In this new-look ACC, there is very little room for error. Syracuse already had its stumble against a very good Maryland squad, but cannot afford a repeat. Virginia came close to taking missteps versus Loyola and Drexel but enters Saturday with an unblemished 5-0 record. although that is against five teams with a combined 7-11 record.
In his last 21 years as the Head Coach of Virginia, Dom Starsia has had an incredible run. While at UVA he has compiled 252 wins, 13 Championship Weekend appearances, and 4 National Championships but in that time span he has also picked up two losing seasons which includes the 2013 campaign.
Last year the Cavaliers took off to a five and one start before dropping six straight. Their last 3 games consisted of two wins and a loss to North Carolina in the ACC title game. While a disappointment, one thing that can be said is the Cavaliers were not blown out in any of their losses.
This year's UVA squad is aiming to make a significant improvement on 2013. Their 5-0 record has them feeding on opponents with a combined record of 7-11. First up, the 2012 National Champion Loyola Greyhounds. It took overtime for Virginia to take down top-ten ranked Loyola in a 14-13 win. Next came close wins against Richmond and Drexel, with Richmond putting up a big fight in their first ever-intercollegiate lacrosse game. The Cavaliers made much quicker work of Rutgers and Mount St. Mary's. (The game tying goal can be found at 3:06 on the below video)
Saturday's game against the Orange begins a tough stretch for Virginia. After Syracuse visits Charlottesville UVA will face 7 ranked teams in 8 games, highlighted by John's Hopkins, Maryland, UNC and Duke. Interestingly enough, as of Monday, Syracuse, followed by Virginia, have the two toughest schedules in the country.
It will take some big wins for Virginia, and Syracuse for that matter, to not have to rely on winning the ACC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. While the tournament is expanding to 18 teams this year, the first 10 spots will go to the automatic qualifiers of each conference with the final 8 spots going to at large bids. The bottom two AQ's will play the bottom two at large bids in two play-in games. This means that with the additions of Syracuse and Notre Dame to the ACC, the best league in the country will most likely not get all of their schools into the national tournament. Every conference game has a huge meaning for ACC teams.
Below is a quick preview highlighting the names to know to get yourself acclimated to the Cavalier's roster.
UVA's attack might be strongest aspect of their team. The first line consists of Mark Cockerton, James Pannell and Owen Van Arsdale. Cockerton, a senior and native of Oshawa, Ontario, is a major piece of the offense with 18 goals on the season, including a 4 goal, 7 point performance against Rutgers, and a 7 goal game on Tuesday in a 14-6 win over Mount St. Mary's. Cockerton finished 2013 second in the nation in goals per game with 3.5 but will have much more support this season. If the name Pannell sounds familiar it is because James's older brother won the Tewaaraton Trophy in 2013 while playing for Cornell. James can hold his own however, even coming off of a pre-season ankle injury he has 15 goals in 5 games this year. At this point it looks as though Virginia has two player of the year candidates on their first attack line. The third starter, Van Arsdale, leads the team this year in assists with 12 and so far has filled in nicely as the feeder after Nick O'Reilly, who led the team last year with 38 assists, graduated.
Senior captain Rob Emery leads Virginia's midfield crew. Emery has increased his shots on goal and his goal scoring percentage significantly. He has been very consistent this year, picking up 2 points in every game except for one. After 4 games and 10 goals, Ryan Tucker is nearing his goal total from last year, and the Cavaliers will need more production out of Tucker this year to be successful. In the waning seconds against Loyola, with Cockerton in trouble behind the Greyhounds' net he dumped it to Pannel who fired it right to Tucker who bailed out his team by scoring with one second left in the game to send it to overtime. Tucker has a cannon for a shot and is another player whom the Cavs need a big year from. Both Rob Emery and Tucker were forced to play a lot of defensive midfield last year because of injuries, so being able to focus back on the offensive side should free them up a bit more this year.
At the faceoff X, junior Mick Parks took the vast majority of faceoffs in 2013 and continues to do so this year. UVA has a .540 faceoff percentage thus far, going 74-137. Overall, UVA has pretty much split with every opponent, with the exception of the Drexel game where they lost 19 of 25 with the 6 wins coming from Parks. Through Tuesday's game, Parks has a .462 faceoff percentage. The only other options for Virginia seem to be either Jeff Kratky or more likely, sophomore transfer Nate Menninger. Menniger, a Massachusetts native, transferred from Hamilton College where he 94-201 with 75 ground balls and 12 turnovers. This year the long pole has taken 6 of 11, and if Parks starts to struggle, we may see Starsia try him out.
The defensive unit is very strong. Virginia only lost one defensive starter from last year and gains defensive middies Chris LaPierre and Blake Riley who are returning from injuries last year. Senior captain Scott McWilliams earned second-team All-American honors last year and has started off this year with 10 ground balls and 7 caused turnovers. McWilliams has significant experience playing long-stick midfielder in the 45 games he started in his first three years at UVA. 2013 ACC Freshman of the Year Tanner Scales started 9 games last year. In 2013, Scales led all freshmen with 25 caused turnovers and picked up 33 ground balls. This year, he has snagged 16 ground balls and caused 8 turnovers but has given up 3 of his own. Greg Danseglio started 5 games last year at LSM, but will round off the starting defense this year.
2013 was a bad year to be in net for UVA. Both Dan Marino and Rhody Heller had big struggles in the cage, neither one holding a save percentage above 50%. In response, the Cavaliers went out and brought in a top freshman for 2014. Ranked as the #1 incoming goalie, and #25 overall player, by Inside Lacrosse, Matt Barrett has so far been adequate. He has a .480 save percentage overall, facing 158 shots. As of the beginning of the week, Barrett ranks last in save percentage in the ACC, and that is after UVA's non-conference schedule. Things are only about to get tougher for the freshman. If there should be an implosion against Syracuse on Saturday, we will most likely see Rhody Heller take over.
Syracuse's long-poles will have their hands full on Saturday with Virginia's high powered attack. At the faceoff X, a spot that has garnered a lot of negative attention for SU in recent months, this game has the potential to be a major confidence builder for Chris Daddio. UVA is not a fantastic f/o team, and can be dominated in the circle, just as they were in their 6 f/o win performance against Drexel. As much as faceoffs have been the Achilles' heel for SU, the situation might be worse for UVA. On offense, if you watched the Orange last week, you probably don't remember a lot of it. However, that is not to say the attack and midfielders did not play well, they just didn't see a lot of the ball in their end. Assuming the Syracuse defensive unit can handle the UVA offense, specifically their attack, I have no worries about SU's offense; they can score with the best of them. Additionally, what I've seen of Matt Barrett has been good, but not nearly to the same caliber of Maryland's Nick Amato; getting a lot of shots on the freshman and scoring early will be key. On the other side, I'm interested to see how the goalie situation plays out for SU. This is a very important game for Syracuse, if only to see how the players react to a miserable performance last week. This early in the season, it's hard to tell, but I think Syracuse takes it 13-9.
Virginia hosts Syracuse at 7:30 pm on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3, and ESPN Radio 97.7 FM.