One month ago, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team suspended two starting midfielders for the remainder of the season following repeated violations of team rules.
Two months ago, the team’s best defenseman had season-ending shoulder surgery.
On Monday, Virginia won the national title with a 9-7 victory over Maryland before 35,661 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
The Terrapins (13-5) fell short of winning the program’s first title since 1975. Meantime, Virginia won its fifth title, and its most unexpected. The Cavaliers set a record by becoming the first program to win a title with five losses.
The distinction was fitting, because it was a season that has hardly gone according to plan. That was the case even this weekend. On Saturday, redshirt junior Colin Briggs, a starting midfielder, was suspended for a 14-8 victory over Denver over what was termed “a team matter.”
On Monday, Briggs scored five goals.
“We had to reconfigure ourselves midway through the season,” Virginia Coach Dom Starsia said. “They had to decide that it was important enough to pick themselves up and get going again. The game today epitomized the kind of season we’ve had.”
Before the title game, Virginia’s coaches delivered a different message to Briggs from the one he heard Saturday: He could not get the 60 minutes back he missed in the semifinals.
As the only player on either team with fresh legs, however, Briggs was going to play extensively.
“I was ready to do anything Coach Starsia wanted me to do,” Briggs said.
Of Virginia’s 23 settled possessions, Briggs was in the game for 19. His fresh legs were particularly helpful given that Monday’s game was played on a day in which Baltimore had a heat advisory; temperatures on the field reached 110 degrees.
“He was the only guy who did not play on Saturday, and he looked a little bit faster out there than anybody else,” Maryland Coach John Tillman said.
Meantime, Maryland had used 20 players in the quarterfinals and 21 in the semifinals, and seemed very tired by the late stages on Monday. The players on the sideline did what they could — exhorting the pro-Maryland crowd to cheer and walking up and down the sideline giving high-fives to teammates.
The Terrapins did try to insert some fresh legs of their own. Senior Travis Reed, primarily an extra-man specialist, started the second half on attack. He was in the game also to take advantage of potential transition chances against Virginia’s patient zone defense.
Reed took two shots in roughly eight minutes of playing time; both went wide.
The transition, however, eventually came. Maryland trailed 6-4 when it got a pair of goals in unsettled play, from fifth-year senior Brian Farrell and senior Ryan Young. Young’s goal came with 11 minutes 43 seconds remaining and tied the score at 6.
While the pro-Maryland crowd and the players on the sideline went into a tizzy, Tillman and his assistants called two plays for the next possession. They barely had a chance to use them because in the final 11 minutes, Virginia dominated possession.
Senior Garret Ince won the next three faceoffs and the Cavaliers scored three goals — from sophomores Nick O’Reilly and Matt White and, finally, from Briggs, who scored with 1:50 remaining to give Virginia a 9-6 lead.
In the decisive spurt, Maryland took one shot, a long-range effort from freshman Kevin Cooper that was saved by Virginia senior goalie Adam Ghitelman with 7:15 remaining.
For Maryland, senior Grant Catalino had two goals and an assist and the defensive pair of seniors Ryder Bohlander and Brett Schmidt held Virginia attackmen Chris Bocklet and Steele Stanwick to no goals, one assist and just two shots.
O’Reilly had a goal and four assists and White added three goals for the Cavaliers.
Virginia’s season seemed in trouble after twin brothers Shamel and Rhamel Bratton were suspended in late April. By that point, redshirt junior Matt Lovejoy was already out for the year with a shoulder injury.
Around then, Starsia decided to go with what he had: He went to a zone defense focused around Ghitelman and senior Bray Malphrus, who moved from defensive midfield.
The offense became more patient and focused on ball movement and taking advantage of Virginia’s shooting — it is considered the most fundamentally sound shooting team in the country.
When asked if, in late April, anyone thought Virginia would win a national title, longtime assistant coach Marc Van Arsdale nodded his head toward the locker room and said, “Yeah, the guys in there did.”
“At times, the end goal — winning a national championship — became a little unclear,” Malphrus said. “It was fuzzy. But we kept believing in each other.”