CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Virginia's 2003 national championship team convened in Charlottesville for its 10-year reunion earlier this month, coming to town as the Cavaliers were ensconced in what would become a six-game losing streak for one of college lacrosse's proudest programs.
A 10-7 loss to North Carolina that weekend didn't stop Virginia's current edition from looking around and wondering just what was happening --- especially since the Cavaliers' accomplished predecessors were doing exactly that themselves.
"You could just see them being like 'What is going on here? Let's get a win here, boys,'" junior midfielder Bobby Hill said.
It took a while, but Virginia finally snagged a couple entering Sunday's ACC title game at North Carolina.
The stakes are simple for the Cavaliers (7-7). Win, and they collect a second top-10 win, capture their first ACC tournament in three years and harbor hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for another week.
Lose, and Virginia is saddled with its first losing season since 2004 and won't play into May.
"If we can get this game, at the risk of being melodramatic, it would be sort of a storybook ending to this season for everything we've been through," coach Dom Starsia said.
The Cavaliers have been through enough.
Their most experienced goalie (Austin Geisler) transferred to High Point after fall ball, leaving a freshman (Dan Marino) and a sophomore (Rhody Heller) to handle the job. Arguably their best player (Chris LaPierre) played in only three games before he was shut down for the season with an injury.
All of that doesn't even include the exodus of talent from last year: Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet from the attack, Colin Briggs in the midfield, Matt Lovejoy on defense. There was already bound to be a dip; it just turned into a crater as the losses stacked on top of each other.
None of Virginia's defeats was all that stunning on its own when it happened, with the possible exception of a home loss to Ohio State. Only a 15-8 stumble against Johns Hopkins was a full-fledged throttling.
But it was not a Virginia-like season.
"I stopped paying attention to the record," senior midfielder Matt White said. "I was just paying attention to how hard we worked every day and if we were getting better. I think we did get better over the course of those games. Obviously, the scores didn't show it because we had a couple of one-goal losses early and a couple of not one-goal losses later on."
Remarkably, the midseason skid didn't evoke many comparisons to the Cavaliers' ill-fated 2004 season beyond simply losses. That was a bunch coming off a national title that lost a couple games early in Colorado and never fully recovered despite the presence of some remarkable talents.
That group went 5-8 and remains Starsia's only losing season in 31 years as a head coach.
"In both situations, we were a little short personnel-wise," Starsia said. "We were really injured that year and short at a couple spots. But that team was eating its young, so to speak. There was a self-destructive nature to that group, and there's been none of that here. This has been as positive an experience as I can recall overall. Just with the schedule we play, we weren't getting a break."
Perhaps a strong second half last week against Bellarmine was all Virginia needed. The Cavaliers rumbled past Maryland 13-6 in Friday's semifinal, dominating the final 18 minutes to turn a one-goal game into a blowout.
Now comes the rematch with North Carolina (11-3), three weeks after a strong part of the Cavaliers' lacrosse legacy watched Virginia struggle mightily to muster even seven goals. Only now, Virginia has climbed into a more comfortable place as it looks to save its season.
"Everyone likes winning," White said. "When you have a couple straight one-goal losses, morale goes down a little bit and you lose another one and it takes a lot out of you. I'm just glad the guys never quit and never stopped working."
It's possible just one game remains, but there are encouraging hints Virginia could pull another surprise and keep itself in the postseason conversation. Heller is playing better. Attackman Mark Cockerton (46 goals) remains a one-man highlight reel. White has hat tricks in two of his last three games. In general, Virginia's offense has become more efficient.
Considering how the Cavaliers recruit, there was never much doubt about talent. The uncertainty was whether it would develop. Starsia is the first to acknowledge Virginia simply wasn't good enough throughout March and early April.
The end of the season, though, could turn out quite differently.
"I tell these guys, they're going to tell stories about you guys, especially if you win [Sunday]," Starsia said. "We'll talk about this team in the future as one that wasn't winning on Saturdays but came to practice every day. It seems like I'm making it up, but all I can ask is that you come and work hard every day and we did that."
--- Patrick Stevens