For most of last season, Virginia found itself atop the national rankings, and for good reason. With road wins against then-No.1 Syracuse, then-No. 9 Johns Hopkins and then-No.10 North Carolina, as well as a home win against then-No. 4 Cornell, Virginia's domination of Division 1 men's lacrosse was for the most part undisputed.
Two blowout losses to conference rival Duke introduced doubts that many of Virginia's key wins were flukey, a perception exacerbated by the fact that so many of the Cavaliers' games were won by razor-thin margins.
Virginia bounced back, however, and started out the NCAA tournament on fire. After devastating Villanova 18-6, the Cavaliers defeated Johns Hopkins 19-8, handing the Jays their biggest loss in NCAA tournament history. It seemed the Cavaliers were championship-bound. Virginia was sent home in the semifinals, though, by a convincing 15-6 defeat at the hands of Cornell.
After three months spent dwelling on their postseason woes, Virginia is back on the field and using fall ball as a chance to prepare for another season of extremely tough lacrosse and another chance at the ultimate Division 1 lacrosse prize.
"No matter what we are doing, you want to play well," coach Dom Starsia said of the Cavs' fall preparations. "As much as anything, you are introducing the freshmen to what you are doing, trying to get them acclimated. [We are trying] to determine which are going to help us a little bit."
The biggest question mark for Virginia this season is undoubtedly its attack. After having one of the best attack lines in the country in 2009, the Cavaliers graduated two All-ACC seniors in Danny Glading and Garrett Billings. This season, their most experienced attackman will be sophomore Steele Stanwick.
Stanwick was second in points for the Cavaliers last season, with 36 goals and 22 assists. This spring, though, Stanwick will go from being the most inexperienced attackman facing each team's weakest defender to being the most experienced attackman facing each team's strongest defender.
"[The attackmen] have all done a good job," Starsia said. "They haven't really distinguished themselves."
As of right now, it looks like freshman Connor English and sophomore Chris Bocklet will join Stanwick. With many months left before the season, however, Starsia stresses that the situation could easily change with up-and-comers such as sophomore Matt Kugler and freshman Matt White.
"We are going to be into the season before [the attack line] begins to determine itself," Starsia said. "If you have three guys and you are all set like last year, that's fine … being as young as we are, I think we are probably going to freak out a little bit. We are better off having four or five guys so that we have a little flexibility as we get into the spring."
While Virginia loses experience on attack, the Cavs will be able to put together a potent midfield in 2010 -- an advantage they are likely to exploit in an effort to find production on the offensive end of the field.
"We will [change our offensive strategy]," Starsia said, but added, "We don't need to decide exactly how we are going to play all that right now. The thought that we are going to be a team that attacks from the midfield is certainly there. If these attackmen are not quite ready, you feel like with Rhamel [Bratton] and Shamel [Bratton] and Brian Carroll and [John] Haldy in particular, we could play four middies in some different sets."
It goes without saying that with the loss of Billings and Glading the Cavaliers will also take a hit on extra-man opportunities. Already a weak spot last season, Virginia hopes to find a way to take better advantage of these scoring opportunities in 2010.
"I think we've looked pretty good in practice," Starsia said. "You lose a Danny and Garrett on the extra man and you certainly feel like you are going to be in transition with that. But Steele in sort of the quarterback's role, he's just very slick and very smart and just has great eyes. … So far in practice, we have looked better than I might have expected."
Back and Better
Defensively, Virginia looks to return a more solid core than on their attack. Seniors Ken Clausen and Ryan Nizolek return for close defense, while junior Matt Lovejoy returns to the lineup after missing most of last season due to an ankle injury.
"As a unit, we have been working on getting tougher; that's been a theme we have had throughout the whole fall," Clausen said. "We've been trying to have consistency more than anything."
Consistency is one thing the Virginia defense lacked during a dramatic 2009 season. An example is the game against Syracuse in which Virginia found itself up five goals with five minutes left -- what was a comfortable cushion turned into a tight one-goal lead by the end of regulation. Or the Cavaliers' first matchup against Johns Hopkins, when they were sitting on a 12-8 lead going into the third quarter but managed to give up seven goals in 15 minutes and had to fight their way to yet another one-goal victory.
This season, in addition to a solid starting three, the Virginia defense will be supplemented by promising freshmen Howie Long and Harry Prevas. Junior Bray Malphrus, who saw limited playing time last year, will take over at longstick middie for the graduated Mike Timms.
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