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Virginia lacrosse looks to 2011 championship to inspire a late-season run

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Sports,College,Kevin Dunleavy

Cavs seek to repeat 2011 championship

The Virginia lacrosse team isn't used to coming to the ACC tournament with a must-win mentality. In going to the NCAA tournament 19 of the last 20 years under Dom Starsia, the Cavaliers usually have an at-large bid sewn up by April. But this weekend in Chapel Hill, it's ACC title or bust. Since the NCAA doesn't extend at-large bids to teams with losing records, Virginia (6-7) has to win the ACC tournament to extend its season.

In the semifinals on Friday, fourth-seeded Virginia faces top-seeded Maryland (9-2). When the teams met four weeks ago in Charlottesville, the Terrapins won 9-7. The Cavaliers have some history on which to draw some optimism. In 2011, Virginia lost to Maryland in the regular season 12-7 but beat the Terps when it mattered most 9-7 in the NCAA championship game in Baltimore.

ACC tournament
Virginia vs. Maryland
When » Friday, 5 p.m.
Where » Keenan Stadium,
Chapel Hill, N.C.
TV » ESPNU

"We talked a little bit about 2011," Starsia told reporters Saturday after Virginia beat Bellarmine 12-7. "Every situation is a little bit different, but we'll try to take this and run with it a little bit."

There's another reason for the Cavaliers to derive optimism from their 2011 title run. It came after they had seemingly bottomed out, losing consecutive games to Duke, including 19-10 in the ACC tournament, and entering the NCAAs as a No. 7 seed. Virginia became the first team seeded lower than fifth to win the championship.

Virginia doesn't lack talent but has been hindered by inexperience as it starts more freshmen (three) than seniors (two). The Cavaliers' first three losses came by a single goal each as they blew leads of four goals (Cornell), three (Ohio State), and two (at Syracuse). Saturday's win ended a six-game losing streak, the longest by the Cavaliers in a season since 1939.

Scoring has rarely been a problem for Virginia, but this year the Cavaliers rank 44th among 63 teams in Division I in shooting (25.8 percent). Junior attack Mark Cockerton leads the nation with 42 goals and was joined on the All-ACC team by junior feeder Nick O'Reilly (20 goals, 29 assists). Another All-ACC choice, junior defender Scott McWilliams, fuels the Cavaliers' fast-breaking offense with 35 caused turnovers, second most in the nation.

Virginia has missed All-American defensive midfielder Chris LaPierre, out most of the year with a knee injury. The close defense has played well, but the Cavaliers have been betrayed by their goalies. Freshman Dan Marino came to Virginia as the most highly-recruited goalie in the nation but saved only 45.5 percent of the shots he faced and was replaced by sophomore Rhody Heller (49.4 percent), who has been only slightly better. The Cavaliers' 10.46 goals against average is the highest figure from Starsia's defense since 1996.

Goalie play has been the biggest difference between Maryland and Virginia. All-ACC junior Niko Amato has stopped 61.9 percent and is coming off a brilliant performance with a career-high 24 saves in an 8-7 win over Yale on Saturday.

As Virginia tries to avoid becoming the first ACC team since 2006 not to make the NCAA tournament, it will look back to 2011, when it snuck enough shots past Amato to deliver Starsia his fourth national championship.

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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