ACC LAX preview: Virginia

Virginia lacrosse head coach Dom Starsia talks in-depth with CuseNation.com about the new-look ACC Conference, where the team stands position wise entering the 2014 season and much more inside.

Virginia head coach Dom Starsia will be the first one to tell you that the Cavaliers 7-8 (0-3 in the ACC) showing a year ago was, well, not very Virginia-like when it comes to lacrosse standards.

"I was very proud of the effort overall last spring," Starsia said. "At the same time, I would be the first one to acknowledge and all the players would, that it's not what we are used to and it's not what our normal expectations is for ourselves. We are anxious to get back to it."

Virginia, alongside Johns Hopkins, were two perennial powerhouses that were inconspicuously missing from the Memorial Day weekend festivities. It was the first time since 2004 the Cavaliers finished with a sub-.500 record. However, that following year, the team bounced back and went 11-4 en route to the national semifinals against Johns Hopkins. The squad lost to the eventual national champions in overtime, 9-8.

So, judging history and crunching the numbers, the Cavaliers are poised for a turnaround year, right? We'll see. One thing is for sure, the competition will become a tad-bit harder in the new-look ACC Conference with Syracuse and Notre Dame entering the mix.

"I would describe the conference as epic," Starsia said. "Because we are only going to be together this one year, I just think that winning the conference in 2014 will be a special achievement quite frankly.

"You can make an argument that there hasn't been a better, stronger group of teams put together in any sport in NCAA history. As a coach, it still worries me a great deal. You're looking at your schedule in January and saying, ‘Where are we going to win a game here?' It's going to be quite the challenge for everyone and certainly makes all the games more significant."

Starsia is quick to remind me that his 2004 and 2013 teams were "different experiences." Last season, Virginia lost a couple key guys and was forced to fix some things on the fly. Those guys are back and the Cavaliers look to get back to familiar territory.

Lets take a look at what Virginia is bringing to the table position wise:

Defense: Virginia's defense, no doubt, is its bread and butter entering the 2014 year. The Cavaliers return its "one-man clearing machine" in Chris LaPierre. LaPierre injured his PCL during Virginia's first, full practice last January. Virginia, almost immediately, lost size in the midfield when the short-stick defensive midfielder was lost for the season. That same year, the Cavaliers also lost redshirt freshman Carlson Milikin, a player, Starsia notes, that would of helped out on defense after LaPierre went down. Both those guys will be back and will join senior Bobby Hill as its shorties.

Senior Scott McWilliams (48 ground balls, 36 caused turnovers), junior Greg Danseglio (35 ground balls, eight caused turnovers) and sophomore Tanner Scales (33 ground balls, 25 caused turnovers) and Tanner Ottenbreit (12 ground balls, seven caused turnovers) round out Virginia's defensive personnel.

However, one defender that is making some waves within the locker room is one of two transfers in Joseph Lisicky. The transfer hails from Lynchburg College and was the NCAA Preseason Player of the Year in 2013 before a season-ending surgery.

"When you decide to come to Virginia it's a big deal," Starsia said "He only has one year so he is desperate to show that he can help us. He brings a certain urgency to the practice field that everybody notices. Everybody really likes him."

Goalie(s): After abruptly losing its starting goalie at the beginning of the year, Starsia threw then freshman Dan Marino and then sophomore Rhody Heller to the wolves to learn on the go in a tough conference.

Starsia on Heller: "He is a year older. We threw him right into the fire last year. His first game was against Johns Hopkins on the road. Even I would tell you it wasn't fair, but it was what it was. I think he has confidence that comes with the experience of having gone through what he went through last spring.

Heller played 11 games in net last year, starting nine and boasted 48 percent save percentage. He faced 318 shots and turned away 94.

Starsia on Marino: "Marino has worked hard to get himself in shape. In a lot of ways, he is our best clearing goalies and has the most poise in the cage. Those two guys (Heller and Marino) seem a little older and less star-struck than they were last year."

Marino got the starting nod in goal at the beginning of the season until Heller relieved him of his duties in its matchup against Johns Hopkins. The then sophomore faced 177 shots on goal and turned away 46.

Freshman Matt Barrett will also compete for playing time. I got a chance to watch this kid down in Towson, Md. this past summer at the Under Armour All-American senior game. In this particular game, in my opinion, it's really hard to judge a goalie's performance in net. I can tell you, though, that Barrett is a big kid. "Space eater" is a word that comes to mind when trying to peg an adjective for him.

"Barrett is your typical goalie that's unflappable," Starsia said. "He's a big kid that has that goalie mentality. I always hate it playing against big goalies, they just fill up a lot of the goal -- that's what he does. We've had to get him in shape throughout the fall and for some guys it's an adjustment. He has made steady progress."

