Toss national rankings out the window. Forget about individual accolades. The 2011 men’s lacrosse squad cares about only one thing this season — redemption.
In the eyes of the Cavaliers, redemption will be realized only once they forge past an obstacle that has derailed them each of the past three years — the national semifinals. Even then, this embattled No. 2 Virginia team will not be truly satisfied until it acquires a championship trophy that has eluded its grasp since 2006.
“We’re definitely aware that no one on this team has won a national championship,” junior captain attackman Steele Stanwick said. “The fact that we’ve come up short in the past few years is definitely tough to swallow, but we’re going to use that as motivation to just work harder this year.”
Last May, the Cavaliers were surrounded by negativity. That fateful month began with the highly publicized arrest of George Huguely, a senior midfielder accused of murdering women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love. The month ended with a last-second loss to eventual national champion Duke in the national semifinal, marking Virginia’s third consecutive year of failure at that stage of the NCAA Tournament.
With the bitter taste of May’s setbacks still lingering, the talent-filled Cavaliers seek to rectify their fortunes with a strong 2011 lineup featuring 28 returning lettermen and seven starters from last year’s team.
The strength of this year’s squad lies in its experienced midfield. Senior captain John Haldy will join the Bratton twins in a first-line midfield whose combination of speed, strength and athleticism should present problems to any opponent. Seniors Shamel and Rhamel Bratton — both high picks in January’s Major League Lacrosse Draft — were two of the best all-around midfielders in college lacrosse last year, and their skills only have sharpened heading into this season. Seniors Brian McDermott and Garett Ince also will again assume face-off duties.
Virginia, which returns nine of its top 10 goal scorers from 2010, also looks to reap the benefits of a formidable attack. Junior Chris Bocklet scored 53 goals last season to become the first Cavalier to score more than 50 goals since Doug Knight’s 56 goals in 1996; he will join Stanwick up front. Stanwick, who tallied a team-best 32 assists last year, again will seek to quarterback the offense in both settled and extra-man situations. The final attacking spot could be filled by any one of three sophomores — Matt White, Connor English or Matt Cockerton.
Goalkeeping responsibilities will fall on senior All-American Adam Ghitelman, who will start between the pipes for the fourth straight year. Ghitelman’s experience anchors a somewhat untested defense that appears to be the team’s biggest question mark. After allowing only 8.22 goals per game against the country’s toughest schedule in 2010, this year’s team will need to replace two All-Americans on the close defense and two in the defensive midfield. Returning redshirt junior starter Matt Lovejoy will join the likes of sophomore Harry Prevas, who played a mix of long-stick midfield and close defense last year. Senior captain Bray Malphrus will bring his experience and discipline to the table, as well.
The Cavaliers again will grind through arguably the most brutal schedule in college lacrosse. They will collide with seven of the other nine teams ranked in the preseason top 10, including another early season matchup against No. 1 Syracuse. If both squads enter the March 4 contest unscathed, it will mark the third straight year the two schools have squared off as the country’s top two teams. Virginia won last year’s battle in Charlottesville 11-10, but this year they will compete in the Carrier Dome, where the crowd might exceed 15,000.
This year’s home schedule is highlighted by two ACC contests, a showdown against No. 4 Maryland at Scott Stadium April 2 and a matchup against No. 3 North Carolina April 9.
The other bull’s eye on the team’s schedule will be an April 16 showdown at Duke, the veritable thorn in Virginia’s side for the past several years. The Blue Devils have claimed 10 of the last 11 meetings between the two schools, including last year’s 14-13 Final Four victory. Duke returns 29 lettermen and six starters from last year’s championship team, but they will have to replace six of their top eight goal scorers.
But even with all the intrigue the future holds, Virginia coach Dom Starsia insisted his players need to stay grounded in the here and now.
“There are no guarantees about the end of the season,” Starsia said. “All we can do is take care of today and this coming weekend. I’m not going to obsess about it right now.”
In addition to chasing a national championship, the defending ACC champion Cavaliers also will strive to make Starsia the most prolific coach in Division I history. With 316 career wins, the Virginia skipper only needs 11 victories to surpass legendary coach Jack Emmer on the all-time wins list.
The Cavaliers will kick off the 2011 campaign at Klöckner Stadium at 5 p.m. tomorrow against Drexel, the 10th consecutive year Virginia has opened its season against the Dragons. Virginia owns a 9-1 all-time record against Drexel, which is ranked as high as 16 in one poll.
“Drexel had a great year last year, and they nearly had an argument to be in the NCAA tournament,” Starsia said. “[They have] two 40-point scorers on the attack and two all-conference long poles and a third-team All-American goalie. Those are the kind of things you need to be successful. We’re going to have to play our best lacrosse, and that’s what we expect of ourselves.”
With expectations higher than ever, the Cavaliers must dig deep this season to rekindle the program’s glory. In the meantime, though, the road to the Final Four, where they have competed in nine of the past 12 years, begins Saturday.
“I just look at the bottom-line, and we haven’t won yet,” Malphrus said. “I personally would say that we haven’t lived up to what we are capable of achieving yet. I think that this year we have a very good chance of living up to that standard.”