Milestone, life lessons move Starsia
On a cold February Saturday in Philadelphia, the University of Virginia men's lacrosse team opened its 2010 season by defeating Drexel University 11-8. A total of 1,472 fans filled the stands, many dressed in Cavalier Orange. They witnessed head coach Dom Starsia's 200th career victory at Virginia.
With the win, the 57-year-old head coach became only the second coach in lacrosse history to win 200-plus games at one school (UVa), having crossed the 100-game milestone at another (Brown University). Starsia also became the first-ever head coach to accomplish such a feat at two Division I schools and has now totaled more than 300 career wins.
The New York City native is the first to say that the milestone was a collective feat, accomplished thanks to hundreds of players, coaches, staff and family throughout his 36 years of coaching. He also points out the poignancy of this record, coming after perhaps his career's most challenging 18 months.
The trio spans three generations and roles in Starsia's life: player, colleague and father. Each is also symbolic of the speech Starsia gives his players when he gathers them for a moment of silence after every practice and game. It's a lesson he says is more important than the milestones. It may ultimately be his legacy: Be grateful for where you are and for what you have. Don't take it for granted. Because you never know when it might be taken away.
On Nov. 22, 2008, then-junior UVa lacrosse player Max Pomper was taking a nap at his friend Kevin Ogletree's house. Ogletree was a receiver on the football team, which had played in its second-to-last regular-season game that afternoon. Both were close friends of UVa senior Will Barrow, a star midfield defenseman on the lacrosse team. Pomper had fallen asleep when Ogletree burst into the room.
"'Hey man, I heard something crazy about Will,'" Pomper remembered Ogletree saying. "We've got to drive over to his place."
The two sped toward Barrow's house and arrived to find a swarm of police cars. That's when they realized that the horrible rumor -- that their friend was dead after an apparent suicide -- might be true.
Pomper and Barrow grew up in neighboring Long Island towns. Pomper, a year younger, cites Barrow as a major reason he chose to attend UVa. The two started alongside each other for three years. Their fathers, also good friends, often made the seven-hour drive together to Charlottesville to watch their sons play. Barrow served as team captain on the 2007 Final Four squad and was a member of the 2006 championship team. He'd recently signed with MLL's Chicago Machine as the 11th overall draft pick.
The day before, Pomper and Barrow had volunteered at a local lacrosse clinic together.
"Will was fine, his regular self, so unfortunately I think it was just one bad night that turned into a terrible night," Pomper said.
The news shocked the team. They gathered often on the offseason days, trying to come to grips with the sudden loss.
"I've never been involved in something in which college males have been so openly emotional," Starsia said. In one of those meetings, then-fifth-year captain Mike Timms, who'd lost both his parents at a young age, addressed his teammates.
"He got up and said, 'In case you're wondering, fellas, there's no answers to this, all we're doing is trying to figure out how to live with the questions,'" Starsia remembered. "I was stunned that a college student had that kind of wisdom."
The players say that much of last spring -- and continuing into this year -- was played in Will's honor.
"A lot of guys on the team before games will write his number underneath their eye-black, and I write his number in Sharpie on my arm," Pomper said. "But to be quite honest, we don't need that to remember Will. He's in our hearts and minds every day."
As the anniversary of his passing approached this fall, Pomper decided to organize an event in Barrow's honor.
"A lot of people talked about his death and the way in which his life ended, but Will also lived an incredible life, and I wanted to celebrate that," Pomper said.
Barrow loved football and had several Division I scholarship offers to play out of high school. So Pomper organized a "Remembering Will Barrow" flag football tournament.
Initially, he thought it'd be a small event. But when word began to spread, the lacrosse community responded and the tournament grew into 28 teams from up and down the East Coast that raised more than $8,000 for HELP, UVa's student-run crisis hotline.
"I think the football tournament really helped because it gave us a way to talk about it again," Starsia said. "It gave the players a way to see that, while we may not understand this, maybe something good will come out of it."
The tournament wasn't the team's only philanthropic endeavor this fall. Senior Ken Clausen, a two-time All-American, joined with team trainer Rebecca Vozzo and teammate Todd Faiella to organize "Mustache Madness" throughout November and raise funds toward prostate cancer research.
More than 17 lacrosse teams nationwide became involved, with team members collecting sponsorship dollars while growing mustaches. "Prostate cancer is under the radar somewhat, especially at our age," Clausen said. "You see all these great things for breast cancer, so we wanted to take a different approach."
Almost every UVa team member participated toward the $33,000 raised, even those who Clausen joked only managed a few whiskers.
"Playing lacrosse at UVa, we have a unique opportunity to have an effect on a lot of people and make a difference in the community," Clausen said. "Coach has always said he wants us to leave this program a better person more so than a better lacrosse player."
The team also joined with players' parents in sending care packages to former Cavaliers defenseman James King, a Marine Corps lieutenant now serving his second deployment to Afghanistan. Team members have kept in touch with the former player while shipping care packages with everything from socks to hot chocolate to King and the 110 Marines in his command. The team also regularly organizes a Special Olympics 10K run each fall.
