Virginia used to be the run-and-gun glamour team of college lacrosse. But last year, after the Cavaliers discarded their two most dynamic and undisciplined players, they found another way. With a zone defense, a patient offense and a new identity, Virginia won its fifth, and most unexpected, NCAA championship.
A year later, Virginia is still trying to master its new formula. After another bumpy finish to the regular season, the fifth-seeded Cavaliers (11-3) try to regain their edge in the opening round of the NCAA tournament against Princeton (11-4).
It is an intriguing matchup of teams with a combined 11 NCAA championships, though the Tigers also enter the tournament with questions after a humbling 15-7 loss Sunday to Yale in the Ivy League title game. The defeat left Princeton on the NCAA bubble, but the Tigers were granted a reprieve.
|Princeton at No. 5 Virginia|
|When »||Sunday, 1|
|Where »||Klockner Stadium,||Charlottesville|
"We've had a lot of history over the years," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "It will be a very challenging first-round matchup."
Virginia holds a 13-10 edge in the series but has lost all three meetings in the tournament. The losses were particularly painful for Starsia, coming in the title game in his second (1994) and fourth (1996) seasons in Charlottesville. After capturing his first NCAA title in 1999, Starsia fell again to Princeton in the 2000 semifinals. The defeats came in the heyday of Princeton lacrosse. Under Bill Tierney, the Tigers won six NCAA titles over 10 years (1992-2001).
Since 2005, however, Princeton has won just two NCAA tournament games. Sunday against defending national champion Virginia is an opportunity to regain some luster, as third-year coach Chris Bates tries to win for the first time in the tournament.
The mission for the Tigers is to contain Steele Stanwick (26 goals, 45 assists), one of the nation's five finalists for the Tewaaraton Trophy. The senior attack leads an offense loaded with talent, but production has been sketchy as the Cavaliers' new style yields few transition opportunities.
"We're a program that's used to kind of playing wide open. We just haven't had that gift or that touch for that this year," Starsia told InsideLacrosse.com. "We just haven't scored a lot of easy goals."
The Cavaliers tactics changed last April after they lost four of five games and were beaten at their own game by athletic Duke 19-10 in the ACC semifinals. The subsequent departure of All-American midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton left Virginia without its two most flashy weapons. But in the tournament, the Cavaliers thrived with new tactics.
This year has followed a similar script, minus the discipline issues. In the ACC semifinals in Charlottesville, Duke ran away from Virginia in the second half of a 13-5 victory, leaving the Cavaliers as spectators in the conference tournament final on their home field.
Is Virginia capable of another NCAA tournament turnaround?
"Princeton is certainly talented enough to persevere in this tournament. We aspire to do the same," Starsia said. "I understand their sense of unfinished business, but there is a certain sense of desperation in everybody in this tournament."