FarUp until May 1, it's difficult to believe things could have gone much better for the Virginia lacrosse team.
Perhaps not necessarily for coach Dom Starsia, whose time was split between work and home, where his father was slowly succumbing to cancer. But the Cavaliers were 14-1 after ripping Robert Morris less than a week after winning the ACC tournament, and they'd handled nearly everything in their path.
All three ACC schools, including Maryland twice. Syracuse, Cornell, Stony Brook and Johns Hopkins in a span of a month. Even Towson and Drexel were capable opponents Virginia turned back.
"I'm not sure we've ever had a better regular season, 2006 included," Starsia said, referencing the Cavaliers' perfect season of four years ago. "We never played as competitive a schedule ... We never played a [schedule] like that in all my years. The fact that we were 14-1 was just astonishing to me. We didn't have any dips. We steadily got better."
May, of course, was supposed to cap it all. Virginia went 9-1 against the eventual NCAA tournament field in the regular season and was expected to easily land the No. 1 seed as a senior class without a championship went searching for a departing flourish.
That blissfully common storyline dissipated May 3 when midfielder George Huguely was arrested and charged with the murder of Yeardley Love, a member of the Cavaliers' women's team. Virginia operated within a searing cauldron for the next 26 days, eventually reaching the NCAA semifinals before losing to Duke on Max Quinzani's goal in the closing seconds.
It was the opposite of last year's flop against Cornell in the semifinals. Yet in some ways, it was remarkable Virginia functioned as well as it did to fend off Stony Brook in the quarterfinals and then rally to tie Duke in the semifinals.
"I'm really proud of everything we did," Starsia said. "You always wish you could have one or two plays back, but somebody was going to win. It was two teams that played a hell of a game. [We heard all about how] our seniors hadn't won a championship, but how about Duke? How about five years that they'd fallen down during that weekend. I have found that because of everything that was going on at the same time, I found I can live with the final result. It's a little easier than some years. We played our butts off on that day and got beat by a great play by two great players."
What just happened: Put simply, a season unlike any other.
Virginia rarely begins a season with questions on attack, and both Chris Bocklet and Steele Stanwick put those concerns to rest with 60-point seasons.
That was backed up by a midfield with three 20-goal scorers, which doesn't exactly happen every day even for a program as strong as Virginia.
Ken Clausen shared national defenseman of the year honors. Adam Ghitelman matured in his third season in goal, earning MVP honors for a stirring turn in the ACC tournament.
And, of course, there was the Huguely matter, something that made Virginia lacrosse far better known than the exploits of Conor Gill, Chris Rotelli, Tillman Johnson, Matt Ward, Matt Poskay and Kyle Dixon combined ever did for the Cavaliers in a general interest sort of way.
In the end, there was a third straight semifinal loss. As good as that fourth quarter was, for most teams it would have been a defining moment. Alas, Virginia wasn't so fortunate.
If this was a typical season, there might be extreme disappointment at coming so close. In this particular case, reaching the end as a mostly intact unit might be the greatest victory of all.
"Duke beat us by a few and we beat them by a few, and then we play a one-goal game in the national semifinals," Starsia said. "So I would fight anybody to the death that just dismisses what happens from January to May just because you don't win the last game. I fully understand that's how these things are remembered. But I thought overall, it was one of our finest efforts. I was only here half the time, I was in a diminished capacity, and the players stood up and [assistants] Marc [Van Arsdale] and John [Walker] did a great job. It was an extraordinary regular season."
They'll most remember: For better or for worse, May. The Huguely arrest, the death of Starsia's father, the cathartic blowout of Mount St. Mary's in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the escape at Stony Brook in the quarterfinals a week later and then the semifinal setback to Duke. In the middle of it all was more attention than anyone in the program ever could have anticipated --- and the repercussions of that will linger for years, if not decades.
They'll miss: Clausen is a major loss, as any three-time first-team All-America selection would be. Midfielder Brian Carroll had three straight 20-goal seasons to close out his career, including 25 extra-man scores. Replacing that sort of efficiency will be difficult. Virginia also loses defenseman Ryan Nizolek, so that unit will be a bit green in 2011.
Starters lost: M Brian Carroll (26 G, 14 A), D Ken Clausen (3 A, 56 GB, 37 CT), D Ryan Nizolek (3 A, 31 GB, 7 CT), SSDM Mikey Thompson (3 G, 3 A, 31 GB, 6 CT), FO Brian McDermott* (1 G, 105/180 FO, .583 FO%, 43 GB)
*-McDermott could receive a medical hardship after playing in one game in 2009 and still return
On the spot: Defense. With five of six offensive starters returning, as well as the entire second line from the postseason and a goalie with 2 1/2 seasons of starting experience, it really couldn't be anyone else.
