- Dana O'Neil, College Basketball Reporter
- 0 Shares
BALTIMORE -- They spent eight hours before their first road trip cooling their heels in the Charlottesville airport, victims of a weather delay that would turn the team dinner into a rather hefty midnight snack.
They spent the middle of the season losing four games out of five, tumbling from second in the country to 10th. Along the way, they lost one of their best defensemen to a shoulder injury, sent a two-time All-American packing for violation of team rules and indefinitely suspended another for similar team infractions.
So when the Virginia lacrosse team spent the first 15 minutes of their hour-long practice time at M&T Stadium on the eve of the NCAA national semifinal without freshman midfielder Mark Cockerton, the players hardly noticed.
And when Cockerton finally emerged -- freed after being locked in the bathroom -- without his helmet and gear, the players merely shrugged.
"I'm about to lose it because he's running around without a helmet on and these guys, it doesn't even faze them,'' coach Dom Starsia said.
Nothing does and nothing has, which perhaps is why the Cavaliers, who dispatched lacrosse newbie Denver 14-8, will play for their fifth national title Monday.
"I'll take the quality of resilience above everything else in a team sport,'' Starsia said.
The Virginia coach, then, will like his opponent. Maryland, which beat defending national champion Duke 9-4, has rebounded and regrouped this year, too, enduring its own difficult battle.
Last month, Maria Young, the mother of senior attackman Ryan, lost her three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Three days after her death, Ryan Young assisted on the game-winning goal against North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
"What these guys did for me, I can't even describe it,'' Young said. "They've been so supportive. Whatever I had to do, they had my back and when I was ready to play right after, no one said it was too soon or whatever. They welcomed me back with open arms.''
Juggling the emotional loss that Young endured with a team's dogged quest for excellence would be difficult for even the most seasoned coach. For John Tillman, it was even trickier. Tillman was hired a little more than a year ago, brought in to replace Dave Cottle, a beloved and popular coach who won plenty, but never the right games in the fervent lacrosse bed that is Maryland.
Cottle spent 28 years at the helm but was 0-for in the national championship game, extending a drought that is now in its 36th year. To put that in some perspective for the non-lacrosse aficionados, that would be akin to Iowa going title-less in wrestling for nearly four decades.
"This journey has been a lot harder than anyone knows,'' Tillman said. "A lot happened behind the scenes. Losing their coach was really hard on these guys. They were heartbroken and we as a coaching staff needed to prove ourselves. It was basically, 'Coach Tillman, don't screw this up.' I think that adversity brought us together.''
At a time when the sport of lacrosse crows about its spread across the country -- the aptly named Denver Pioneers served as proof of lacrosse's march west -- this title game is something of a throwback, pitting two of the most established programs in the game from one of the sport's richest conferences. The ACC owns 11 national championships but hasn't enjoyed a head-to-head throwdown title game since 1986.
Virginia, whose past year has been as emotionally charged as any in sport, was supposed to represent the league. With the echoes of the tragic death of Yeardley Love and the murder charges George Huguely will stand trial on in February still echoing on campus, the Cavaliers entered the preseason ranked second and started the season living up to the prediction.
They won seven of their first eight (including at Stony Brook after the delay), losing only to then-No. 1 Syracuse.
And then the wheels, doors and roof started to fly off. The Cavaliers lost four of their next five, including a 19-10 throttling at the hands of Duke.
A week after that loss, Starsia booted Shamel Bratton, a two-time All-American, from the team. Virginia has never publicly said what Bratton did, but the Washington Post reported that Bratton was dismissed for repeated violation of a strict and stringent alcohol policy the players elected to employ after a string of alcohol-related arrests as well as news that Huguely had previous run-ins with police.
Virginia's outlook at that time? Bleak would be too kind.
"I try to stay away from the blogs and all that but I can't help myself,'' said senior Bray Malphrus, who served as the collateral damage in the upheaval of the season. He was forced to move from long-stick midfielder to close defense. "I went back and read what people were saying about us in March and April and it was brutal. They were saying, 'I hate this team. I can't wait until this season is over.' I was like, 'Wow. This is awesome.'''
That Malphrus thought the haters were awesome says all you need to know about this Virginia team. Counted out and forced to remake their offense and give up their traditional defensive philosophy in favor of a more passive zone, the Cavaliers beat Penn 12-11 in what was essentially a must-win game for their NCAA tournament life and then persevered against Bucknell and Cornell to get to Baltimore.
The drama, of course, couldn't stop here. It wouldn't be fitting. A day after Cockerton's bathroom imprisonment, Starsia benched junior middie Colin Briggs for a "team matter."
And it didn't matter.
"This is a transformed team,'' said Denver coach Bill Tierney.
Or more accurately, a transformed program.
The pressure of being Maryland in Maryland is a big one, with each tourney exit deemed an upset regardless of seeding. Between its last title appearance and now, Maryland three times has made it to the Final Four, only to be turned away in the semifinals. Yet the faithful never give up, their desire to fill those barren trophy cases sending them to the seats over and over again.
"It's like we're playing for the teams that have played here for the past 30 years,'' said senior Grant Catalino, who scored three goals.
What pained the players the most about Cottle's firing was they believed they were close. This team has 17 seniors on its roster, a veteran-laden team that believed it could change its fortune.
So on the first day of classes, long before Tillman could call a meeting, the seniors invited the rest of the team over for a sitdown.
"We said, 'Welcome to the first day of the greatest time of your life. These guys in this room, they will be your brothers for life'" Young said.
It's a sentiment tossed around too casually in sports, but one that Young knows firsthand has meaning. As his mother's time neared, he went home to New York almost every weekend, leaving his team after their game and returning midweek for a handful of practices. Losing Young, the leading playmaker on the team, for plenty of practices made coaching tricky for Tillman, but no one ever said a word.
Instead, the team adopted the color purple, signifying Maria Young's commitment to the Lustgarten Foundation, the medical group dedicated to pancreatic cancer research, and on Saturday the coaching staff wore purple shirts that read "Forever Young, MY" on the back.
"You can't hear Maria's story and not be inspired,'' Tillman said. "You can't hear her story and ever complain. All of what we went through, it brought us together.''
Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from or adjust easily from misfortune or change.
Both Virginia and Maryland have shown it in spades this season.
Only one can claim a reward for their efforts.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
Neither Virginia nor Maryland enjoyed an easy season. But in facing battles, both teams showed a resiliency that has them playing for an NCAA championship.