June 1, 2011

Lambrecht: Starsia Reveals Mastery in Reinventing a Champion

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Dom Starsia's deft handling of player discipline, injuries and a midseason upheaval of nearly all offensive and defensive principles made this the most impressive of his four NCAA championships at Virginia.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

BALTIMORE -- During Monday's NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship game, while watching the University of Virginia lean heavily on a zone defense and grind out numerous possessions by sitting on the ball, I had to rub my eyes and make sure those indeed were the Cavaliers performing at M&T Bank Stadium.

Yes, that really was Virginia using the stall tactic as an integral part of its game plan. That really was Virginia draining the clock and draining the life out of Maryland on a brutally hot day in Baltimore. That was Virginia pounding out a 9-7 victory to win its fourth NCAA crown over the past 13 seasons, while denying its Atlantic Coast Conference rival its first title since 1975.

And that definitely was Dom Starsia validating, with an exclamation point, his place atop the victory list in the history of Division I men's lacrosse coaches.

Victory number 329 was some kind of sweet for the Brown graduate and former Brown coach whose next birthday will be his 60th. Has Starsia done a better coaching job than the gem he fashioned in his 19th season in Charlottesville?

"Some people have asked me that," Starsia said. "I think every year I do my best job, or at least the best I can do at this job."

Suffice it to say that Starsia's latest project will be difficult to top. Starsia managed a tumultuous spring marked by every kind of pothole a talented team could negotiate.

Star senior midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton – the Lack of Discipline poster boys – were never on board with the program in 2011, as each of them made the most news by drawing suspensions for violating team policies. Shamel, maybe the best dodging midfielder in the game, got kicked off the team after the ACC tournament. Rhamel went through the final five games on suspension.

Junior defenseman Matt Lovejoy, the best cover guy, went down for good with a season-ending shoulder injury after 10 games. Junior attackman Steele Stanwick, who is the opposite of the Brattons with his team commitment, was a wounded quarterback with a bad foot in the heart of the season.

There were times during the regular season when Virginia was alternately a work in progress and a work in regress. Even when the Cavs were sitting at 7-1 with a No. 2 ranking, they weren't quite right. The man-to-man defense was too leaky, even with Lovejoy. The offense, without a healthy Stanwick, was growing stagnant and predictable, even with the Brattons initiating plays from up top.

It all started to unravel April 2, the day Shamel Bratton served his second suspension of the year, and the day that a determined Maryland team came to Charlottesville and humbled Virginia, 12-7. That sent Virginia into a 1-4 tailspin that culminated in a humiliating, 19-10 loss to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals.

All Starsia did was tear up the traditional Virginia playbook and radically change the face and pulse of the team – in late April. No longer would the Cavs be the run-and-gun outfit of old. No longer would they chase and gamble on defense, looking for the turnover to create the big play in transition. No longer would they instinctively try to light up the scoreboard.

Just in the nick of time, Virginia became a deliberate lacrosse team. Over the season's final six weeks, Virginia played more zone defense than Starsia had employed over the rest of his 29 years as a head coach. And without midfielders that could blow by people and create havoc, the Cavs became a hard-cutting, picking offense that lived for the great pass (usually from Stanwick) and the highest-percentage shot.

Monday's grinder in the M&T steam bath was fitting in so many ways for this crew. Stanwick had just one assist. Fellow attackman Chris Bocklet's 35-game goal-scoring streak ended. And it didn't matter, as junior midfielder Colin Briggs, whom Starsia held out of Saturday's semifinal win over Denver over a "team matter," lit up Maryland for five goals and stole the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award.

With the exception of two, fourth-quarter turnovers that helped Maryland score twice to tie the score at 6-6, the Cavs valued possessions by taking exceptional care of the ball. When Maryland shut off the Virginia attack from behind the net with a zone defense, the Cavs patiently worked shooters clear on the lower wing areas and got to Terps goalie Niko Amato enough. It marked the first time the Cavs had won a game without scoring in double digits.

And that zone defense, forced to stare down Maryland for long stretches in the second half, had enough energy in the tank to avoid wilting in the heat.

For sure, Starsia has benefitted often from the superb talent pipeline that has fed and sustained Virginia over the years as one of the game's elite programs. But this was the opposite of the undefeated thoroughbred in 2006 that Starsia rode without ever resorting to the whip.

This flawed, messy year ultimately was all about heart and toughness and doing things the right way. And this team ultimately needed to be nurtured and led by Starsia, who proved to any remaining skeptics that he really can coach.

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