Dom Starsia guides Virginia to title
BALTIMORE -- Drenched in enough sweat to turn his light gray pants to a dark shade of charcoal, Dom Starsia stood in the middle of the M&T Bank Stadium. Every time he turned his head, beads of water ricocheted from it, as if he were a dog emerging from a bath.
The perspiration was a byproduct of the sweltering heat and humidity, a cooker of a day that ratcheted the on-field temperatures up to a reported 120 degrees.
But it was every bit as emblematic as it was symptomatic.
With Virginia's 9-7 win over Maryland, Starsia claimed his fourth national championship and the university's fifth, adding more accolades to a season already rich with his ascension as the sport's winningest coach.
Every title, every victory for that matter, is sweet and special, but as a physically exhausted and emotionally spent Starsia received his hugs and handshakes, this one had a different air to it. Mixed in with the jubilation and the celebration was something of a catharsis, a chance for Starsia to exhale.
"Oh my God, today it's hard to gauge, of course, but I do think this one is the sweetest,'' Starsia's wife, Krissy, said. "That's because it's been the hardest.''
With the death of Yeardley Love and the arrest of men's lacrosse player George Huguely still very much on people's minds, this Virginia team had to reinvent itself time and again. Done in by injuries and suspensions, Starsia juggled and jerry-rigged the lineup and even changed to a zone defense, which would be like Jim Boeheim playing man-to-man.
Even up until the edge of the title game, Starsia and Virginia reinvented itself. Junior Colin Briggs didn't play in the national semifinal against Denver, suspended for an unnamed violation of team policy.
Which is why, in a season that has seemed so chaotic to outsiders, it was only fitting that Briggs proved to be the hero against Maryland. He scored five of the Cavaliers' nine goals.
"What [Starsia's] done, it's just remarkable,'' said Marc Van Arsdale, Starsia's longtime assistant coach. "Clearly we have talent on this team, but nobody has an endless supply of talent, so to be able to do what Dom did this year, it's amazing and to do it with all of the attacks and the remarks, it's even better. People said this was a program in disarray. No it wasn't. There were a few people that were problems.''
The problems came in the form of two late-season, news-making decisions at the end of an on-field skid. A week after the Cavaliers lost to Maryland, their fourth defeat in five games, Starsia announced that he had booted Shamel Bratton, a two-time All-American, from the team and that Rhamel Bratton would be indefinitely suspended.
The two were among the most hyped recruits to ever come to the game. Their talent was impressive but as African-American twins, many believed their appeal offered the sort of cross-cultural shift the sport desperately needed, akin to what the Williams sisters' emergence did for tennis.
The strict discipline of two of the team's best players upset the applecart on the field but, perhaps worse, only magnified the negative attention still looming around Starsia and Virginia in the wake of Love's death.
After the Cavaliers lost in last season's NCAA tournament, more than a few people thought that the school should part ways with Starsia. More than merely collateral damage to the Love murder, critics argued that he was somehow complicit. Media reports revealed that Huguely had prior run-ins with police, yet he never missed a game. Starsia and the school insisted that the coach and even the university had no knowledge of Huguely's prior problems but in the quick-to-judge world of guilt by association, Starsia was, to some, guilty.
Virginia didn't budge.
Athletic director Craig Littlepage was the associate athletic director when Starsia interviewed at UVa and part of the school's search committee.
What impressed him then stayed with him 19 years later.
"I remember the day I met him very clearly,'' Littlepage said. "I thought to myself, 'This is a special guy,' and I still believe that. He hasn't changed. He's always been a very steady, very values-based person and I couldn't be happier for him. He deserves this because he's a good man, not just a good coach.''
The good man admitted, though, to a little self-doubt.
His wife saw it. Starsia is a man, she said, who is an expert at "compartmentalizing" his life but she worried during the losing streak and the Brattons' suspension if the compartments weren't separating so neatly. She thought he enjoyed his job less and for a man without hobbies, whose solace often comes on the practice field, that was a concern.
"There's no road map for what we went through,'' Dom Starsia said. "You try to do what you think is right but you aren't always sure if what you're doing is right. I just tried to be someone who was consistent in their lives, who showed up every day at practice at 3 o'clock and who tried to be there for them.''
His presence not only resonated with this Virginia team, it uplifted them. Whatever he may have been feeling internally, he never let his players see it and they not only respected him for his reserve, they appreciated his reliability.
On Saturday, Briggs stood on the sideline equal parts devastated and disappointed but he never once questioned his coach's decision.
"The fact that he trusted me to come back and do the right thing, that says all you need to know,'' Briggs said. "There's no way we're here without him as our coach. None. He tells us he wants to be a molder of men and that it's not just about wins and losses, and he means it.''
A man who often prefaces his statements by insisting he is not prone to hyperbole and then launches into some sort of poignant reflection, Starsia had a hard time explaining the past 14 months of his life. He called it "a sense of disbelief."
It is hard to believe. Often lost in the Love tragedy and the personnel turmoil is the fact that Starsia's father, Dominic, died last year. The 86-year-old had been living with his son when he passed but Starsia had little time for personal grief as he dealt with the public trial of Love's murder.
And so as he finally had a moment to reflect, to attempt to wrap his arms around what he'd been through, Starsia thought quickly of his dad.
"I wish my dad could be here to see this,'' he said.
And then only minutes after he finished that thought, Starsia spied his twin daughters, Maggie and Emma, out of the corner of the eye. The two grown women (Starsia has four children) have special needs and live at home with Dom and Krissy.
"Come here, girls,'' Starsia said before wrapping both in a bear hug, as they danced and giggled in his embrace.
Then it all made sense.
Starsia's life has never been easy or uncomplicated. He has weathered plenty, loving and raising his girls away from the spotlight just as he privately grieved his father in the middle of a media storm.
So a topsy-turvy, unpredictable and crazily chaotic lacrosse season?
That's no sweat.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.