This weekend at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, eight teams in three divisions will be looking to seize the moment to bring home NCAA championships.
For the Virginia Cavaliers, seizing the moment shouldn’t be a problem. They’re already living in it.
When discussing the Cavaliers, who will face Denver in the first of two Division I semifinal games on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2), it can be easy to dwell on the fact that two-time All-American Shamel Bratton, the program’s all-time leader in points by a midfielder, is no longer a member of the team. He was voted off the team for a violation of team rules. His brother, Rhamel Bratton, remains indefinitely suspended for the same violation. It’s also hard to avoid mentioning that the team rules that the Brattons violated – a stringent alcohol policy – were enacted following the death of Virginia women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love, and the subsequent revelations that eight members of the men’s team (including the man charged with Love’s murder) had been arrested for alcohol-related incidents.
However, as Virginia prepares to take on the Pioneers, it’s clear that these Cavaliers are not the team that took the field in Baltimore at last year’s championship, or even the team that took the field on Feb. 19 for the 2011 season opener against Drexel.
Cornell head coach Ben DeLuca faced the Cavs twice this year, including this past Saturday in an NCAA quarterfinal game, and he could certainly tell the difference between the styles of play.
“I think they share the ball a lot more,” DeLuca said. “I think the ball is in Steele Stanwick’s stick a little bit more, which benefits their offense. No offense to the Brattons – I think they’re wonderful players, and they cause us headaches in preparation for them as well, in terms of their dodging ability and their ability to break down a defense – but I think their other role players stepped up and were empowered by the loss of the Brattons or the absence of the Brattons. They share the ball a little more. I think [junior midfielder Colin] Briggs became their initator up top and did a great job there.”
Certainly, putting the ball in Stanwick’s stick more has worked out for the Cavaliers. A junior from Baltimore, Stanwick is one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award as the top player in the country. He ranks fourth in the country in points per game and third in assists per game (and is the leading player at this weekend’s championship with averages of 4.27 and 2.33, respectively).
Stanwick also made a dramatic case for his Tewaaraton candidacy in the quarterfinals, figuring on more than half of Virginia’s goals with three goals and four assists in a 13-9 victory. However, there’s more to it than talent, since, as DeLuca noted, Virginia has no shortage of that.
“They’ve got talent up and down their roster,” DeLuca said, “fantastic players, so I don’t think there’s any lack of athletes or playmakers on their roster, and it speaks to depth of their roster to lose two of their best midfielders and still have the playmakers that they have.”
All that talent, however, needs attitude to push it in the right direction, and while the necessary changes started early on, it’s taken some time for the Cavaliers to get a grip on their moment, head coach Dom Starsia has no doubt that they’ve found it.
“Through some turmoil during this past season, the core group of this team stayed together the whole time,” said Starsia, who became Division I’s all-time wins leader with Saturday’s win against Cornell. “We practiced well throughout. It was a joy to be on the practice field on a daily basis, and when it required that we make some changes in terms of who we are and who we were and who we are on the field, it just took us a little while to get that done.
“I think these past couple of weeks, we’ve blossomed a little bit. I don’t think we’re fooling anybody. We’re not the team we were six weeks ago physically, but we’ve come to terms with who we are and we’re better at being who we are than we were a month ago.”
It remains to be seen if the team the Cavaliers have become has what it takes to bring home the fifth NCAA championship in program history and the first since 2006, but Starsia has no doubt that this is a team he can be proud of.
“You talk about this being a journey,” Starsia said. “It’s been quite a journey for a lot of years, frankly, and this year in particular, but I’m really proud of this team and I think when we get a chance to look back at this, I’m not sure at the end of the day that I’ve had a group that’s sort of practiced and played as close to their potential as this group has.”
The potential is there for an NCAA championship. Only time will tell if the Cavaliers can reach it.