May 23, 2012

UnCensered: Requiem for a Quarterback

by Joel Censer |

Steele Stanwick may not have gotten a storybook ending to his Virginia career, but he certainly left his mark in four years in Charlottesville.
© Matt Riley

In lacrosse, you only get four years at the top.

No disrespect to Major League Lacrosse or the National Lacrosse League, but the truth is that the college game remains the unquestioned pinnacle of our sport. It's just the way lacrosse is. Not every college stud continues to play in the pro leagues and the stakes certainly aren't as high. If Johns Hopkins star Paul Rabil hadn't held all of Boston hostage during a split-dodging assault over the 2008 championship weekend, he wouldn't be all over TV now, jumping over wooden steps to Dubstep.

So on Sunday when the final whistle blew and Notre Dame had dispatched reigning champion Virginia 12-10 in the NCAA quarterfinals, it seemed appropriate for someone to march down to the bowels of PPL Park in Chester, Pa., and say a quick eulogy for Steele Stanwick's career, although erudite UVA coach Dom Starsia did much of the legwork in the press conference.

Was this really fair? Was the game's preeminent feeder – and a top five offensive player of the ESPNU era – done grinding teams into oblivion in a Virginia jersey? Was one of the nicest guys in the sport – humble, polite and as the Washington Times' Patrick Stevens recounted, willing to sign autographs until his hand cracked – not going to be on our game's biggest stage at Foxborough next weekend?

Of course, becoming emotionally invested in Steele Stanwick's career has been pretty easy. The nation's number one prep recruit arrived on Virginia's campus around the same time ESPNU began televising nearly every ACC game. A couple of high profile events – Yeardley Love's murder and the Bratton brothers' dismissal, specifically – shone the light on Charlottesville even brighter.

People forget, but Stanwick's UVA tenure started not behind the goal, but as a freshman on the left side where he was skilled and smart enough to play out of position while still fitting in seamlessly with stalwarts Danny Glading and Garrett Billings. As a sophomore, the Baltimore native took over the quarterbacking role, trying to play tempo-setter for Shamel Bratton and a whole host of "shoot first, ask questions later" midfielders.

In the 2011 post-season, Stanwick joined the pantheon of great college attackmen. In a story that's been hashed and rehashed, the Brattons were dismissed, offensive coordinator Marc Van Arsdale began tinkering with the lineup and Stanwick took the reins. Using two-man games at X, No. 6 controlled tempo, tossed bullet-point passes and at times called his own number to transform the Cavs from a dysfunctional alley-dodging mess to national champions.

This season, Stanwick was still at it, dishing out an insane 50 assists, while leading the Wahoos to a 10-2 regular-season record. The media even caught up to his subtle brilliance, as "two-man game" and "big-little" became part of the Saturday afternoon parlance.

Yeah, there were reasons to wonder about Virginia this season. Goals weren't coming as easy. Virginia's complementary guys weren't playing with the same moxie as last May. Opposing coaches, who had nine months to pick apart last year's playoff run, seemed better prepared for the Cavs' booby traps from behind the cage. You'd watch Stanwick take a beating, and a couple inexplicable cheap shots, and wonder how a guy generously listed at 6-feet, 190-pounds was holding up to the wear-and-tear of battling athletic, bulky defensemen each week. Still, like Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, you just believed that with Stanwick calling the shots and dispensing the pill, it'd all work out for the 'Hoos.

But Sunday, the senior's career ended without the storybook ending. Too much Gerry Byrne-inspired, rock solid Notre Dame defense. Too many UVA turnovers and picked-off passes. Too much balanced midfield scoring for the Irish.

As Stanwick spent the last couple minutes of the game valiantly trying to get his team back into it (how fitting that the final goal of his career was on a two-man play), I kept thinking how I should have appreciated him more these four years. On a personal level, I grew up reading Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, writers who are particularly adept at contextualizing and pointing out things that should be obvious but aren't. So as a journalist, I prefer odd-ball topics. Canadians who grew up playing a different version of lacrosse but for a variety of reasons have become commodities in the field game? Now, that's a story. But Stanwick? It always seemed painfully obvious. What's there to write? The golden boy who was a little more skilled, a little smarter and who could identify the two-on-one before anyone else?

