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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Virginia's undefeated, but not by much

The Virginia Cavaliers keep winning big games by one goal. They won at Syracuse 13-12, early in the season, and then at Johns Hopkins 16-15 a month later. They hosted Maryland in the record-setting 7-overtime game, winning 10-9. U.Va. came back to beat a North Carolina team desperate for an ACC win at the Meadowlands, 11-10. The only really good team that this Virginia squad beat by a bigger spread was Cornell, in Charlottesville, 14-10. Of course they've achieved extended margins against many second-tier teams on their schedule, such as Drexel, Bryant, Stony Brook, Mount St. Mary's, VMI and Vermont, not to mention a big 10-2 win over struggling Towson.

So do 1-goal wins provide more evidence of a team always teetering on the brink of a loss, or do they show a team that has the composure to win the close games? Well both, really. Certainly Virginia has the confidence now to know it can win in overtime or in a close game. But the Cavaliers also have proven that they can get into close games after running out to a great lead. Hopkins and Syracuse were way down but U.Va. just could not close the door. In my opinion, the U.Va. defense betrays the offense and the offense bails the defense out in the last minute.

Cornell proved in that 4-point loss that the short-stick defenders for Virginia could be beaten and that Ken Clausen, Virginia's flashy star defender, will take too many risks to make the big play. Hopkins, Syracuse and North Carolina each attacked that weakness in the Virginia defense to a great degree of success. But each of those teams could not defend against the nation's best attack and the individual star efforts of the Virginia midfielders.

The other key to all of the 1-goal wins for Virginia has been the stellar fourth-quarter play of goalkeeper Adam Ghitelman. He has literally saved each game. Whatever else happened in these exciting contests, Ghitelman was really the difference. When great goalie play determines victories, it can mean a team is flying by the seat of their pants.But it can also be the difference in the tournament between early exit and a title.

It's interesting that Cornell is even on the schedule this year. The Cavs used to play Princeton yearly, but this year they played Cornell instead. It's only interesting because it is Princeton that would give Virginia fits this year, with a super-disciplined and selfless defense and a run-and-gun open-style offense that could trouble the Virginia defenders easily in my opinion. We will likely get to see that matchup later on though, as both teams should reach the Final Four.

I think there is one great advantage Virginia has over the other contenders this year: the Cavaliers have glaring issues at defense and are still undefeated. Their problems can be overcome before they have a chance to be embarrassed against Princeton. Virginia's best defender is actually Mike Timms. Timms has consistently taken a great offensive player out of the game entirely while also having to back up in instances of Clausen's failed heroics. If Clausen bought into a team-defense approach, this team would be unstoppable and win these close ones by wide margins.

Dom Starsia enjoys employing specialists on the field. He likes to use different personnel on offense on defense at midfield. That's supposed to mean that the best athletes are always on the field, but when a top opposing middie is matched up against a Max Pomper or John Haldy, for example, the troubles are just starting. Once one of them is beaten, Clausen overextends and the others on defense have to make up for that. With more discipline and the best athletes on defensive midfield, Virginia would be one of the great teams of all time and likely remain undefeated through the postseason.

Virginia might run the table anyway. It's not like they didn't get the top recruits for the last few years. They have massive amounts of talent rusting on the bench. Virginia is easily the deepest team in the nation and they play fewer personnel than most. You either start at U.Va. or you rot on the vine. The investment into some players is immense while others are like unwanted stepchildren. It's been that way at U.Va. since the days of Ace Adams, who could have won many championships with the talent he recruited and subsequently squandered.

These are sure signs of over-recruiting, which any coach would do if he had star blue-chippers lined up to ride the bench for him. Virginia has always had that luxury. It's the No. 1 dream-destination college for lacrosse because it has such a great balance of lacrosse, education, social life and big-time sports campus experiences with basketball and football programs in the ACC. And over-recruiting is a misnomer. I'm not saying Dom Starsia doesn't recruit, but he doesn't have to. I figure the most repetitive task in a Virginia lacrosse recruiter's day is sending the gentle blow-off e-mail or just saying "no" generally.

The Cavs will face Duke and Dartmouth and then they are into the ACC and NCAA tournaments as the No. 1 seed in both. So they'll see North Carolina again soon. Virginia, as they are now, has a chance to be one of those amazing undefeated championship teams, but they will stumble up onto that pedestal at this rate. More evident to me is what a waste it would be for this team to lose just one of those 1-goal games, when it matters, and not fulfill what is assumed to be their destiny.

April 3, 2009
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