Spring is near, which means it's time for a bunch of dudes to run around on a field and beat each other with sticks under a pretense of getting a ball into the net. Fresh off the program's fifth NCAA national title, the Virginia men's lacrosse team begins the 2012 campaign this week in what promises to be one of the most exciting seasons yet. Virginia, ranked No. 1 across all four major preseason polls, faces a grueling schedule of 13 opponents stretched over six states, including a trip out to the lacrosse capital of the west, Denver, Colorado.
Of this year's 13 regular season opponents, eight of them are ranked in the top 20 of at least three of the four major polls, including six of the top seven after Virginia. Seven of the teams saw postseason action in 2011, and every single one of them could potentially make a 2012 run.
The Cavaliers return 30 letterwinners and seven starters from last year's title team. Gone are the leaders of D Bray Malphrus, M/A John Haldy, and G Adam Ghitelman, as well as face-off specialist Garrett Ince and storyline makers Rhamel and Shamel Bratton. During the off-season, attackman Connor English made the decision to transfer to Cornell. English was the seventh ranked recruit coming out of high school in 2009, but last year played in only 11 games, starting five of them. During that time, he put together 6 points (5 goals, 1 assist).
In any event, this is not to say that Virginia is not still fully loaded for the 2012 campaign.
While the Cavaliers are short Adam Ghitelman, senior Rob Fortunato is ready to mind the net. Fortunato received the starting nod last year when Ghitelman was suspended for the Drexel game for a violation of team rules. There, Fortunato made 12 saves and allowed 9 goals in his first collegiate start. He finished the season with a .543 save percentage. Behind Fortunato is redshirt freshman Austin Geisler, who was competitive in last week's scrimmage against Navy, and who may very well see his first collegiate playing time in the second game of the year, against a spotty VMI team.
Returning on offense is, of course, Steele Stanwick, the 2011 Tewaaraton Trophy winner (32 goals, 38 assists) and Colin Briggs, the 2011 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (29 goals, 12 assists), both of whom, along with junior midfielder Chris LaPierre, were named to the 2012 Tewaaraton Trophy Watch List just yesterday. But those two aren't the only options, as redshirt reshman Owen Van Arsdale, the 2010 Virginia Prep League Player of the Year and No. 28 incoming attackman in 2010, earned a start in the Navy scrimmage. Virginia head coach Dom Starsia also has up his sleeve junior Matt White (20 goals, 7 assists and a first round game-winning goal against Bucknell last year), Mark Cockerton (13 goals, 4 assists), Chris Bocklet (44 goals, 5 assists and No. 10 last year in the nation in goals per game), and Rob Emery (13 goals, 7 assists) all available to play at either attack or midfield.
More on the Cavaliers' personnel and a breakdown of each team on the 2012 schedule, after the poll and jump.
On defense, Virginia looks to be saved by the return of fifth-year senior Matt Lovejoy, who returns after a shortened season last year due to shoulder injury. Starsia switched to a zone defense in the middle of the season last year, in April, a move he described as "the scariest thing you could imagine." Interestingly enough, while "zone defense" was something basically not in Starsia's vocabulary before last year, the Hoos actually practiced with it this past fall, so we can expect the unexpected this season.
While Virginia is traditionally known for its high-scoring, run-and-gun offense, this year the Hoos should be even stronger, as they have the good fortune have experience returning on defense. In addition to Lovejoy and LaPierre (who picked up a team-high 92 ground balls last season), the Hoos also have Chris Clements, who had moved to long pole in January 2011 (46 ground balls, 13 caused turnovers), Harry Prevas (who started after Lovejoy's injury (16 ground balls, 5 caused turnovers) and Scott McWilliams (20 ground balls and second on the team with 16 caused turnovers).
Virginia's stacked this year. The question marks come at a relatively untested goalie position and with respect to the face-off specialist, after Garett Ince ( 76-149 faceoffs, .510) and Brian McDermott (64-131, .489) graduated last year. Ryan Benincasa returns, who appeared in 17 games (missing the Denver one) last year and who won 50% of his faceoffs (68-136) during the season.
