A sub-.500 record and no UVa lacrosse to watch in the month of May is unfamiliar territory for Hoos fans. Virginia has made 34 of the 41 NCAA Tournaments; under Dom Starsia, we've had more seasons end with national titles than tournament misses. Virginia lacrosse is in the same type of echelon as Kansas basketball or the Steelers: even a down season by our standards should still result in postseason play.
So this isn't what we expected. Not that a national title was necessarily the expectation, either. In the season-opening polls, UVa was ranked in the bottom half of the top 10. Questions abounded around the field: what would the offense look like after the departure of all-time points leader Steele Stanwick? How would the goalkeeping fare with new faces between the pipes? Would the Hoos find a consistently dominant performer at the face-off X, an asset missing since Jack DeVilliers in 2003?
Those questions were answered in the following manner: inconsistent, poorly, and not really.
But there were bright spots. The team showed a ton of resiliency at the end of the year, staving off mathematical elimination with a grinding win over Bellarmine and a blowout of then-#1 Maryland. They kept it close and showed flashes of brilliance in the season-ending loss to UNC-Chapel Hill in the ACC Finals. Mark Cockerton had one heck of a season, leading the country in goals per game. Cockerton and many of the other key cogs return next year, no doubt with a hunger to prove 2013 was just a fluke.
Below are some season-ending "awards" and thoughts. Winners will receive nothing more than here-given plaudits.
Biggest positive surprise: The play of the close defense. Over the last few seasons, some analysts have questioned the play of UVa's long poles. The shakiness on defense a few years ago led Coach Starsia, who has typically run an all-man defensive scheme, to implement some zone looks; the change of strategy sparked the 2011 national title run. But this year's unit played up to its more-heralded predecessors. No one was better at vacuuming up groundballs. The Hoos were eighth nationally in caused turnovers, and tops in the ACC by a wide margin. Our close defense also led the nation in scoring, showing off their trademark athleticism and stick skills to help run some fast-break offense. Freshman Tanner Scales was a revelation, and Scott McWilliams turned his junior year into a coming out party. I would put that duo in the conversation for best close-defense tandem since Hughes and Koontz. Losing Harry Prevas next year is big, but returning Scales and McWilliams, along with sophomore Greg Danseglio, will be a major positive for the 2014 Cavaliers.
Biggest negative surprise: Virginia's midfield snipers. Middies Rob Emery and Ryan Tucker were lights out in 2012: two big guns guys who would make opponents pay for leaving them with time and room to shoot. In raw production, both actually posted similar scoring numbers this season. But, like most of their offensive teammates, the shots were off-target. A solid shooter hits around 30 percent, higher if he's an attackman playing inside close to the net. Both Emery and Tucker shot below 27 percent this year. When one compares the shot-on-goal percentages from 2012 and 2013, they are about the same: 53 percent in 2012, 52 in 2013 for Emery; 61 percent in 2012 and 64 in 2013 for Tucker. So the shots they fired were still getting to the cage, but not in a position to get past a goalie. And the stats matched the eye test. Much of the time, outside shots would go stickside high--in essence, playing catch with the goalie. Hopefully Emery, Tucker and the other offensive weapons spend the off-season getting back to basics and rediscovering what made them successful in the past.
Least surprising good thing: Success on the clear. For the fourth straight season, the Hoos were better than 90% clearing the ball. Entering the ACC Finals, the 91.8% rate in 2013 was best in the country. (Side note: How good is UVa's Sports Information Department that they have this stuff? Kudos, fellas.) Even without physical freak Chris LaPierre, the Cavs were able to push the ball from defense to offense. Alas, problems started once the ball GOT to the offense.
Least surprising bad thing: Goalie play. I hate to keep ragging on these guys, because it's a pretty tough position to play well. And UVa has been blessed with some outstanding goalies in the past 5-10 years: Tillman Johnson won two national titles and is counted among the best college goalies of all time; Kip Turner and Adam Ghitelman got the Hoos to four straight Final Fours and another national championship; Rob Fortunato had the benefit of time behind those guys to develop and step up for a solid 2012 season. At the start of this year, Virginia's goalie options had a combined zero starts and 20 minutes of actual in-game experience. Against the toughest schedule in the country, any brand new goalie is likely to struggle a bit. So while the 48% save percentage was disappointing, it needs to be considered in context. Marino and Heller are both solid options and should develop nicely. They'll continue to push each other in the offseason, and hopefully one will emerge as Virginia's next great net-minder.
There is lots to be optimistic for in 2014. LaPierre has a solid case for a medical hardship waiver that would grant him another year of eligibility. Both goalies and most of the defense return. Seven of our top 10 scorers return, including four of the top five. Next year's incoming class is loaded with talent, including the nation's top high school goalie, top high school face-off specialist, another Emery brother, and Zed Williams. Williams gets his own special mention because, by the end of his junior season, he had broken the New York state record for career points. This is a record formerly held by Casey Powell. He's also a member of the Seneca tribe. If you want to know what Native American scoring machines from upstate New York can do for a program, check out how Albany and the Thompson brothers are doing this year.
Lots to look forward to in 2014. Hopefully the Hoos will show a fall from grace can be followed with a return to glory.