For weeks now I've been making all sorts of promises about writing a lacrosse season review, so here's the time to make good on that. We'll see if we can't unearth the secrets behind a losing, NCAA-tournament-less lacrosse season, the first in nearly ten years.
-- Stick skills. This was about the second or third thing that jumped out at me, but in retrospect, probably the actual most important. When I can, I watch Michigan games too - the Michigan team that's gone 2-26 in its first two years of existence - and the thing that always strikes me hardest in the contrast between Michigan and UVA (and the teams of a caliber that UVA's accustomed to playing) is their stick skills. Michigan's just aren't that good; they're often throwing balls off-target or failing to catch the good ones. It's amazing how much harder it is to play lacrosse when passes are that much less automatic.
This year the contrast was a lot less, and Michigan's didn't get better (much). Simply put, the offense turned the ball over far too much, without any help from the defense. Consider the stats: UVA had 62 fewer turnovers than its opposition, but 55 more caused turnovers - which if you juggle the numbers the right way, means UVA had almost as many unforced turnovers as their opponents. That would be fine if every opponent were a Cornell or a UNC, but there are cupcakes on the schedule too. If UVA played its top opponents even in the unforced turnover department, the cupcakes should create the margin. There was no margin - which means far too many unforced turnovers against teams equipped to take advantage.
Two games stick out: both OSU and UNC (the first game) committed just 1 unforced turnover apiece. Even in games where the opponent had more than we did, we never looked quite that good. And even against VMI we had 8. This was part of the reason the offense sputtered.
-- Lack of midfield athleticism. This was reason number two. It was a rare sight this year to see anyone beat his defender off the dribble, as it were. Shamel Bratton used to do this all the time. In retrospect, guys like Colin Briggs and Brian Carroll could do it too. Ryan Tucker and Rob Emery disappointed in this regard. It limited goal-scoring chances mostly to playmaking from the X or fast breaks; generally, a midfielder was only ever able to create when he could catch his defender running at him.
Owen Van Arsdale tends to be sort of a duly appointed scapegoat for the athleticism thing, and it's true he's not the world's most athletic guy, but he's only one of several. And OVA had the second-most assists on the team after Nick O'Reilly, so it might be said that Dom knows what he's doing by having OVA out there. Offense came from the attack feeding the mids, but rarely the other way round, and the lack of balance hurt.
-- Poor shooting decisions. I got awfully frustrated at times when an opposing goalie would prove he could consistently stop a particular type of shot and we just kept on lobbing the same ones in there. Games that stand out in my memory in this regard: Drexel, Vermont, Ohio State, Bellarmine. Others, too, I'm sure, but that's what comes to mind. Typically it was stick-side high - goalies like it when they don't have to move their stick much, and high-to-high stick side is going to get saved eight times out of ten - but in the case of Bellarmine, our attackers often found themselves on the doorstep and tried to toss it lazily into the net as if there wasn't anything in between, and the Bellarmine goalie kept saving them. Duh. It bugged me because our radio guys were gushing about the guy's skills (in fairness, he had a damn .662 save percentage this year, which is nasty good) but I wanted to go YES I KNOW IT'S EASY TO LOOK LIKE AN ALL-STAR WHEN THE SHOTS ARE THREE MILES AN HOUR.
I don't know whether the following is a symptom or a cause of the poor season, but UVA's opponents had both a better shooting percentage and SOG percentage than we did. If you guessed that 2004 was the last time that happened, give yourself a Fig Newton. Those numbers ended up at .264 and .565, respectively, both of which are the lowest since, yes, 2004, except for the .565, which is the lowest in God only knows how long.
Part of this admittedly may be attributed to the new stall rules, which have encouraged teams to avoid stalling, but I noticed our opponents got more accurate, not less, between last year and this.
-- Goaltending. I mean, it's hard to leave this out when the stats look so bad. Dan Marino gave way to Rhody Heller midyear; Marino had a .455 save percentage on the season, Heller .482. Both are awful numbers. Marino's injury troubles in the fall might've carried over in his play to the spring. Austin Geisler, who transferred to High Point and played there this spring, had a .512 save percentage for the Panthers; given the somewhat (not hugely, but somewhat) easier schedule they play, it's hard to tell whether he would've made a difference, but it would've been cool to find out. You can bet the competition will be reopened in the fall, with incoming freshman Matt Barrett being given as good a shot as any.
The silver lining: Adam Ghitelman had a .497 percentage his freshman year, so Heller - though a redshirt freshman rather than a true one - isn't that far behind that number.
-- End of quarters. Oh gawd. Talk about frustrating. UVA played 15 games - therefore 60 quarters - and in 15 of those quarters, the opponent scored with fewer than 20 seconds left. So on average of once a game, UVA allowed an end-of-quarter goal.
Then, if we make the safe assumption that it's a coin flip as to whether the good guys or the bad guys have the ball at the end of the quarter, that means were 30 quarters when we were defending, which in turn means the defense allowed a goal half the time. More than half, if we take into account that nine games were basically out of reach one way or the other by the 30-second mark of the fourth (thus, nine of 60 quarters don't count since killing clock was the concern rather than feverishly trying to score.)
Not to mention that six of these end-of-quarter goals came after UVA had already scored a goal with less than a minute to go.
The Ohio State game was especially egregious. In the first three quarters, OSU scored with one second left, twelve seconds left, and three seconds left. This, one week after Cornell had scored the game-winner with 13 seconds to go in the fourth - 26 seconds after UVA had tied it up. Lesson: not learned. And Drexel forced overtime (in which UVA fortunately won) with a ten-seconds-left goal in regulation after an eight-seconds-left one before halftime.
Goaltending is partly to blame. In theory, you ought to be playing it pretty safe at the end of a quarter, so any shots are long ones and should be stoppable. That happened sometimes. In reality, the defense did an awful job of playing patient and tended to break down as the attackers got frenetic in trying to score.
You'll notice two things that aren't on this list: faceoffs and injuries. I'm not sure that .527 is a real accurate assessment of how actually good our faceoff men were, but them's the stats, and I don't think that's where the season's problems really were. Also, not having Chris LaPierre wasn't the issue. Shocker might've helped in the midfield-athleticism department, but he's awfully unpolished on offense and probably wouldn't be a major playmaker except to maybe set up some of his own stuff.
Anyway, LaPierre's main strength is as an X-factor when two teams are equal. He can tilt the balance in your direction, but he's probably not going to solve your problems if you're facing a talent deficit. Neither can we say that not having top freshman Will McNamara would've helped, because we just don't know. Ask again next year.
Obviously, not everything was a disaster. I think Nick O'Reilly could have 50-some assists if he could rely more on his midfielders to be open for shots. Mark Cockerton isn't notably big, but he plays strong. Very strong. Wasn't uncommon to see him bull his way around a defender to score the goal. And Tanner Scales won the ACC Freshman of the Year award; Scales looked really good on defense and combined with Scott McWilliams to be a turnover-causing terror on the back end. It's a fitting award, since he inherited Steele Stanwick's #6 - who was the last UVA player to win the award. The last UVA non-offensive player to win was goalie Tillman Johnson. Having no way of remembering what number Johnson wore, I looked it up, hoping against hope it was 6. It was, but upside-down. Close enough.
So I think there's every reason to believe UVA gets back to the tournament next year; most of these problems aren't chronic. I'd like to think, for example, that the end-of-quarter issues are the sort of thing that will regress to the mean next year. This is just one of those things, and at least we have company from Baltimore in the "blue bloods missing the tournament" category.