Malphrus: Virginia Needed Image Change
"It's all about how you hold yourself around other people, and how you treat others," Virginia captain and senior defenseman Bray Malphrus said. "When you talk about suspensions and suspending players, that stuff is brutal. Having to go up to someone else on your team and say, 'Hey, you're going to be suspended for a game.' It's gut wrenching, man. It was brutal. We made some hard, tough decisions. We did the right thing, and it's worked out for us."
BALTIMORE -- Bray Malphrus said failing to change the image of Virginia lacrosse would be like spitting on Yeardley Love's grave. Not everyone got the message.
Even though one of their former teammates will eventually stand trial for the May 3, 2010, murder of the former Virginia women's lacrosse player many of them considered a close friend, the Cavaliers found ways to stray from the stricter alcohol and team policies upon which they agreed before the season. They alienated more teammates as a result.
Shamel Bratton, the polarizing force on Virginia's midfield and the school's all-time leading scorer at that position, was dismissed from the team due to three separate rules violations. His twin brother, Rhamel, was suspended indefinitely at the end of the season for the same reason. He never surfaced in the playoffs.
Even Colin Briggs, the NCAA championship's most outstanding player after scoring five goals Monday in Virginia's 9-7 victory over Maryland to secure the Cavaliers' fifth national title, and Adam Ghitelman, the four-year starting goalkeeper who made nine saves to preserve it, sat out due to suspensions this season.
But Virginia persevered on what head coach Dom Starsia called a "next man up" approach. The Cavaliers took ownership of their controversy. They embraced their new identity. Combined with a few brilliant tweaks -- like installing a zone defense, employing a fourth attackman on offense and adjusting the tempo to better suit those next men up -- they patched their tires well enough to take them to their first national championship since 2006.
"I hate roller coasters, but that's exactly what it was," Ghitelman said. "Five weeks ago, we didn't know who we were or what we were going to do. Everyone counted us out. We met as a group, came together and decided we were going to continue with the teammates that we had."
Ghitelman said the meeting was "about sucking it up and not always having the most fun in the world, staying in at night."
Briggs' suspension came at a most inopportune time, before Virginia's NCAA semifinal game Saturday. The Cavaliers advanced anyway with a convincing 14-8 win over Denver. Virginia reinstated him Sunday.
"It felt like the right thing to do," Starsia said.
Malphrus was the first teammate to approach Briggs when the suspension was lifted.
"It was hard looking Colin in the face when he found out he was suspended. He was really down. I don't blame him. He let the team down a little bit. And he knew that," Malphrus said. "After we won our semifinal game, I said, 'Colin you're back. What are you going to do with it man? You can either sit around and sulk about it, or you can come out and do something about it.' He came out and he did something about it."
With Maryland focused on containing Steele Stanwick (one assist) and Chris Bocklet (scoreless), Virginia needed Briggs, Matt White (three goals) and Nick O'Reilly (four assists) to take advantage of the Terps' unbalanced defense.
Briggs, the Cavaliers' fastest player, unintentionally gave Virginia the benefit of fresh legs. It was especially evident on his fourth goal when he dusted Maryland long pole Brian Farrell down the right alley and scored to put the Cavaliers ahead 6-3 less than three minutes into the third quarter. It capped a four-goal run that Terps head coach John Tillman said spelled the difference in the game.
"Besides that, it's a dogfight," Tillman said. "[Briggs] stuck some tough shots."
Said Briggs: "Unfortunately I was not able play on Saturday. I felt bad because I let down my team... But it was also probably one of my prouder moments to be at UVA, to see how everyone came together to win that game."
By all accounts, nothing any of these players did was criminal in nature or much different than what you would expect from 18- to 22-year-old men. But they owed it to Love, Malphrus contended, to be better than their peers.
"It's all about how you hold yourself around other people, and how you treat others," he said. "When you talk about suspensions and suspending players, that stuff is brutal. Having to go up to someone else on your team and say, 'Hey, you're going to be suspended for a game.' It's gut wrenching, man. It was brutal. We made some hard, tough decisions. We did the right thing, and it's worked out for us."
Malphrus, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound gym rat, will likely pursue a career in the armed forces. He grew a beard, shaved his head into a mohawk and died his hair jet black for the playoffs. His guttural interview responses and stage presence at press conferences -- not to mention the reputation he developed for being a headhunter after he took out North Carolina attackman Billy Bitter with a vicious hit last year -- might make you think he was better suited for professional wrestling.
But it's not about his image, Malphrus said. It's about the image of Virginia lacrosse.
"I've lived with him for three years. More than anything I would describe him as a very passionate individual," said Virginia midfielder John Haldy. "To be honest with you, he doesn't really care what people think about him. He's going to do it his way, and his way is successful."
Said Ghitelman: "When he speaks, everybody listens. He taught me a lot about life, that it's not always about the short-term things; it's about the long-term things... Look where it ended up. National champions, man."