UVa carries heavy hearts into Final Four
When a four-goal lead dropped to three, two and ultimately a tie game, Dom Starsia wondered.
He wondered if the burden of stuffing so much meaning into one game was just too much, if his Virginia lacrosse team was asking more of itself than was humanly possible.
"I did think there were times on Sunday where I wondered if our tank, the emotional tank, might have been running dry," said Starsia, the Cavaliers' coach.
The Cavaliers pulled from their deepest of reservoirs against Stony Brook to clutch to the 10-9 NCAA quarterfinal victory and now they will have to do it all over again, in games where the stakes are higher and the emotions almost palpable.
Top-seeded Virginia travels to Baltimore, just two games shy of its first national championship in four years and just six miles away from the cathedral where the players went to mourn murdered women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love and serve as her pallbearers.
The men's team has made no secret that when they take the field against Duke, they will be playing for Love's teammates as well as themselves.
"Those girls deserve everything," goalie Adam Ghitelman said after the win against Stony Brook. "We want to play for them for the rest of the year."
It is admirable and understandable and an awful lot to bear.
In UVa's first game back, an 18-4 waxing of Mount Saint Mary's, lacrosse was cathartic, a welcome return to some semblance of normalcy in a world where normal had lost all of its meaning.
Now with each passing victory, with each game closer to a national title and the added pressure of the end of the women's road last weekend, the Cavaliers are carrying a growing burden on their shoulder pads.
The players legally cannot answer questions about the ongoing investigation and reporters are reminded of that before every Virginia lacrosse news conference. That part is easy.
But deflecting the emotional questions and the stark reality of how their lives have been changed is impossible.
Starsia tries to butt in when he can, but he also knows that his team is walking an uncharted path.
"I don't think these young men need more pressure on themselves but to dismiss that all of this is on their minds would be naive," Starsia said. "For us to carry the banner of the women's team, that's just the way it is.
"We're trying to do the best we can," he continued. "I don't think there are a lot of directives for what we've been through. We're trying to be helpful to each other as best we can. I don't mean to sound too simplistic, but that's all we can do."
There is an almost bitter and tragic irony in the fact that to get to the title game, the Cavaliers first will have to get past Duke.
Three years ago, the Blue Devils played for more than a final score. On the heels of the scandal that rocked their team and cut short the 2006 season, Duke returned with its finest season, winning 17 games and the ACC title and advancing to the national title game. Johns Hopkins ended the Blue Devils' hopes, stopping what would have been the tying goal with just 10 seconds to play.
John Danowski, who took over at Duke amid the rubble and fallout of the scandal, said he remembers more than anything that his team wanted to move on, to stop talking about what happened and just play.
But he also recognizes that what the Blue Devils went through is nothing like what the Virginia teams are going through, and that his team is no better equipped to provide clarity than anyone.
"To me, it's apples and oranges," Danowski said. "We grieve as a world community for the death of a young person and we grieve in the academic community because of this domestic violence. We don't understand it. On so many levels, we can't wrap our heads around this any better than anyone else can. We're not experts in crisis management. You figure out how to survive each day and I think that's what the Virginia community is doing. There is so much emotion, so many feelings. You don't know how to sort the feelings."
And so the Virginia lacrosse team will do what it knows how to do: It will play.
The Cavaliers will walk onto the M&T Stadium field Saturday night, line up for a faceoff and, for roughly two hours, lose themselves in the comfort of their sport.
If all goes well, they will do the same on Monday afternoon.
And if all goes exceptionally well, they will celebrate later that day.
On Memorial Day, a day to remember.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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