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2014 NCAA Lacrosse Final Four: Looking Back and Looking Forward for Virginia Lacrosse

STL's resident lacrosse writers break down the season that was

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

If it's Memorial Day weekend, it's the NCAA men's lacrosse final four. While this year's Hoos sit on the outside looking in, three of the four semifinalists were Virginia opponents in 2014. With lacrosse on everyone's mind (even Will's), Caroline and I sat down to take a long, hard look at 2014—and a quick, optimistic one at 2015.

PW: An overall record of 10-6 isn't bad. And there's no shame in losing to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA tournament. But for some reason this season leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Do you feel the same way? Why?

CD: I completely agree with you. There were no 'bad' losses over the course of the season, but there was never a point where I felt that they played a full, 60 minute game. The closest would have to be against UNC in the 'Showcase Showdown', but even then there were lapses in judgement. The thing that baffles me the most, though, were all the runs given up over the course of the season. Of course runs are inevitable, but 9 goals against Loyola? 7 against Richmond (who were super impressive by the way...expect good things from them)? 6 against Duke? 8 against Johns Hopkins? Breaks your confidence...and spirit.

PW: What frustrated me was that it seemed like from the Loyola game through the Hopkins loss, the problems never got fixed. Faceoffs were a coin toss at best all year, and would go through droughts that gave the other side momentum. Fast break defense was porous. Barrett was brilliant in some situations but gave up easy stuff too consistently. The offense was content to pass around the perimeter and didn't look to cut inside or park on the crease for a feed.

There weren't really any games where ALL the bad things went wrong at the same time (except maybe Notre Dame). But it was always the same small handful of things that went wrong in any given loss.

The biggest surprise to me this year was how much Virginia struggled to clear the ball. After a record-breaking streak of seasons clearing at better than 90 percent, this year's team was 44th in the country at 85 percent. What seemed to be the cause for the decline?

CD: Ugh. Clearing issues were so frustrating. When you have a young goalie or a defense struggling to stop a momentum run (like we saw so many times), the broken clear can just kill your morale. Your question is interesting because as I thought about it, I couldn't put my finger on what seemed different this year from years past. So, doing what I do...I went to the stats.

*Side is FANTASTIC for stats. Top of the notch, much like everything they do.* [PW concurs]

In 2012, Virginia cleared at a rate of 90.7% over the course of 16 games. Their opponents cleared the ball successfully 88.2% of the time. As a team, the accumulated 210 turnovers, 57% of which were credited to the starting six attack/midfield (which is to be expected, as they are the primary ball handlers). Of Virginia's 28 failed clears, Rob Fortunato (goalie) had nine turnovers, Chris LaPierre (the Human Clear) had seven, and long stick middie Chris Clements had 11. Not saying that those were all the turnovers that led to failed clears, but you can see where the numbers come in.

In 2013, the clearing rate improved a whole percentage point to 91.8% over 15 games with opponents at 86%. Again, 57% of their 192 turnovers came from the primary ball handlers, and as a team, Virginia failed 26 clears. Dan Marino only had 2 (he's known for his quick and accurate clearing passes), Rhody Heller had 5, and the close defense and short sticks combined for 23. Impressively, Harry Prevas had ZERO turnovers, with 49 ground balls and 19 caused turnovers...nice.

This season, the clearing rate dropped to 85%, BUT...Virginia wreaked havoc on opponents, only letting the ball into the box 77% of the time. Over 16 games the Hoos turned the ball over 193 times, and here's where it gets interesting (to nerds like me). The starting six, or "primary" ball handlers...the three starting attack and three starting middies...accounted for only 37% of the team's turnovers. The second midfield plus Ryan Lukacovic, the fourth attackman, accounted for an additional 20%...adding up to 57%! How eerie. The Hoos failed an egregious 48 clears, with defensive middies accounting for 17 turnovers, the close D (plus Lisicky) adding 21 more (Danseglio with 7, Scales with 6), and Matt Barrett had only 4 (not bad for a first year goalie).

Anyway, not entirely sure what all of that means, but it's interesting. It looks like the defense each coughed up a couple more turnovers, which adds up quickly over a season. On the positive side, the offense was pretty sick on the ride, with the "primary" ball handlers plus second string middies (+ Lukacovic) causing a remarkable 32 turnovers. First year Zed Williams had six alone, which is just one less than LaPierre (another fun stat, McWilliams had 24 and Scales 22. They are BEASTS). James Pannell was also tenacious with 8 CT.

What do you think the team's biggest defensive issues were? How does a team made up of McWilliams, Scales, LaPierre, Hill, give up 11 goals per game when they look so daunting on paper?

PW: Backside cuts. Full stop. It was absolutely infuriating to see the number of times a man would slip loose behind turned heads, park himself on the crease, and slam home a feed. Barrett's inconsistency has to be attributed somewhat to facing so many point-blank, no-chance shots; the fact that he saved as many as he did tells you the caliber of goalie he has the potential to become.

As for WHY backside cuts were such a problem? If I knew that then I'd be a coach somewhere. It seems reasonable to think that switching from man to zone as often as we did could have something to do with the main problem being miscommunication. Then again, plenty of teams play multi-D looks and can do so with success. I don't want to pin too much on Barrett, given that there are senior leaders out there too, but communication issues are to some degree the goalie's responsibility.

The pure individual talent on the defensive side of the ball sure SHOULD have made it the backbone of the squad. The fact that it was something of a liability gives truth to the old adage about wholes not always being equal to the sums of their parts.

But enough negative Nancyism (TM). What did you see from this year's team that makes you optimistic about next year? What's the single biggest thing that needs to happen for 2015 to be a step forward?

CD: First of all, thanks for the 'full stop'. Makes my Navy self feel right at home. Totally agree on the backside cuts, and the effect it had on Barrett. You can't let guys from teams like Duke, UNC, and Hopkins get open looks like that and expect anyone (especially a first year) to come up with those ridiculous saves. Shout out to Matty B for breaking Tillman Johnson's first year save record, by the way.

The production of the second midfield is one of the things that makes me most optimistic for next year. Tyler German (and actually Coholan on the first line) scored just two goals fewer than Rob Emery, and Zed Williams really showed glimmers of his potential at the end of the season. Williams was visibly more confident in his performance as the season progressed (duh), and that shot has to make goalies quiver in their cleats. Also, Ryan Lukacovic will be a phenomenal add to the offensive unit, and I'm excited to see Logan Greco on defense.

Single biggest thing? Consistency at the faceoff X. Possession is just SO important, and there were so many stretches this season that correlated with those HUGE runs they gave up where faceoff wins were as rare as a moment of humility from Kanye West.

PW: And with that, we end on a note of total agreement.

What do you think, Hoo fans? Something we overlooked? Someone to whom not enough credit was given?