Virginia Overcomes Another Player Suspension, Advances to NCAA Championship Game
Virginia midfielder Matt Kuglar celebrates his second-quarter goal that put the Cavaliers ahead 8-2 midway through the second quarter of their eventual 13-7 NCAA semifinal victory over Denver.
© Joe Rogate
BALTIMORE, Md. -- The Virginia men's lacrosse team rose above controversy Saturday the way it has all season – with the ball in Steele Stanwick's stick and a suffocating zone defense that has suddenly become its calling card.
Colin Briggs, one of Cavaliers' top midfielders following the dismissal of Shamel Bratton and indefinite suspension of Rhamel Bratton, was suspended for Virginia's NCAA semifinal game against Denver. It did not matter. Stanwick continued his late-season renaissance and Tewaaraton Trophy campaign with three goals and two assists, leading the seventh-seeded Cavaliers to a surprisingly easy 14-8 victory over the sixth-seeded Pioneers at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
After disappointing exits in each of the last three NCAA semifinals, Virginia has advanced to the championship game Monday for the first time since winning its last national title in 2006. It will be an all-ACC final, with the Cavaliers set to play Maryland at 3:30 p.m.
Briggs, Virginia's third-leading scorer with 24 goals and 12 assists this season, did not dress Saturday and did not practice Friday due to what school officials called a coach's decision.
"It's something we've been working through over the course of the week. We made a decision late in the week that we weren't going to play him today," said Cavaliers head coach Dom Starsia.
Starsia did not rule Briggs out for Monday.
"We'll sort it out tonight and I'll let you know tomorrow," he said. "He might play."
Briggs' absence coincidentally helped Virginia's offense execute a game plan offensive coordinator Marc Van Arsdale wanted to use against Denver anyway -- to put a fourth attackman opposite Stanwick, either behind the cage on inverted sets or up top when Stanwick worked behind.
Mark Cockerton scored three goals and Matt White added a goal and two assists while operating in that capacity Saturday.
On Friday, Cockerton had given Starsia more angst and then a much-needed laugh when he spent the first 15 minutes of Virginia's one-hour practice session locked in the M&T Bank Stadium bathroom. When he got out, the freshman realized his equipment had been locked in the team locker room.
"A young player who we're about to count on is running around without his equipment on," Starsia said in Saturday's post-game press conference. "I'm about to lose my mind, not knowing what had happened to him. But the group seems to roll with the punches."
When the laughter subsided, Starsia added that although nothing has played to script for the Cavaliers this season, the team's core values have remained intact.
"It's sort of who we are," he said. "I would take the quality of resiliency above all others in team sports."
Virginia 14, Denver 8
Maryland 9. Duke 4
Virginia did not need much resiliency Saturday. The Cavaliers made it look effortless during a 9-1 run spanning 24-plus minutes. It started with Rob Emery's goal that made it 5-2 with 4:12 remaining in the first quarter and ended with John Haldy's goal that made it 13-3 at the 8:45 mark of the third quarter.
In between, Denver was confounded and frustrated by the Cavaliers' zone defense – another new wrinkle necessitated by the season-ending shoulder injury that shelved Matt Lovejoy in April. Jeremy Noble (3g, 1a) and Eric Law (2g, 2a) eventually found seams, as the Pioneers closed to within 13-7 on a three-goal spurt early in the fourth quarter.
But they had dug a hole too deep.
"I would have liked to see us win more faceoffs," said Denver head coach Bill Tierney, whose top specialist Chase Carraro was just 11-for-24. "We were getting our looks against the zone. It's not like the zone is the greatest thing out there. We were telling them all week to be patient, but they see an opening and they throw it in there."
Virginia's defensemen closed those openings fast and turned potential point-blank opportunities into turnovers.
Freshman Mark Cockerton scored three goals operating as a fourth attackman on the field, a tactic Virginia employed with top-scoring midfielder Colin Briggs out due to suspension.
© Joe Rogate
"When people play zones, it means they're not happy with their man-to-man defense," Tierney said. "Usually, it won't take you as far as they have gone."
The most visibly frustrated Denver player was attackman Mark Matthews, who was held to just one goal after coming in with a team-high 45 goals and 69 points. When Virginia did employ man-to-man defense, fiery captain Bray Malphrus guarded Matthews.
"When we first put it in, I hated it. It was brutal," Malphrus, sporting a jet black mohawk and beard, said of the midseason switch to zone defense that coincided with him and Chris Clements swapping the long-stick midfield and close defense positions, respectively. "At this age you think you know everything, but you're really still young, dumb and stupid. Coach Starsia's livelihood is resting on this here. These coaches have been at this longer than I have, so I believe in them."
Virginia struck first when Stanwick exploited a short-stick matchup on Denver's Andrew Lay behind the goal. Stanwick shook lay, swept right and finished topside on Pioneers goalkeeper Jamie Faus just over three minutes into the game.
Chris Bocklet put the Cavaliers up 2-0 a minute later with a time-and-room shot from the top-right slot.
Lay made up for his defensive miscue and got Denver on the board with a low bounce shot that beat Virginia goalkeeper Adam Ghitelman. He used Cavaliers defenseman Chris Clements as a screen on the shot, finishing with his stick on Clements' right hip.
Virginia answered with another two-goal run, however. Attackman Nick O'Reilly's finished a slick cross-crease from White, who drew a slide with multiple dodges on the left post before serving O'Reilly. Then Stanwick scored on a borderline dive that put the Cavaliers up 4-1 with 7:01 left in the first quarter.
Denver seemed to solve Virginia's zone defense with a two-man motion up top that got Noble free for a low-to-high blast that pulled the Pioneers within 4-2 at the 5:25 mark.
But that's when the Cavaliers made their run, facilitated by penalties on Denver's Henry Miketa (illegal body check) and Matthews (push from behind) that resulted in extra-man goals by Rob Emery and White.
Bocklet and seldom-used junior midfielder Matt Kuglar added tallies to extend Virginia's lead to 8-2 midway through the second quarter. Cockerton then beat Faus between his legs on a left alley dodge with 2:18 left to send the Cavaliers into halftime comfortably ahead, 9-2.
Denver could not erase the deficit despite improved ball movement and opportunities in the second half. The Pioneers were making their first-ever appearance in an NCAA semifinal, but Tierney denied that their inexperience was a factor Saturday.
The loss snapped a 12-game winning streak for Denver, the ECAC champion which ended its season with a 15-3 record.
"These are special men," Tierney said. "They had a season that no one could have believed even when we got here. The doubters were out there and unfortunately, with the way we played, there will still be some out there tomorrow."