The 2012 season opens with a trip up to Pennsylvania to face the Drexel Dragons, ranked No. 17 in the Inside Lacrosse Face-Off Yearbook and No. 20 in both the Nike/Inside Lacrosse media poll and the USILA Coaches poll. Virginia also opened up last season against Drexel, coming out ahead 12-9. The Dragons return everybody on defense, which should provide for some much needed consistency for that team. Virginia should not choke up on this game - the Hoos are simply too talented for that.
Virginia then returns to Charlottesville to face VMI, a squad Virginia sees regularly and who the Cavaliers defeated handily last year, 22-6. The Keydets finished last season with an abysmal 2-11 record, going winless in the MAAC league. That said, it was Coach Brian Anken's first year at VMI, and they return all 10 starters from last year, losing just five letterwinners. Still, I have a hard time drawing up a scenario where Virginia falls here.
When Virginia faced Stony Brook last year, the Seawolves were fifth in the country, and the Hoos needed overtime to come away with the 11-10 victory. That was a very, very long time ago. The Seawolves finished 10-4 last year, failing to make the NCAA Tournament. They lost seven of last year's starters and are ranked all the way down at No. 29 in the Face-Off Yearbook. Now they have a new head coach in Jim Nagle, who came from being head coach at Colgate, a team ranked No. 18 in the Face-Off Yearbook.
Next on the list is a trip to Mount St. Mary's, a squad Virginia beat last year 22-6, but who also continues to move on the rise. The Mount won last year's Northeast Conference and is in a strong position to do so again in 2012, as they are full of experience, including Brett Schmidt and Andrew Scalley, who combine for more than 50 points each. Last season, Schmidt pulled in 34 goals and 16 assists, while Scalley notched 38 goals and 13 assists. The Mount also lost keeper T.C. DiBartolo, MVP of the NEC Tournament, NEC Defensive Player of the Year and the all-time saves leader in school history. However, DiBartolo was actually hired as an assistant coach to work specifically with goalies, so sophomore Chris Klaiber, who held Cornell to 9 goals in The Mount's one-point loss during fallball, will still have the guidance of the veteran star. Interestingly, The Mount will be without the man who led the team in goals for two of the past three years, as A Cody Lehrer is taking a redshirt this season in order to spread out his collegiate career over the course of five years. Mount Head Coach Tom Gravante is doing that with three of his seniors this year. The Mount is certainly capable of pulling a fast one on Virginia, but I think safe money is still on the Cavaliers.
After The Mount comes the first huge test of the season, as future ACC opponent Syracuse comes into town. The Cuse are coming in with relatively low expectations, ranked seventh or eighth across the major polls, and are in a bit of a rebuilding year. Virginia fell last year at the Carrier Dome, 12-10, when both teams were ranked No. 1 among the various polls. I, for one, am glad that Virginia gets these guys in the front half of the season, as a team that young is only going to get better as the year progresses. It's a little bit hard to scout this team because of two things: first, Syracuse will always be Syracuse, one of the absolute elite of the lacrosse world. Second, At this point, the Cuse may or may not have Kevin Drew, who Inside Lacrosse considers possibly the nation's best shortstick defenseman, and who has been suspended for an indefinite number of games in the fall. The Syracuse defense is the biggest question mark for 2012, and with Virginia's attack power this season (as just about every season), the Hoos could very well tie up Syracuse's 14-13 all-time record against Virginia.
Virginia will get one more tune-up game before heading into the real bulk of the schedule when they host Vermont in a midweek game in Charlottesville. Last season, the Hoos came out ahead, 14-6, while Vermont was receiving votes in the polls. This year, Vermont, coming in at No. 35 by Inside Lacrosse, is ranked the highest it's ever been under Coach Ryan Curtis's six years there. Top the bottom, Vermont is deeper than last year, but ultimately, shouldn't be anywhere near on Virginia's caliber.
The Cavaliers then return to the site of the 2011 National Championship to rematch Cornell in the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic, the same team they met last year in the same event. This is going to be a fun, fun game to watch as 2011 Tewaaraton Trophy winner Steele Stanwick and 2011 USILA Player of the Year Rob Pannell go head to head once again. Virginia handed Cornell its only two losses last year, once at this event and once more in the NCAA Quarterfinals. There's also a great matchup in midfielders Roy Lang and Colin Briggs. While Lang earned first-team All-American honors last year, it was Briggs who was drafted first in the MLL Collegiate Draft, at No. 6 overall. Cornell's got one of the best midfield units in the country, with most of last year's letterwinners returning in this position. This is going to be a tough battle for both teams - expect a LOT of hype surrounding this game.
