February 17, 2012

Season Preview (MD1): No. 1 Virginia

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Steele Stanwick was the centerpiece of Virginia's new-look offense during the NCAA tournament a season ago. Will the game plans look similar this spring?
© Lee Weissman

By the end of 2011, neither Virginia's offense nor its defense looked very much like incarnations of past Cavalier teams.
Since Dom Starsia took over as coach in 1992, the Wahoos have had superior athletes who push the tempo, press to the edge of the boxes and feast on transition opportunities.

But when Virginia lost four of five games in the middle of a season marred by injuries and suspensions, Starsia changed gears from a ten-speed to a two-speed. The Cavaliers rode a grinding, methodical attack and zone defense to their first championship in five years.

Virginia will not totally abandon its previous identity. But many of the tweaks implemented out of necessity last May— mixing up defenses, using picks to initiate from behind the net, playing attackmen at the midfield — likely will continue.

"X's and O's lacrosse-wise, that was a revelation last year," Starsia said. "We still want to move the ball through the attack and use the two-man stuff, because we have the personnel for that.

It was probably lazy of me that we hadn't put a zone in the past. We just got really good at it last year. We spent three or four days working on it this fall, and I'll be honest, we looked very good, very quickly. It's a tool we're going to use."

It's easy to feel comfortable turning the game into a battle of half-field efficiency when you have senior attackman Steele Stanwick. Last year's Tewaaraton Award winner returns as the premier game manager in Division I, a guy who can get everyone involved and also score on his own.

"Steele's on a very short list of [the best] people and players I've coached. His greatest skill is making the people around him better," Starsia said.

Senior Chris Bocklet — a crafty goal-scorer and longtime beneficiary of Stanwick's spot feeds — will again be a nice complement on the attack. At midfield, last year's championship game MVP Colin Briggs is an explosive end-to-end guy who can dodge a pole, while sophomore Rob Emery is a rangy Kyle Dixon clone with the shot to extend defenses. Converted attackmen Mark Cockerton and Matt White are versatile threats who are effective with or without the ball.

For the Cavaliers, the biggest question mark is in goal, where Adam Ghitleman graduated. Senior Rob Fortunato, who started and played well against Drexel last year, is the frontrunner. Freshman lefty Austin Geisler also turned heads in the fall.

Whomever Virginia puts in cage, the defense will be more seasoned and athletic than last year. Second-year Scott McWilliams looks like an elite close defender. Long-stick middie Chris Clements, a converted short stick in 2011, now has a year playing pole under his belt.

That's not to mention fifth-year senior Matt Lovejoy. After having mid-season shoulder surgery last April, Virginia's top cover man spent his time on the sidelines offering both encouragement and advice to guys like Bray Malphrus, who transitioned to close defense in the new zone. Now healthy, Lovejoy must get a feel for the zone himself while still going against initiators like Cornell's Rob Pannell and Syracuse's Tommy Palasek.

"I spent the whole summer training and rehabbing," Lovejoy said. "I'm chomping at the bit."

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Cavaliers' team page.

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