Virginia comes out champions
Starsia’s ‘difficult decisions’ most challenging of his career
BALTIMORE – Virginia head coach Dom Starsia certainly would not have said ‘No’ to an NCAA championship last year. Neither would any of his players.
However, as the Cavaliers celebrated the fifth NCAA championship in program history – earned with a 9-7 victory against ACC rival Maryland in front of 35,661 at M&T Bank Stadium on Monday – it was clear that there was a satisfaction in their victory that wouldn’t have been possible a year ago, when Virginia lost to eventual NCAA champion Duke in the national semifinals.
“I don’t really know where to begin,” Starsia said. “It really is quite unbelievable, the fact that we’re here right now today and having this conversation sort of suspends belief for me. It’s a credit to my family and to the people at UVa that have been supportive throughout, and really a credit to these players.”
The Virginia team that made the trip to Baltimore last year did so in the shadow of controversy. The murder of Virginia women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love (for which a member of last year’s Virginia’s men’s team would eventually be indicted) and the subsequent revelation that eight members of the team (including the accused killer) had been arrested for alcohol-related incidents left the team mired in scandal and its coach uninterested in on-field success, even as his team neared an NCAA title.
“At the end of the semifinal last year,” Starsia said, “the score of that game, how that game turned out, was of little consequence to me, frankly. The fact that we were all standing, that my wife was OK [after having been hospitalized with intense anxiety], my children were hanging in there…after everything we had been through, the results of an athletic game did not mean a great deal to me. I’m not even sure that the world was ready for us to have won last year.”
When Virginia took the field in February at the beginning of this season, the Cavaliers were determined to be a team worthy of respect both on and off the field. The players instituted an alcohol policy that longstick midfielder Bray Malphrus told the Washingon Post was “the strictest, most stringent rule since I’ve been here,” and approached the season determined to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish their goals.
In late April, it turned out that the necessary sacrifices included the dismissal of senior midfielder Shamel Bratton (the program’s all-time leader in goals by a midfielder) and the indefinite suspension of his brother, Rhamel (the team’s number six scorer) for violations of the team’s rules. The team the Cavaliers were transformed into without the Bratton brothers is the team that won its next five games and claimed an NCAA championship. Tewaaraton Award finalist Steele Stanwick moved into a greater role in the Cavaliers’ offense after the personal changes, so in retrospect, it’s hard to fault Starsia and the Virginia coaching staff for the move.
That doesn’t mean that it always felt like the right call from a lacrosse perspective.
“There were times when it was as hard to endure as anything I’ve had to do,” Starsia said. “Some of the decisions we had to make were some of the most difficult ones I’ve ever had to make as a coach. We win the championship today, so everybody thinks, ‘Hey, you made all the right calls.’ I didn’t have a lot of confidence that that was the case. I was just trying to do things the best I could, trying to be true to the team and the things we thought were important, but I didn’t know where it was going to take us, frankly. I am very hesitant to assume any ‘genius’ mantle here, because it didn’t feel that way when we were in the middle of it, to be honest.”
Stanwick, for one, certainly found the idea of an NCAA championship hard to fathom as the Cavaliers headed towards the tournament, losing four of five games from March 26 to April 22.
“I always had faith in this team,” Stanwick said, but I don’t know if I thought this would have been the end result.”
The defense, meanwhile, was struggling to work with the zone instituted by defensive coordinator John Walker after junior Matt Lovejoy was lost for the season with an injury. Although that zone eventually helped the Cavaliers shut down Denver’s explosive offense in the semifinals and negate Maryland’s attack at key times during the championship game, it certainly wasn’t the most popular decision when it was implemented.
|CAVS TOP TERPS FOR TITLE|
Colin Briggs wasn't sure if he would get a chance to play in the national championship game. The Virginia midfielder stood on the sidelines Saturday watching his Cavaliers beat Denver in the semifinals. Coach Dom Starsia had suspended him prior to the Final Four for committing a team-infraction and was noncommittal when asked Saturday evening if the senior would be in uniform Monday. Starsia decided to reinstate Briggs, and it proved a wise move. Briggs scored a career-high five goals as seventh-seeded Virginia edged Maryland 9-7 in a slow, methodical affair to capture its fifth Division I national championship.
“If you had told me four or five weeks ago that a zone would have won us a national championship,” Malphrus said, “I would have told you I don’t believe it. I hated it in the beginning. I think I was Coach Walker’s toughest critic when he put it in. ‘What does this guy know? He played attack for four years at Army!’ But you know what? I couldn’t be happier with it now.”
The same can be said of the alcohol policy and other sacrifices that the team made, as the Cavaliers have come out as a team that Virginia can be unequivocally proud of.
“When you give up a lot,” Malphrus said, “give up more than you ever have before, to have it work out means the world to us. We can look back at this, and it kind of validates all the sacrifices that we’ve made.
“Even if we hadn’t won today, making the sacrifices that we did was the right thing to do. We like to think that we do the right thing regardless of wins and losses.”
That was the case right up to the end. When the team took the field for the semifinal game against Denver, midfielder Colin Briggs was on the sidelines, withheld from the game for what was only described as a “team matter.”
“I was definitely disappointed in myself,” Briggs said, “but I just thought to myself that I would come back, and I was able to get some opportunities.”
Reinstated for the title game, Briggs made the most of his opportunities, scoring five of Virgnia’s nine goals and claiming Most Outstanding Player honors. As happy as his coach was, however, he was quick to point out that the lesson learned trumped any goals that he contributed to the championship effort.
“I’m happy for Colin that he scored some goals,” Starsia said. “I don’t think that was the most important piece of what happened over the last couple of days. What I do for a living is try to help young guys grow up a little bit, and hopefully he gets a little smarter because of what we went through. He’s a good kid, and like a lot of guys, they have to stub their toe in order to figure some things out sometimes, and I think he’ll be a better person because of it.”
And, after one last lesson learned and one more game won, Starsia can look back on this NCAA championship season proud of the steps his Cavaliers took, both as student-athletes and as young men.
“This moment right now is particularly gratifying when you consider all that we had to endure to put ourselves in a position to be able to do this,” Starsia said. “At this moment right now, I don’t remember a situation that’s been more satisfying overall.”