UVa rallies together in memory of Love
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia lacrosse captain Ken Clausen stood in front of the media Saturday night after his team's first-round NCAA tournament victory, talking about the Cavaliers' 18-4 win on the heels of a shocking and somber two weeks. The All-American had inscribed a set of initials on his eye black: "YL" on his left and "WB" on his right.
The initials were in remembrance of two UVa lacrosse players: Clausen's former teammate, Will Barrow, who committed suicide in November 2008; and women's player Yeardley Love, slain two weeks ago, for whom Clausen was a pallbearer. There were no markings for George Huguely, the men's player who is accused of murdering Love.
Signs of love for Love abounded on the University of Virginia campus this weekend. On Sunday afternoon at the women's NCAA tournament first-round game, the opposing Towson Tigers wore orange wristbands with the initials "YL"; many of the 2,270 fans in attendance displayed pins, ribbons and Love emblems; UVa's warm-up jerseys had the phrase "One Team. One Heart. One Love." on the back; men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia, sitting in the bleachers with his wife and daughters, attended the game wearing an orange and blue ribbon; and Towson players gave the Cavaliers pins of an angel holding a lacrosse stick after the game.
Before the game, the announcer asked for a moment of silence for Love. Fans, players, and coaches remained motionless until a lone voice called out, "Let's go, UVa!" and the cheers began, growing stronger and louder throughout the afternoon until, at times, the bleachers rattled with a thunderous roar.
After a hard-fought, emotional 14-12 Cavaliers victory, the entire UVa team huddled at the center of the field, each person holding up an 8-by-11-inch sheet of paper bearing Love's jersey number, 1, and waving it toward the standing crowd. The fans stood and applauded as the team walked toward Love's mother, Sharon, and sister, Lexie, and handed them the game ball.
Those signs of remembrance are now the pieces holding both teams together as they advance one step closer to possible national-championship runs. Both squads will spend another week on campus, practicing for their quarterfinal matchups, while trying to make their way after a violent, cruel act allegedly inflicted by one lacrosse player upon another that rattled much of this close-knit community.
As the case continues to unfold, many questions have been asked: Are lacrosse players more violent than others? Should the school and the team have known about Huguely's previous arrests? Could something have been done when Huguely reportedly threatened Love in the past? A darker element has been brought forth -- concerns about domestic violence and abuse on college campuses.
But on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the UVa men's and women's teams, coaches, families and fans proved that despite the prevailing sadness, wherever the blame lies, whatever questions remain unanswered, returning to the field also has provided a much-needed focus, a cause behind which to rally in the wake of so much chaos. "This was a crazy last two weeks," senior Brittany Kalkstein said. "Being together and trying to stay focused and practice is the strength we've needed to get through it."
The men's players said they learned that lesson after Barrow's sudden death. Fourth-year player Max Pomper said in February that team members still wrote Barrow's name or number in their eye black, as Clausen did Saturday night. "Honestly, Will's still in our hearts and minds every day," Pomper said. Captain Mike Thompson talked in February about how the unexplained loss of Barrow had brought the team closer together and how "we all relied on each other to get through that time."
Although such a horrific loss can bring a team closer together, UVa students not associated with the lacrosse teams said it's been unsettling at times to deal with the onslaught of media hounding students and waiting outside classroom buildings. "It's been weird," said one third-year female student, who asked to remain anonymous; she also noted that having a male student accused of committing such an act had instilled fear among women.
Elsewhere in Charlottesville, life continued as normal. The Saturday farmer's market held the typical crowd and bore no signs of remembrance or change. Jogging UVa's campus streets Saturday morning was a quiet endeavor, given most students' departure earlier this week for the summer months. The only telltale signs of Love's death were the occasional flower markings, such as the pink tulips and lilies laid in front of the Klockner Stadium sign along Massie Road.
Frank Huckstep, a 33-year-old electrician who watched the men's game Saturday night, noted that "a lot of these guys have clean records and shouldn't be blamed." Huckstep said he was laid off last year and, as a former lacrosse player, began attending the games as one of the only positive outlets in his life. "There's a lot of heart out there," Huckstep said, motioning toward the field as the men practiced before game time.
The University of Vermont men's coach, Ryan Curtis, attended Landon High School (Huguely's alma mater) and UVa, serving as a captain on the 1999 national championship team. Curtis said that Starsia was like a second father to him and that if anyone is equipped to help his team deal with such a tragedy, it's the veteran coach. "We try to know everything we can about these players, but we get them maybe two hours a day, which means there's 22 hours we don't see them," Curtis said. He also agreed with Starsia and UVa women's coach Julie Myers that it's best for the teams to cope by being together as long as possible. "I think it's best if they stay together and keep winning," Curtis said. "Still, winning the national championship won't make this go away."
For now, though, the victories have provided an emotional release and have helped unify the teams. Close to a dozen members of the men's squad sat in the stands and cheered the women Sunday.
The women's team has adopted a rallying song -- Cher's "Believe" -- which played through the loudspeakers before and after Sunday's game. It became their anthem after their bus driver, Buddy, played the video numerous times en route to the ACC tournament, which the Cavaliers won. The lyrics offer a poignant foreshadowing, but also ignite a memory that senior goalie Lauren Brenner says "is one of our most recent memories with Yeardley. It reminds us of how happy we were."
Cher sings: "But I know that I'll get through this, 'Cause I know that I am strong," a message Myers reiterated after her team's win Saturday. "This was obviously much more than just a game, and we also still need to be together," she said. "Emotionally, we've been through a lot. The girls played hard with lots of attention on them and played with a lot of positive emotion. They were truly inspiring."
The players echoed that sentiment, talking about how they've relied on each other, the UVa community and the Love family to move forward, and how they'll continue that dependence as the days unfold. "We know Yeardley will be with us until the end, and that's our motivation," said fourth-year attack Whitaker Hagerman. "We could feel the love; we could feel her out on the field."
Caity Whiteley, Love's roommate, who found her lying motionless in her bed after the attack, looked emotionally exhausted after the game, having notched three goals in her friend's honor. "Every day together, we get stronger in figuring out what we need from each other," Whiteley said, looking toward her teammates. "Today was good. It was our next step."
The first line of the "Believe" chorus, repeated throughout the song, asks "Do you believe in life after love?"
For the University of Virginia, the answer is yes.
Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.