Where things stand: Success is relative. For a lacrosse program new to Division I, a winning record, a few close losses, and continuing to hang around the fringes of the NCAA Tournament might count as success. But for a five-time national champion program, the same accomplishments don't shine quite as bright.
With more than half the season behind them, the U.Va. men's lacrosse team stands at 5-4. After reaching a season-high ranking of 6th in the USILA coaches' poll after a 4-0 start, the Hoos dropped four out of the last five and have fallen to 17th. Three of the losses have been by one-goal margins: a 9-8 overtime defeat in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse; a 12-11 loss to then-#2 Cornell; and a rain-soaked and lightning-delayed 11-10 heartbreaker to Ohio State.
Then came last Saturday. Against bitter rivals Johns Hopkins, the Cavs came out flat and got straight steam-rolled by the Blue Jays. The 15-8 loss was Virginia's most lopsided to Hopkins since 1995. At the half, Virginia was down 9-1, the fewest points in a UVa men's lacrosse half since a first-half shutout in 2005.
What's gone wrong?: The absence of Chris "Shocker" LaPierre is part of it. LaPierre--the first solo captain at U.Va. since 1981--had seen limited playing time with a knee injury before getting shut down for the year before the Hopkins game. There is an undeniable spark to U.Va.'s defense and transition games when Shocker is on the field. His moniker is not used lightly: the guy is 6'3", 210 pounds, and often as not among the fastest guys on the field. Especially with the new rules allowing for fast restarts, LaPierre's ability to trigger the fast break was supposed to play a big role in U.Va.'s gameplan.
Goaltending is another big part. With the graduation of Rob Fortunato after last season, the netminding has fallen on the inexperienced shoulders of first-year Dan Marino and second-year Rhody Heller. Marino started the season against Drexel with 15 saves, many of them decidedly acrobatic. I remember using the term "Tillman-esque" in discussing the game with my dad. Since then...not so much. In Marino's next six starts, he saved more than half the shots on goal only once: against massively overmatched VMI (3 saves out of 4 shots on goal, 75 percent). His replacement, Rhody Heller, has fared only marginally better. His 13 saves against Johns Hopkins were a career high, but still fewer than half of the total shots on goal. Combined, U.Va.'s goalies have amassed only a 47 percent save percentage.
But the entire blame can't fall on the man in the crease, whoever that may be at any given moment. The offense has been out of sorts all year. Face-offs have been a point of difficulty. Face-off specialist Mick Parks has won more than half of his draws, but has struggled late in games (especially against Cornell). As a team, Virginia is only 19th in face-off win percentage. The Hoos are compounding their woes with bad shot placement, converting just over 26 percent for the year. And the team hasn't taken advantage of extra-man opportunities: despite benefiting from 24 on the year--almost three a game--the Hoos have converted only seven. Both shot percentage and man-up offense rank 40th in the country. Out of only 63.
Has anything gone right?: Absolutely. Mark Cockerton started the year on just a ridiculous tear. In only eight games (he was benched for the season-opener), Mark has scored 27 goals. His 3.38 goals/game average ranks fourth nationally. He scored five of the team's 13 goals against Stony Brook.
Virginia's close defense has also played extremely well. The defensive unit has caused 90 turnovers, the third-best total and sixth-best per game clip in the country. Young poles Tanner Scales (first-year), Greg Danseglio and Tanner Ottenbreit (both second-years) have caught on quickly playing alongside fourth-year Harry Prevas and third-year Scott McWilliams. The caused turnovers and athleticism of our poles have played a big part in the Hoos' absurd clearing percentage: 93% for the year, on pace for an NCAA team single-season record.
So with that sunny recap, who's up next?: Maryland, the #2 team in all the land. The Terps are looking to bounce back from a surprising 10-8 home loss against a middle-of-the-road UNC-Chapel Hill team. Maryland climbed to #1 after early-season victories over Duke and defending national champs/then-#1 Loyola.
Anybody who has sat at #1 during the season figures to be a pretty good lacrosse squad. And Maryland is no exception. With 38 players and five starters back from last year's national runner-up team, coach John Tillman brings a team to Charlottesville that is deep and experienced. Goalie Niko Amato comes in giving up less than 8 goals a game with a 58% save percentage. Attackman Kevin Cooper drives the offense, leading Maryland in both goals (14) and assists (12). Cooper's partner on the attack, Owen Blye, and midfielder Jake Bernhardt are both threats from the outside; each puts about 75% of his shots on cage. Sophomore attack Jay Carlson has bounced between starting and subbing, but is a legitimate weapon whenever he's on the field: he converts 63% of his chances and puts almost 95% of his shots on goal.
What's going to happen?: These two teams are no strangers to intense matchups with a lot on the line. In 2011, they squared off for the NCAA Title. In 2009, they set the record for the longest Division I men's lacrosse game in history, a game that went seven overtimes before Virginia prevailed. This year, the game may determine Virginia's NCAA Tournament fate. You've gotta be .500 to make the tournament*; a loss Saturday drops the Hoos to 5-5, with tough games against UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke still to come.
I fear the worst for Saturday. Maryland takes good shots and puts them on cage. Virginia's goalies--Heller will reportedly man the cage against Maryland--have struggled to stop shots on goal this year. That's a bad combination for Wahoo fans. The result and effort against Hopkins suggested the team isn't handling the loss of LaPierre well. Things ain't over til they over, but another poor showing against Maryland would be a big step in the wrong direction.
* - Or win an automatic qualifier conference, which the ACC is not. To be an AQ conference takes at least 6 teams and the ACC only has 4 (UVa, Maryland, Duke, and UNC-CH). Adding Notre Dame and Syracuse next year, combined with Maryland's departure, will get the ACC to 5. Come ooooon, NC State; bring back your program.