CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia found himself in an unusual but not unprecedented place Sunday afternoon at Kenan Stadium.
It's a spot neither he nor the Cavaliers intend to repeat anytime soon.
Next year usually doesn't arrive for Virginia until mid-May at the earliest. Most seasons, it doesn't come until Memorial Day weekend.
Yet a 16-13 loss to North Carolina in Sunday's ACC tournament final sent the Cavaliers into the offseason far earlier than they are accustomed after an undeniably odd year. The setback clinched a losing season for Virginia (7-8), its first since last missing the NCAA tournament in 2004.
"It's going to be strange to wake up tomorrow and not be getting ready for practice, I'll tell you that," Starsia said. "It just happened. You have to live with it and work through it and pick up the pieces and get going. I'm sure tomorrow we'll have thoughts of 2014 already."
Considerations of 2013 are sure to linger as well. For all that went wrong for Virginia, from its six-game losing streak in the middle of the season to lackluster goalie play for much of the year, the Cavaliers still found themselves in position to make matters interesting on the final day of the season.
Senior Matt White tied an ACC tournament record with seven goals. Attackman Nick O'Reilly set event records for assists in a game (seven) and a tournament (nine).
Offensively, Virginia looked like Virginia again, rattling off four straight games with at least a dozen goals to close the season. The Cavaliers might not have made a run at a national title, but a team that blitzed Maryland and tested North Carolina (12-3) would have been a headache next month.
"I think we left a lot of good lacrosse out there," White said. "It's a bummer."
If the Cavaliers' loss in the teams' first meeting was a reflection of their own problems, Sunday was indicative of North Carolina's strengths. The Tar Heels won their first ACC tournament since 1996 thanks to the potent combination of a wickedly talented offense and and R.G. Keenan's stout faceoff work for much of the day.
For as hollow a day as it was for Virginia, it was equally vital for the Tar Heels. For so many years, Carolina was the sport's chronic underachievers once the conference and NCAA tournament arrived (and sometimes before then). One day doesn't erase that label, but it's not difficult to imagine Carolina finally ending a two-decade absence from the NCAA final four.
Virginia will miss the season's final weekend in consecutive years for only the second time under Starsia (1997-98 was the other), and it is worth observing the Cavaliers roared to a national championship the year after that stretch.
That feat might seem a bit out of reach in the near-term, particularly as Virginia contends with the anguish of a season with a premature end. After keeping Carolina within sight for much of the first half, Virginia yielded five straight goals to the immensely precise Tar Heels to fall behind 12-7 and could never get back within two.
"We all know what was at stake," O'Reilly said. "It was discussed. It's hard to deal with."
Nonetheless, there's enough in place to believe this won't become a trend. Virginia, wiped by graduation a year ago, didn't have a large senior class this year. Star attackman Mark Cockerton will be back. The Cavaliers' goalies have actually played.
There's also hope in how Virginia recovered from its last losing season. The dysfunctional 2004 team gave way to a younger, capable group that made its way to the semifinals a year later and lost a wild, memorable storm-delayed semifinal to Johns Hopkins and went on to a perfect season in 2006.
These Cavaliers didn't endure the same sort of unrest as they did in '04, yet did at times succumb to youthful errors. Virginia doesn't lack of talent and never has under Starsia, but this spring there weren't as many polished players as usual. Even to the end, it was part of the difference between the Cavaliers and long-suffering North Carolina on Sunday.
"At the end of the day, we just weren't quite good enough, frankly, but we worked hard trying to be," Starsia said. "It just didn't happen today."
Or this spring, hence a early-arriving offseason in Charlottesville. Next year begins Monday for Virginia, and chances are good it will be more fulfilling than this one was.
--- Patrick Stevens