BALTIMORE – As Maryland and Virginia prepare to meet on Monday with the 2011 NCAA Division I Lacrosse Championship hanging in the balance, it’s tempting to look back at April 2, when the Terrapins left Charlottesville with a 12-7 win over the Cavaliers.
To try and predict the championship outcome based on past play would be futile. Both Maryland and Virginia have undergone significant change over the two months between that game and the one they’ll play for all the marbles.
“For us,” Virginia head coach Dom Starsia said, “we’re looking at more recent stuff that Maryland has done and how it’s likely to impact what we’re likely to do tomorrow.”
Throughout Virginia’s run to the title game, it’s been stressed just how far the Cavaliers have come and just how different the team is from the one that started the season ranked second in the country. For Starsia, that home loss to Maryland illustrated just how far the Cavaliers needed to come and how different the team needed to be to earn the opportunity they’ll have on Memorial Day.
“I would say that game was – in some ways – the low point for us,” Starsia said. “It was right around the time Matt Lovejoy got re-injured and Steele [Stanwick] was probably at his worst.”
Since then, of course, Stanwick has recovered from the foot and calf issues that troubled him earlier in the season and excelled as the Cavaliers’ offensive catalyst, while the defense has adjusted to the personnel changes made necessary by Lovejoy’s season-ending shoulder injury.
“It was huge losing him,” fellow defender Chris Clements said. “We knew we had to change our identity a little bit. We installed a zone. I think over the course of the year, we’ve had to work through the kinks and try to make us understand it as a whole better. We were kind of inexperienced when we lost Matt on the defensive end. We needed to simplify it a little bit and the zone helped take away a lot of the problems we were having off-ball and maybe some individual matchups we needed to look at. The zone made us more effective as we got better with it to cover some teams that would have given us problems.”
Maryland’s defense, meanwhile, had already learned a painful lesson 10 days earlier, in an 11-6 loss to North Carolina. The Terrapins came back strong in the next game against the Cavaliers and have kept growing ever since under the guidance of first-year head coach John Tillman and his staff.
“We’re playing more within ourselves,” senior defender Brett Schmidt said. “We tended to change a lot in years past from game to game. We tried to make it a simpler system so everyone could understand; if offensive middies get stuck on the field, it’s a lot easier for them this year to really understand what we’re doing, how to play our team defense. I think a lot of guys – especially after the UNC loss early in the season – took a look as a unit. We had a bunch of very good individuals and we could have either kept going that way or we could have pulled together as one unit. We started playing great team defense and Niko [Amato] started making some great saves. [The coaching staff] did a great job simplifying things for us and pulling us together as a team defense so we could play as one unit.”
Maryland’s defense was exceptionally physical against Duke on Saturday and stopped five of the Blue Devils’ clearing attempts, with big hits often amplified in impact by the reactions of a pro-Maryland crowd. Virginia is expecting a similar approach from the Terrapins in the title game. The key will be to ensure that Maryland’s strength on defense doesn’t have a psychological impact in addition to its physical one.
“We have a little mentality on our team,” senior midfielder John Haldy said. “It’s ‘Make the next play.’ There’s going to be a lot of great plays being made tomorrow. I’m sure they’re going to make their share. If they make a big hit, get a big goal, make a big play, it’s up to us to make the next one. That’ll kind of take the air out of the crowd a little bit and get some momentum going our way.”
While the Cavaliers will welcome opportunities to subdue the crowd, however, Haldy and his teammates are determined not to allow them to have any impact on the action on the field.
“From the first five minutes, we’ve got to set a tone,” Haldy said. “We’re not going to let outside forces affect how we play on the field. It’s a game between two great teams, and we’re going to treat it like such.”
Maryland, meanwhile, will look to thrill the crowd by delivering the program’s first NCAA championship since 1975. However, as in the win over Duke on Saturday, the Terps are determined not to let the emotionally charged atmosphere affect their decision-making.
“Coach always emphasizes before the games, play with emotion, not emotional,” senior midfielder Dan Burns said. “When you play emotional, you have a tendency to make bad plays. We’ve been through a lot together as a team. We’re a team that gets fired up, so we play with emotion. I feel like that was a big factor in last night’s game.”
Time will tell if it will be a factor on Memorial Day as well.