Matt Lovejoy would seem to be the surest bet; he started all 18 games after missing 2009 with an ankle injury. Another possibility is moving long pole Bray Malphrus back to close defense. The senior-to-be had 50 groundballs, 24 caused turnovers and 10 penalties thanks to frequent reliance on an all-or-nothing approach. Rising sophomore Harry Prevas is also an option after starting three games in place of Nizolek this year.
Starsia mentioned freshman Scott McWilliams from Mountain Lakes, N.J., as a possibility to start. Both Clausen (2007-10) and Matt Kelly (2006-09) went wire-to-wire as starters in their career, so there's a history of pushing freshmen into prominent roles on defense.
No matter what, it'll be a new situation for many on Virginia's close unit --- perhaps even also for Lovejoy if he slides into Clausen's role as designated cover guy for an opponent's top attackman.
"I hate to use that excuse --- we're all partially young," Starsia said. "Older guys have to carry the mail. We'll fill in the blanks. Maybe we're going to have to score more. We played good defense while our offense got its feet off the ground, and next year it could be more of the opposite. We may have to be better offensively while a young defense figures things out. I think we're certainly capable of doing that. Having stability on attack is a source of comfort on cold winter nights."
The defensive midfield will also be revamped with Thompson and Max Pomper graduating. The pair combined for five goals, which is fairly low for a free-flowing team like Virginia.
Dominance on offense will help, but generating quick-strike goals from the defensive end could also alleviate pressure on a young unit.
"I do think we could be more dynamic there than we've been," Starsia said. "We just didn't get a lot of offense. We got clearing and good defense, but I think those positions can be difference-making positions. It's not impossible to sell that to guys. You have a great chance to attack in transition, a great opportunity to score. That's exciting for next spring. We could be more dynamic."
If there is a question at the offensive end, it is the third attack spot. Matt White (19 goals, 14 assists) and Connor English (10 goals, one assist) both exploited opportunities playing with a posse of talent, but they're not assured of starting next season.
"I like the boy Nick O'Reilly," Starsia said. "He kind of fell behind White and English, but we really like him. We started to get him going a bit. The third attack spot is still in play. We've got young [Mark] Cockerton coming. There are a bunch of guys that are like to be [in the mix] for that, and O'Reilly is not to be discounted."
Far too premature prognosis: Although the Cavaliers' senior class left without a national title (the first such group at Virginia to do so since 1998), they still went 57-13. A 56-5 record against everybody but Duke certainly isn't anything to be ashamed of.
It's also indicative of plenty of talent still dotting Virginia's roster. The Cavaliers are going nowhere, and a big reason is the possibility of a thoroughly dominant midfield.
The Brothers Bratton (Shamel and Rhamel) will be back for their senior seasons, and Starsia isn't quite sure how the top midfield line will shake out. Senior John Haldy (11 goals, five assists) would be a fine option to pair with Shamel (24 goals, 17 assists) and Rhamel (23 goals, eight assists).
Starsia floated an even more diabolical possibility of using Chris LaPierre on the top line. The possibility of placing the 6-foot-2, 215-pound rising sophomore alongside the Brattons seems borderline unfair.
"The questions you ask are 'Do we have enough to beat Syracuse? Do we have enough to beat Duke?'" Starsia said. "It's unfair when you consider the breadth of the schedule. But at the end of such a small window that defines our success, that's what we have to ask. Can we beat Syracuse in a semifinal? Can we beat Hopkins if we have to to win a semifinal?
"Look at that Duke team. I'm not saying it's unfair in that situation, but that's the game we have to win. Look at Maryland next year. I look and say 'How are we going to hold [Grant] Catalino and [Will] Yeatman and [Ryan] Young down with a freshman and Harry Prevas? That's what it comes down to. We have enough to win a lot of our games. But have we got it when the margin is much slimmer?"
The Brattons, Bocklet and Stanwick will do plenty to help the Cavaliers' case, as will the return of Ghitelman. The senior-to-be gradually improved as the season went along, and Starsia sensed his growth reflected that of the entire team's.
In any case, Virginia will be back, and so will Starsia. On talent alone, it's a top-three bunch. It would be difficult to endure even more turmoil than this spring, and while the ACC remains strong, there's still more to like about the Cavaliers.
North Carolina has lost in its last six NCAA quarterfinal appearances, including four since 2004. Duke just graduated 17 seniors and finally doesn't have a bunch of fifth-year players. Maryland is still seeking a coach.
And Virginia continues to remain among the elite. It could yet be an interesting offseason --- Huguely's court hearing recently was pushed back to October, and his saga figures to have a place in anyone's description of the Cavaliers' program for years to come.
Starsia, though, plans to be around for all of it.
"I get so much from people about taking some time off, I almost think maybe I should," Starsia said. "I just seem to find myself even a little bit surprised how excited I am about the start of things. This is my life. It's all related somehow. Just the fact I'm 58 and it was my 28th season as a head coach, it's almost surprising how much I still look forward to this. I thought I might have become more jaded at this point. Maybe it's a sense that we almost lost this thing. Maybe that helps."