale against Penn. The twins were the best dodgers in the country, midfielders who could get a step from up top on anyone and let it go from 13 yards.

Losing the Brattons meant a change in approach. The Cavaliers started to rely less on alley dodges and more on two-man games and picking behind the cage. This meshed well with an offensive group that, with the exception of Colin Briggs and Rob Emery, were almost all natural attackmen who were used to dodging from behind. (John Haldy, Mark Cockerton, Nick O'Reilly and Matt White moonlighted as midfielders.)

"It was tailoring to our personnel. We were out there a lot today with five attackmen. You look at the Denver game, we scored one goal by a high school midfielder. Haldy was an attackman. Kugler was an attackman. They're all playing in the midfield," said Virginia offensive coordinator Marc Van Arsdale. 

Of the two-man games and steady dose of inverted attacks, Van Arsdale added, it just fit—the guys were comfortable playing back there. It also fits when you have just such a great decision maker and leader like Steele [Stanwick] back there."

The results were dramatic. The Wahoos, who had lost four of five games before that Penn game, thrashed the Quakers 11-2. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Cavs grinded out a dramatic come-from-behind 13-12 win over Bucknell behind Stanwick's eight points. Then they pasted Cornell 13-9 and Denver 14-8 in the next two NCAA rounds.

In the championship game Monday, with Nick O'Reilly (1g, 4a) and Stanwick (one assist) again working the two man-game to perfection, seams opened up around the crease for White (three goals) and step-down shots for Most Outstanding Player Colin Briggs (five goals).

Van Arsdale said attributing the offense's late-season fireworks to "addition by subtraction" would be overly simplistic.

Yes, the Brattons were turnover-prone, high-volume shooters whose games didn't mesh as well with a young defense that needed to mostly play zone.

But it also helped that a host of offensive players like Cockerton, White and O'Reilly transformed from bench players or non-factors to big-time offensive weapons.

"Some of it has also been the emergence of Matt White, Cockerton, and O'Reilly, that didn't have anything to do with the losses," Van Arsdale said. "The touches, certainly that's changed, but they've also played a lot better."

Cockteron, an Ontario native who grew up playing mostly indoors, said the changes on offense -- from watching the Brattons dodge to two-man games and a more team-oriented approach -- helped give him increased confidence. Cockerton had three goals and an assist against Denver and two assists against the Terps.

"That's really what we play in box back home, a lot of two-man games, and you know that really benefited me," Cockerton said. "Since [the Brattons] have been gone, everyone's been playing unselfishly and everyone's been moving together, playing a lot more as a team. We have so many good players on our team, and they weren't really getting a shot when they were there."

"The picking games, one thing that changes it gets everyone involved," added attackman Chris Bocklet. "When you don't have the ball, you need to pick for someone that doesn't have the ball to get them open. It involves the whole team."

Of course, the Cavaliers were only able to play that style of offense because they had a maestro and stud quarterback in Stanwick. The Baltimore native continued to get healthy going into the postseason after suffering foot and calf injuries. He had averaged nearly six points in the four games going into the championship game against Maryland. Despite being held to just one assist, Stanwick was still the point man for the Wahoo two-man games. He initiated several plays that ultimately yielded goals.

"We knew today it was going to be a challenge for him to go by Brett Schmidt the way he was able to go by the Cornell and Denver guys," Van Arsdale said. "It wasn't going to be as easy as then, so the picking games become more important and getting other guys getting involved."

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