There's one final tune-up before a brutal slate of games, as the Hoos travel to Columbus to face Ohio State. The Buckeyes check in at No. 27 in the Face-Off Yearbook. You know how sometimes you watch lacrosse, and you swear that all the offense is doing is slinging the ball to the top, around the side, behind the crease and back up its way to the top again? Expect a lot of this, as Ohio State will use lots of passes to try to open up the defense a little. Keep an eye out every time the ball lands in Logan Schuss's crosse. He had 32 goals and 20 assists last season, but he's a Canadian, so you have to figure he can only be so productive.
Virginia then hosts Johns Hopkins, who looks like they've finally returned to "Hopkins form" after a couple years of being questionable at best. The Blue Jays come in ranked as high as No. 2 in the USILA poll and low as No. 4 in the Face-Off Yearbook. They finished 13-3 last season, falling to Denver in the NCAA Quarterfinals. The Blue Jays' forte is in their experienced attack unit, as well as newcomer Wells Stanwick - yes, for those following along at home, that's another of the legendary Stanwick family. For Hopkins, they're pretty much able to score from anywhere on the field, whether by one of their attackmen or by one of their offensive midfielders. They've also got a strong keeper in Pierce Bassett, who allowed just 7.07 goals a game last year.
A pair of road ACC games comes next, first at College Park against Maryland, who is ranked No. 7/8 in preseason polls. It's a rematch of last year's national championship game, except that this time, the Terrapins have lost just about half their team to graduation, or whatever it is that Maryland students do after they've stayed past their four (or five) years. In fact, 42% of their offensive production, including their top two scorers, is now gone. Comparing last year's raster to this year's, they've moved a couple guys around from midfielder to attack to spice things up for everyone, but when it comes down to it, Maryland won't be the team to worry about in the ACC, at least based on what they've shown so far. They do, however, get to keep their goalie,
No. 6 North Carolina at Chapel Hill will be a tough one for the Hoos. Carolina head coach Joe Breschi is stoked about the season, in particular, the depth of the Tar Heel bench. Expect to see a deep rotation, which not only makes it tougher to scout leading up to the game, but also leads to fresh legs in close matchups. Last year, Virginia defeated the Tar Heels 11-10 in overtime on an unassisted Steele Stanwick goal, so the Heels could use the extra depth down the stretch to seal the deal. Carolina has nine players that can play at either attack or midfielder who notched at least one goal last season. Part of their depth comes from the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, who have come up big in fallball on offense. Any questions marks for the Tar Heels would come on the defensive end, who came up somewhat short in last year's campaign.
Finally comes the big matchup against No. 2 Duke in Charlottesville. Virginia always seems to struggle against the Blue Devils, and this season it certainly won't be easy. Duke returns just about everybody from last year except for their leading scorer, Zach Howell. Despite having a completely inexperienced squad last year, the Devils still made it to Memorial Day weekend, which spells trouble this year, and perhaps even more so next year when the Devils really have experienced upperclassmen leading the group. The starting attack unit, Jordan Wolf, Christian Walsh and Josh Dionne, combined for 98 points last season, and they're all just sophomores this year! This year's leadership will likely come from 2010 All-American defenseman Mike Manley, who was out last year due to a torn ACL. He's got the experience on the field, the benefit of watching from the sidelines last year, and simply, the age that commands the respect of his teammates. Duke is deep on all aspects of the game - as I said, it's going to be tough to pull in this win.
After the ACC Tournament, Virginia heads to the lacrosse capital of the west, Denver, to play Penn in the inaugural Mile High Classic. Penn is ranked No. 15 in the USILA preseason rankings and is a team on the rise. The Quakers defeated Duke last season and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament, but that's about all I can say about Penn. They return seven of their starters on a team that went just 8-7 last season. This game was supposed to be played at Penn, since they came to Charlottesville last year, but they decided to give up their home game for a trip to Denver instead, in a move that I think will ultimately hurt Penn's chances of stealing a win.