It’s safe to say that the 2011 season has not gone the way the Virginia men’s lacrosse team expected. After all, the Cavaliers lost more games in the regular season – five – than they had in the previous two years combined. For much of Sunday afternoon’s NCAA Tournament game with Bucknell, it looked like a continuation of the same script.
Fortunately for the Hoos, however, they had one last rally up their collective sleeves. UVa captured the final quarter 5-2 thanks to a frantic flurry of plays in the final four minutes and eventually won the game 13-12 in overtime. The Cavaliers advance to face Cornell in the NCAA Quarterfinals on Saturday.
“I’m not big fan of using the word character to define what you do on an athletic field, but I think we demonstrated some determination today,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “We had a little fighting spirit when we had to have it. There are some games that are going to stay with you for a long time and this is one of them. Bucknell was a great opponent and we certainly had plenty of opportunity to pack our bags, but I never thought we were going to stop playing. I didn’t know if we were going to have enough time there in the end but I personally felt it and I could feel it in the huddles. … We just kept battling and that’s one of those ones that you’re going to remember for a long time.”
The visiting Bison nearly added to the regular season doldrums. Their fans were noisy and their players were a confident and technically sound group. They held a 10-6 lead late in the third quarter and the game felt lopsided at times as they dominated time of possession. And when Virginia mounted a challenge, the visitors responded – even when the Hoos cut the deficit to one, Bucknell’s Peter Burke pushed the late-game lead to two goals with 4:00 to play.
Yet in the end, the Cavaliers had one last surge that the Bison couldn’t answer. That final charge was fueled by Steele Stanwick. For Stanwick, his season mirrored that of the team in that it didn’t go quite as expected. Due to calf and foot injuries, he has been limited in practice and he missed a game at Duke in April. When his team needed him most Saturday, however, he was there to deliver.
The junior scored twice in the fourth quarter and assisted on three other goals in the final frame and overtime. He found Chris Bocklet for a goal at 6:50 to cut the lead to 11-10. After Burke gave Bucknell a two-goal cushion again, Stanwick put home back-to-back goals in less than a minute to tie the game, which eventually forced overtime. The first goal came at 2:32 following a turnover and the game-tying tally at 1:46 was a virtual roller from the left wing. Stanwick finished with three goals and five assists while Bocklet poured in five goals to take game-high honors.
“That’s why I just love playing with Steele. He’s dodging and he always has his head up,” Bocklet said. “He’s going to the cage hard and I’m just there to move off-ball and get my hands free and give him some help. That’s what he was doing [Sunday]. He was going to the cage hard and they were sliding hard – the crease was open, I was just trying to get there and get open for him.”
“He’s only been able to practice now for about the last week and I think it’s really been hard on him,” Starsia said. “I don’t think he’s felt like he’s played in the games the way he would like to over the last month or six weeks and I don’t think he feels like he’s contributed as much as he’s wanted to. … He’s just a great kid and I think it was really important that he’s back on the practice field. It’s good for my peace of mind to see him on the practice field and even though we can’t ask him to do everything that we have everybody else doing every day, just having him out there is real plus. As we’ve had to retool a little bit offensively over these last couple of weeks, having your quarterback out there is really important.”
Stanwick also had a game-winning assist left in the tank. It came after Blake Riley delivered a slippery turf-aided check to cause a turnover against the Bison’s Billy Eisenreich, a 6’2″, 185-pound midfielder that had bulled his way to two goals and two assists on the afternoon; Riley scooped up the groundball to give UVa the final possession. Running the offense without a timeout, Stanwick set up with fellow attackman Matt White behind the goal. Stanwick moved to the right behind the cage as White approached to set an on-ball screen, but at the last moment White slipped the screen and curled along the crease line behind the net. When both defenders came with him, Stanwick dropped the ball off to White, who quickly maneuvered around the left side and wrapped the game-winning goal in to the twine.
“We knew if we did get the ball we were going to try not to call a timeout and not let them get organized. We knew we wanted to do a two-man game with Matt and I,” Stanwick said. “Before the overtime, I said slip the pick and he did. He made a great play coming around the goal and stuck a good shot.”
The goal set off an exuberant celebration from the Cavaliers, who move on to face Cornell in New York in a few short days. There the Hoos will try to reap the benefits of that unexpected regular season script as the tourney’s No. 7 seed against the second-seeded Big Red.
“I watched some of that game [Saturday] night, a very good lacrosse team, one of the fastest teams on defense that I’ve seen and a different team than we played a couple of months ago. We’re going to have our hands full,” said Starsia, who notched career win No. 326, tying him with Jack Emmer for most at NCAA Division I level. “It’s not often in the quarterfinals for us in all the years I’ve been here that we’re the seventh seed. We’ll go with the underdog status if you don’t mind and do the best that we can to keep up with the Big Red.”