Stanwick started his Virginia career as a freshman playing the left side with Danny Glading and Garrett Billings before turning into the Cavaliers unquestioned quarterback and winning the Tewaaraton.
© John Strohsacker/

But there was more to say. First and foremost, he was a great ambassador for UVA and for the lacrosse community at a time when it needed it. What transpired in Charlottesville the past couple of years doesn't need to be revisited here. But to say that it reinforced stereotypes about entitlement and privilege in our sport is an understatement. While what was done can never be fixed, having a humble star like Stanwick at the very least reminded people about the importance of "team," and made the 'Hoos a sort of teachable template to the broader public.

Think about the offensive set that came to define the guy: the two-man game. By its very definition it takes a teammate to run. So it's no surprise that Stanwick raised the level of those around him and his play matched and reflected a certain stoicism and humility. Whatever needed discipline Bray Malphrus brought to the Cavs in 2011, it only worked and was magnified because of Stanwick's selfless, team-first attitude.

In this era, where the lacrosse industry spends time marketing how fast guys shoot or how big, fast and "Manchiney" they are, Stanwick was a visual reminder that the guys with the brains and superior skillsets often reign supreme. While I do think he was more athletic than people give him credit for (you don't get a step on a No. 1 defenseman by just thinking it), he was never confused with Jordan Wolf or Peter Baum. Instead, he beat you primarily because he was so adept with both hands, was such an accurate passer and shooter, and could see things develop before anyone else did.

The way Virginia remade its team around Stanwick's skillset even had a profound effect on how offense is played in college lacrosse. You can chalk some of it up to the Canadian box influence as well, but it's not a coincidence that in 2012 teams started setting more screens and creating space in more creative ways. Watching Stanwick run those pick-games to perfection during last year's championship weekend must have made every coach question if enlisting some midfielder to barrel down the alley or invert some short-stick was really was the most efficient way to generate offense. Stanwick made probing, methodical, pick-friendly offense, trendy.

Finally, I'm going to miss his effort. The senior tablesetter's two most memorable plays this year: 1) Against Cornell, where after being put on his back by a body check, he still found Mark Cockerton stepping into space; 2) Against Maryland, where after getting taken down to the turf again by a well-timed double team, he scored one-handed. Both were vintage Stanwick; how after getting crushed, he had the poise, the requisite hand-eye coordination and the toughness (I mean the dude's named Steele) to finish the play.

Watching Stanwick was never like watching someone as seemingly immortal as LeBron James. For me, I always felt like I could assume that Stanwick was probably playing hurt. But whether it was a lower leg or a hand injury, we knew he was going to play. He wasn't going to make excuses and was going to give you his all.

In the NCAA lacrosse tournament, it's on the next one. As Stanwick's career ended, the storylines and memes inevitably shift to the guys "shipping up to Boston." Quint Kessenich said as much when he tweeted last week: "A quarterfinal win validates your season," and "Nobody remembers a quarterfinal loser."

But I know this weekend I'll wonder that, if with a little bit better luck, Stanwick could've had his swan song in Beantown. Maybe we'll see him picking-and-slipping for the next 10 or 12 years in the MLL or the NLL. Or maybe not. But I know that a senior season ending in NCAA quarterfinal purgatory doesn't change a thing about Stanwick's accomplishments. I'll remember it all. He packed everything he had into these four years.  

Starsia on Stanwick

"I've tried not to think too long and hard about whether or not he's the best lacrosse player I've ever been around. But he might be. He's probably the smartest and the best-skilled lacrosse player I've ever been around. Certainly a kid who breaks the all-time scoring record at a place like Virginia, which has had so many great players over the years, speaks to his ability. Maybe I'm just biting my tongue a little bit. But I keep saying, if what you wanted to say about him was that he was a great lacrosse player — maybe the best attackman that's ever played at Virginia, one of the best players — that really only begins to tell the story of who that kid is. He's just a wonderful young man, and it's been a joy for me to get to know him, to have him be part of the program, to be part of his life. This is why you do what you do for as long as I've been doing it. Because we have a chance to run into kids like Steele. When you combine the influence he has on his teammates, and me and my family, with his ability and his modesty, and who he is, it's really, really special. We're going to miss him a great deal." 

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