Barrett, however, is coming off an ACL injury he suffered back in September 2012. He returned to lacrosse last spring, however, Starsia said the touted goalie is still working out the kinks when it comes to getting into shape.

The goalies will be learning under Starsia's newest assistant coach, son, Joe Starsia. His son was assigned the position from day one of practice this fall. Joe comes from Colgate, where he spent two years as an assistant coach. It will be interesting moving forward what kind of flavor he will bring to the position.

Virginia fans, I tried to see where Starsia and coaching staff stood on naming its starting goalie and to no avail, came out of the interview with no definitive answer, which is understandable. It's still very early. Check back come February 1st.

"I'm confident that we will be better but have to demonstrate that it's going to be the case," Starsia said. "But we have good people around the goalies. I will certainly be disappointed if we aren't a good defensive team even early in the season."

Offense:

"It's an athletic conference," Starsia said in regards to his offense. "I will be honest with you, Christina, when you're sitting out there watching the recruiting, whether it's the summer or the fall, and you're looking at a kid and saying to yourself, ‘Is he an ACC middy or is he not an ACC middy?' He may be very skilled, but he may not be a middy that can hold up in the conference. It's a physical, athletic conference that you need to be tough in the middle of the field."

Virginia's midfield is experienced and athletic and will look to senior Rob Emery (22 goals, six assists) and junior Ryan Tucker (15 goals, five assists) to pace this offensive unit.

Senior Pat Harbeson(one goal, five assists and 24 ground balls), sophomore Greg Coholan (five goals, two assists) and a few freshmen, Zed Williams and A.J. Fish will all be in the running, too, to round out its first and second midfield lines.

LaPierre is also lumped into this group as a short-stick defensive midfielder.

"LaPierre is a real help there because he may be one of the best short-stick wings in the country facing off," Starsia said. "He was such a force running from defense to offense creating unsettled opportunities for us. We didn't have that last year."

Highly touted freshmen Zed Williams, a big kid out of Silver Creek, N.Y., will add a different kind of scoring dimension for the Cavaliers. Williams, an Under Armour All-American midfielder, has a resume that would make anyone's eyes bulge out of their sockets: 95 goals, 77 assists during his senior year campaign, four-time First Team All-Western New York selection, posted four seasons of at least 100 points, twice totaling more than 170, breaking Casey Powell's state career record.

Attack:Right off the bat when it came to discussing the attack, Starsia noted that this position is one of two (the goalie position being the other) that the Cavaliers will need to get better at as the year progresses. It's also a spot where this Virginia team could be ripe with young talent.

Senior Mark Cockerton (49 goals, seven assists) will add some stability to the position alongside sophomore James Pannell and freshman Ryan Lukacovic as the tentative starting three.

Junior Owen Van Arsdale will add some experience while another freshmen A.J. Fish will vie for time down on the attack end. According to Starsia, Fish was a "surprise" during the fall and was someone that really came on during that time period.

An encouraging note: during its fall scrimmage against Princeton, the attack scored seven of the 11 goals -- a good sign if your Virginia.

"To be a good offensive lacrosse team," Starsia said, "you have to be good on attack. You have to be able to score close to the goal and I think our chances are there, but you could also look at us and probably wouldn't pick us out now as one of the top attack units in the country. Hopefully, by the end of the year, you'll be saying, ‘Wow, that Virginia attack has really come on.'"

Face-off: Virginia brings back everybody and a few people Starsia thinks could help out in the long run. Juniors Mick Parks and Tyler German return as Virginia's primary face-off specialists. Parks did the bulk of the work at the dot last season and accounted for 54 percent of face-offs won for the Cavaliers (167-of-310). However, freshmen Jeff Kratky and Hamilton transfer Nate Menninger will vie for time at the X this season.

"(The face-off) wasn't a weakness last year, it wasn't even so much of a strength. We were OK facing-off last year. We were probably a little over 50 percent last year. I think we can improve on that. I feel a little bit better that we are a little bit more assertive on the face-off end."

Menninger took 201 face-offs, good for roughly 47 percent (94-of-201) while at Hamilton. Starsia said he can see Menninger as an option when it comes to another threat on the X.

"We've always sort-of worked with a long-stick facing off because you would like to have that option available," Starsia said. "We didn't do it a lot last year, we might have done it man down or something like that, but I think Menninger is an option there.

LaPierre, because of his versatility, could see time at the dot, too.

"He is one of those athletes that almost always figures something out," Starsia adds.

In conclusion, Virginia had all the parts last year, but injuries were just too much for the squad to overcome. Many overlook the fact that the Cavaliers made it to the ACC Conference championship against North Carolina and lost by three, 13-16. Who knows what the team could have done once they got into the tournament. As the old saying goes: anything can happen.

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