May 16, 2010

Benner Helps Virginia Believe in Life After Love

by Clare Lochary | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia junior goalkeeper Lauren Benner fits the goalie stereotype.

“I’m a head case,” she said with a laugh.

Benner is susceptible to the highs and lows of the most visible job on the field. During games, she goes into a zone where she really doesn’t remember much. To play an emotional position on an emotional day, when the Cavaliers took the field versus Towson in a first-round NCAA tournament game for the first time since the death of teammate Yeardley Love on May 3, was a particularly tough task.

Benner couldn’t recall what teammate Whitaker Hagerman said to her just before they returned to play after halftime, with Virginia clinging to a slim 8-7 lead. (Hagerman: “I told her, ‘You are the greatest goalie, and you have the talent that no one can touch.’”)

But after allowing the Tigers to rally from an early 3-0 deficit and briefly take a 5-4 lead, Benner knew she needed to mentally reset.

“I just told myself ‘You have to take a deep breath,’ and instead of analyzing every play and what every player was doing, just react to the ball,” said Benner, who finished with nine saves to help the Cavaliers to a 14-12 win over an offensive-minded Towson team. Her six second-half saves included a few dazzlers, including stuffing Tigers sharpshooter Jess Dunn (2g) on a free position from the center hash at the beginning of the period. Her poise typified the Cavaliers’ attempt to convert their grief into passion and joy for the game under extraordinary circumstances.

“The first half was pretty emotional, and we had jitters,” said senior midfielder Brittany Kalkstein. “Once the game got going, in the second half, we played more our game plan.”

Benner and the rest of the Cavaliers pulled it off with an unfamiliar defense, too. Starting sophomore defender Bailey Fogarty was out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament that she injured versus Northwestern on April 30, and Forgarty’s usual back-up was Love. Freshman midfielder Annie Thomas was converted to a line defender for the day, and freshman Kelly Austin (1g) stepped in for sophomore Ainsley Baker, also out with an ACL injury.

“Lauren Benner made a couple of huge saves in the second half, and the defense made some adjustments. Kelly Austin’s just a freshman and she’s never been in a high-pressure situation like that,” said head coach Julie Myers. “What I loved seeing was that our team went fast. They broke a little bit, then they came right back. When we were up by three, and then instantly tied, our team did a nice job of staying a step ahead. I’m very proud of how they were able to play, especially under the circumstances.”

Benner remembered Love as both a kind person and a tenacious defender.

“She had the longest arms, and like a 12-foot reach with her stick. She was great at knocking down passes and getting interceptions,” said Benner.

Benner and Love were seatmates on the team bus. Benner fondly recalled how Love would pester her for back scratches during the long, dull rides, and how she’d always give in.

One of the last bus trips the Cavaliers took together before Love’s death was to the ACC tournament in College Park, Md. The team bus driver kept playing a Cher concert album on repeat, and the song “Believe” became their unofficial tournament anthem. The bouncy, triumph-through-heartbreak tune resurfaced today, blasting from Klockner Stadium’s speakers at the beginning and end of the game.

Players and fans danced along to the song’s main hook: “Do you believe in life after love?”

“It’s one of our last memories of Yeardley and all of us together, and it reminds us of how happy we were,” said Hagerman.

The Cavaliers believe in life after Love, heading into an NCAA quarterfinal matchup against North Carolina next weekend.

“We had a week to practice together before this game,” said Benner of her new-look defense. “Another week and we’re going to get even better.”

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