Thursday, February 16, 2012

season preview: lacrosse

Now that you know all there is to know about the opponents, what about the good guys?  Follow me on an incredible journey through space and time as I break down the UVA lacrosse team.


I'd like to do this separately, but that doesn't look like it'll be possible.  Dom Starsia's planning a sort of seven guys for six spots musical chairs rotation for the offense.  In some years past it'd be possible to separate the attackmen from the midfielders and have a set 1st and 2nd line and everything, but not this year.

It obviously starts with Tewaaraton winner Steele Stanwick.  As a freshman, Stanwick came across as a sniper; a guy who could find the tiniest holes between goalie and pipe and place the ball exactly in that spot.  He didn't take the most shots or have the biggest role, but he was the most efficient guy out there, scoring 36 goals on just 81 shots.  That was 2009, also known as Danny Glading's and Garrett Billings's senior year.  So as good as he was, he was still a bit overshadowed.  His offensive game has blossomed since then, and he makes his teammates better every step of the way; either by drawing a ton of defensive attention to himself or simply using that sniper's ability to make a pinpoint pass.  He and Chris Bocklet are the two constants on the attack; Bocklet is a perfect finishing complement to Stanwick's playmaking.  44 goals last year says it all.

The constants at midfield, if I read Dom's interviews right, are Colin Briggs and sophomore Rob Emery.  Briggs is the top producer out there, but Emery is a savvy player; so much so that announcers in 2011 kept referring to him as a freshman (which he was) and I kept swearing to myself he was a sophomore.  Nope.  He is now, though.

Now, I'll tell you why these guys must be pretty good: they're starting to edge aside Matt White.  And that's no easy task; White is a smart player and a sharpshooter who led the team in putting shots on net at 81.8% last year.  60% of his shots - 60 percent! - were goals.  White is a junior who's done nothing but produce since he stepped on the field as a freshman.  And yet.... there's a new face in town.  Owen Van Arsdale - yes he's the son of Dom's #2 man Marc - has been making waves since the fall.  Dom had a video interview and smiled exactly once: when talking about Van Arsdale.  Couldn't keep that one in.  OVA will play on the attack, which is why White is kind of getting a little bit bumped.

So you've got Stanwick and Bocklet leading the way, and Emery and Briggs at midfield.  Van Arsdale is the secret weapon as the third attackman, White is probably the third midfielder for now (which, truthfully, is out of position - I think he goes back to attack next year.)  The seventh guy is Mark Cockerton, who the coaches will make some time for on the first line.  I think you'll also see Cockerton out there on a second line at times with Matt Kugler and Pat Harbeson.

The missing name from this equation is Nick O'Reilly, who looked like he was headed toward playing a significant and useful role this year until he was suspended for the season.  Lord knows what he did to merit that, but I'm not sure I want to.  But you can see why UVA is being voted #1.  This is the reason right here.  This whole section.  Stanwick to Bocklet.  That kind of thing.  Throw in Colin Briggs, Matt White, a freshman apparently good enough to displace Matt White and give Dom the grins, and it looks like a fun year on offense.


The good news is that we have veterans at close-in defense.  I don't know how good they really are, but they're veterans and that's something.  There's no Ken Clausen type, if you're wondering.  But the starting three of Matt Lovejoy, Harry Prevas, and Scott McWilliams were all starters last year too - just not all at once.

Prevas is newest to the lineup, having been the replacement for Lovejoy when Lovejoy went down with a season-ending injury against Maryland last year.  That started off a little rocky, but I think you'd agree that as the season got closer to its dramatic finish, the defense gelled and it looked like a solid unit.  It will miss, of course, the very active leadership style of Bray Malphrus, so even though all three of these guys have starting experience, there'll be some more work to do to reach true cohesiveness.

Leadership is really the biggest question; Lovejoy is a senior but has never had to be the leader of the defense.  Now he'll be asked to take on the Rob Pannells of the world.  It's possible that McWilliams could graduate to the top role by season's end, however; he has the pedigree of a top defenseman.  But Lovejoy has to be the voice to start the year.

The midfield portion of the defense took a big hit when Blake Riley went down in the fall with a torn Achilles tendon.  That sucked.  Riley had been really coming into his own during the last half of the season, and his signature play was the takeaway against Bucknell in overtime; Riley aggressively took advantage of a slip by the Bison ballcarrier and stole the ball, gaining possession to set up the game-winner.  Bobby Hill will be his replacement at SSDM.  The other short-stick defender, of course, is the wickedly athletic Chris LaPierre.  That gives us an element on defense that other teams simply don't have.  Finally, at LSM you have the capable but unspectacular Chris Clements.  (Then again, it's not like LSM is a spectacular kind of position.  Probably the absolute least glamorous on the whole team, actually.)

Overall, the biggest challenge for this unit will be leadership.  Who's going to step up and take charge of the defense?  Malphrus was a natural.  We lost him to graduation, and we lost four-year starter Adam Ghitelman from the crease, too; that's a lot of vocal leadership that's moved on to other places.  I don't think this defense will be considered one of the elite, but the talent is there.  As long as the cohesiveness develops, it's good enough to win a title.


After four years of the same guy, it's really going to take some getting used to, not seeing #8 in the crease anymore.  Rob Fortunato will inherit the job.  Fortunato made one start last year, against Drexel when Ghitelman was suspended, and played a solid game.  Ghitelman wasn't the world's greatest shot-stopper - solid, yes, but at times inconsistent, and not one of the elite - and I don't think there'll be much of a step down when it comes to the basic task of getting between the ball and the net.

That said, there's the defensive-quarterback aspect as mentioned above, and then there's this: for the last four years UVA has been the best clearing team in the country.  And that usually started with Ghitelman, who had terrific instincts and almost always made outstanding clearing passes.  Sometimes halfway up the field to set up a break.  Hell, the dude scored a goal himself once, and loved his adventuresome forays out into the open field.  We're not likely to get that with Fortunato.

And we'd better hope he's worth his salt in the crease, too, because the depth chart behind him is thoroughly untested.  Conor McGee - a transfer from Michigan's club team before last season - is probably not the answer, and neither Austin Geisler nor true freshman Rhody Heller have ever set foot on the playing field.  We'll learn the pecking order during the VMI game if that game is anything like any of its previous incarnations, but its best if Fortunato hangs on to the job all season.


From Dom Starsia's video interview: "We're not going to dominate, but I hope we can be competitive."  That is scientifically known as "not exactly a ringing endorsement."

So yes, it sounds like the old haunt is going to be back.  Ryan Benincasa is the only holdover from last year's faceoff group, unless you count LaPierre who didn't do well.  (Partly because he didn't have the benefit of having himself on the wing.)  Benincasa will be the primary faceoff guy, but the special part is he's dealing with a little bit of a hamstring thing and who knows if he's really ready?  LaPierre took 36 faceoffs last year, and his role will probably expand this year; after him, it's freshmen.  Tom Kelly has disappeared from the roster.  I have no idea where to, even though it's my job to know.  So it'll be interesting to see how much those freshmen - Mick Parks and Ryan Tucker - get into the rotation. 

I've just spent a lot of words to tell you that this version of UVA lacrosse is basically the same as most others.  An offense that keeps other coaches up at night and the rest of the team having the possibility of being anything from solid to shaky.  There's no doubt that they'll figure out ways to score goals.  As with every season, the national championship is the goal; those hopes rest mainly on the defense.

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