"This year was particularly extraordinary in terms of giving back," Starsia said. "I'd like to think that we've always been a program that has some perspective about our place in the world, but we also have had a year that's not an ordinary one by the standards of what we generally do. This required the players to assume a lot of the responsibility and we had kids who really wanted to step up and do things."
Around the first of January each year, UVa assistant media relations director Michael Colley sent an e-mail to friends and colleagues proclaiming the exact number of days until the first day of lacrosse season. Colley had joined UVa's sports media relations office in 1991 and worked with the lacrosse team for more than a decade.
And while he was also the contact for football and women's basketball, most people would say that lacrosse was his favorite. The players affectionately referred to the 46-year-old as "Media Mike." He was equally close to the coaches and staff.
They were shocked to learn in July of 2009 that Colley, while vacationing with friends in Virginia Beach, had suffered a heart attack and died.
"There are invaluable people to these services who aren't in the front of the battle lines and whose faces aren't as recognizable," Starsia said. "Mike was one of those guys -- very passionate about lacrosse and there for me at every moment. He'd also become a very good friend."
After his passing, the Virginia Athletics Foundation started a fund in Colley's memory. More than $24,300 has been raised so far toward the lacrosse program.
"It's been a year in which you lose Will Barrow, someone in the prime of his life who decides to take his own life, and then you lose Mike Colley, who in the prime of his life gets his life taken away," Starsia said. "I'm going through my father now; it's been kind of extraordinary to have experienced all these different things."
Starsia's father is currently under hospice care. While Starsia didn't go into detail over his father's illness, it's clearly an emotional issue. Starsia is extremely close to his family: his oldest daughter, Molly, is entering the Peace Corps and his son, Joe, is an assistant lacrosse coach at Dickinson College. Starsia also has two twin daughters, Maggie and Emma, who have minor mental disabilities and live with him and his wife, Krissy.
Last Saturday's win began a season filled with more uncertainty for the No. 2 ranked Cavaliers than in recent years, with regard to roles on the field. The attack is particularly young, led by sophomore Steele Stanwick (the 2009 ACC Rookie of the Year). And the senior class in particular feels the pressure of having not won a national title since 2006.
Said senior Brian Carroll: "You come in here as a freshman thinking that you gotta win at least one of the years. We've been so close these past two years and every year we've beaten the national champion in the regular season. Now it's senior year, our last push, and we really want to get it done."
Starsia says that despite roster experience (or inexperience), the goals haven't changed much in his 36 coaching years.
"On September 1st, we line up thinking we have a shot to be playing on the last day," Starsia said. "And we do. We haven't been this young on the attack in a long time, so we'll suffer some offensive growing pains early in the season. … I'm anxious to see how it plays out. If we come along and get better, we could be a different lacrosse team in the second half of the season."
At afternoon practice the day before the Drexel game, players hustled onto an alternative field. Continuous Charlottesville snowstorms had forced the team onto a cleared side field, where snow was piled as high as 12 feet along the perimeter. While several assistant coaches ran players through drills, Starsia stood in sweatpants and a UVa jacket and hat, passing the ball with Clausen. Taken out of context, the two resembled a father playing catch with his son.
"I tell people that this is not a career, this is a life," Starsia said. "I've heard others speak about separating job from home … but this has required such an investment over time, it's the only way I know how. I treat my players like my children because I don't have time to figure out a separate set of rules."
Starsia gathered his team at midfield a few minutes into practice, talking through the next day's season opener. "We gotta get it right from the first moment," Starsia implored his team, looking at the faces circled around him.
"I've never really had a coach like him," Stanwick said. "Most of my coaches have always been hands-on, but he gives you a lot of freedom. At the same time, he's one of those guys you never want to disappoint. He always gets the best out of me: every practice, every game."
Entering his 18th UVa season, Starsia has already led his teams to three NCAA titles and 11 Final Four appearances. In both of the past two seasons, UVa has lost in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament. Starsia's teams have been recognized, both nationally and within the conference, for their collective sportsmanship, even during losing seasons.
"Dom is the quintessential coach that really puts in perspective what UVa is about," says team statistician Myron Ripley, who's worked with the lacrosse team since the 1980s. "The lacrosse program is trying to get back to some realm of normalcy after such a tough year. It was hard, but also puts into perspective what's important."
Starsia was voted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2008. His office bookshelves are filled with autobiographies of coaching legends, including Dean Smith and Tony Dungy. When asked one of his proudest moments during his coaching years, he recalled not one of his national championships nor 2006's undefeated season, but the night before his HOF ceremony.
"I had 75-80 Brown guys and 75-80 UVa guys there and that was a blast," Starsia said. "I'm proud of the fact that all these guys were in the same room, enjoying each other's company. If you said that's my legacy first and foremost, I'd be happy with that … the wins and losses are fickle at best. I've always felt like this is so much more about the relationships."
Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.