CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Nearly eight years ago, Dom Starsia found out that his twin daughters were retarded. Two years later, one of his lacrosse players at Brown died in his sleep. Another Brown player was killed a year later after being struck by a car.
Dom Starsia can't help but preach togetherness.
"After the second player died, I was pretty hollow. I didn't know what was going on," said Starsia, Virginia's first-year coach whose team will meet No. 6 Johns Hopkins today at Homewood Field. "That's when life changed. I became more conscious of my language, because it's very easy to be critical of a kid.
"That's not to say that at times I'm not critical. But I have confidence in my ability, and I work hard. I know we're going to lose some games, but I am never going to degrade or harass players into winning."
Starsia, 40, seems to be the perfect fit for No. 5 Virginia, generally regarded as college lacrosse's biggest underachiever. What Starsia has done is mesh together a bunch of stars without bruising a lot of egos.
Instead of arguing, the Cavaliers are giving high fives. Passes are outnumbering temper tantrums.
The Cavaliers are 4-1 with two fourth-quarter comeback wins against Navy and Massachusetts. A year ago, Virginia would have folded under such pressure.
"He preaches family," said tri-captain Ray Kamrath, a fourth-year midfielder from Annapolis. "He's very intense, but close to his players. He treats you like an adult and not just like a player. Therefore, he gets all the talent to come to the surface. This bonding has helped bring about a new Virginia."
Starsia is no phony. His love for family is genuine. Dom and Krissy Starsia's two older children, Molly 11, and Joe, 10, are in the exceptionally gifted programs at their schools. Their twin daughters, Maggie and Emma, 7, were diagnosed as mildly to moderately retarded at 6 months.
"Krissy thought something was wrong because they didn't sit properly at 6 months, and they didn't have regular motor function," said Dom Starsia.
Starsia went through months of denial, getting more opinions and tests from doctors. Not just on the twins, but on himself and his wife.
"We had almost every test to see how this could happen," said Starsia. "All the tests showed that Krissy had carried the children full-term, and they were both good-sized babies. For a long period, I was in disbelief about how we had gone from one end of the spectrum to the other end.
"I always thought they would get better because they looked like regular babies."
The condition didn't change, but Starsia did. He takes the twins to Virginia's basketball games, and other social functions at the school. He brings them to practice. He even enrolled them at a regular school in Rhode Island. He said they were the first retarded children to attend a public school in east Providence.
"They usually put retarded children in self-contained classes," said Starsia. "I wanted my children to be productive members of society. Sometimes, though, I question that decision. I remember two years ago we were at a pool and there were some kids, 6 to 7 [years old], making fun of the twins.
"I never considered anyone making fun of them, and I wanted to tell the other kids, go get your father so I can beat the hell out of him. Kids can be cruel at times, and I wonder if it's going to get worse as they get older.
"I try not to look too far ahead, but sometimes I look at my life and wonder if I'm always going to be there for them. They are so angelic. Frankly, there are times I see it as a wonderful blessing. Other times I wonder why did it happen to us? I have not found an answer for that question."
Attackman Vin Marinelli had completed a successful freshman season at Brown. But one morning during the spring of 1987, Marinelli never woke up. He died from congenital heart disease. Marinelli was from Elmont, N.Y., close to Starsia's hometown of Valley Stream. Marinelli's father was a New York policeman. So is Starsia's.
Starsia had spent less time with Jim Tepper, a freshman defender. During the semester break in January of 1988, Tepper was working at a construction site when he walked out between two parked cars, and was struck by a passing one.
He died almost instantly.
"Those deaths were devastating," said Peter Lasagna, who was a Brown assistant at the time. "For those kids to experience that once was awful, but twice had them asking what was the purpose of living. How could this happen to kids who were two of the greatest in the world?
"Dom was from the same area as those kids, and he wore it on his sleeve just like the players. I think that helped the players. Dom handled it in customary Dom fashion. I remember him immediately calling these long team meetings, and he kept the lines of communication open.
"If we were going to suffer, we were going to suffer through this as friends," said Lasagna, who was promoted to head coach at Brown when Starsia took the Virginia job.
"Dom's got coaching in perspective," said Duke coach Mike Pressler. "I talk to him about three times a week. He's always talking about his family and then lacrosse.
"After a game, he's always the same, kind of low-keyed whether he wins or loses," Pressler said. "This is not to say he doesn't care, because he is a real competitor. But he is more concerned about making Joey's Little League baseball game or what restaurant the twins are going to eat at."
Maybe no team, with the possible exception of Syracuse, has had more talent than Virginia during the past decade.
The Cavaliers have had 22 All-Americans during the past 10 seasons and have signed The Baltimore Sun's Player of the Year three of the past five years. This year's roster has 21 Maryland players, eight of whom were All-Metro selections.
Where has this gotten the Cavaliers since 1983?
Only to the semifinal round of the 12-team NCAA Division I tournament three times and a championship appearance once. The 1991 Virginia squad, considered by some as one of the most talented ever, lost in the first round to a blue-collar Towson State team, and last year Virginia didn't even make the tournament.
"I think maybe some of the coaching in the past was a little old fashioned and there was a lot of competition among the great players because everybody wanted to be the superstar," said Kevin Pehlke, Virginia's senior All-American attackman from Calvert Hall.
Two weeks ago, after a poor week of practice, Starsia "politely" told the team before the Duke game that the perception of Virginia was that they were a bunch of "spoiled brats," and they had acted like that in the last five days. The Cavaliers responded with a 14-10 win.
Some players are staying after practice for extra work. Starsia hasinvited others to his home. He frequently had social functions for his teams at Brown.
"This team has always had potential, but for some reason, it was not released," said Starsia. "When I was at Brown, Virginia was considered a safe game against the big boys because you knew you weren't going to get blown out.
"What I observed in my time here is that we have to do the simple, most fundamental things over and over again. Sometimes, it's not easy to tell a star he is doing something wrong after he has been doing it that way for so long."
Formula for success
When Jim "Ace" Adams (137-69 in 15 years) retired after last season, Virginia officials conducted a six-week search for a new coach that included nearly 45 candidates. Starsia beat out Princeton's Bill Tierney.
"We wanted a person whose philosophy was consistent with ours on academic and athletics," said Craig Littlepage, associate athletic director at Virginia. "This person had to be a leader, but also a positive contributor to the athletic department. I remember the first conversation we had with him. There were three people involved. At one point, we all started staring at each as if to say, 'Wow, this guy really knows what he is talking about.' "
Starsia had a 10-year record of 101-46 at Brown, the best record in the Ivy League during that period. He also took the Bears to the playoffs five of the past six years.
Starsia's formula for success at Brown was an easy one. Play aggressive defense, load up with fast attackmen, and run.
Starsia has turned Pehlke (12 goals, 99 assists) loose with attackmen Rob Falk (5, 6), a senior, and freshman Tim Whiteley (6, 7). Juniors Craig Ronald, Anthony Newman and sophomore Anthony Wilson lead the defense, and junior James Ireland has been outstanding in goal with 67 saves (allowing 51 goals).
Virginia's only loss was 9-6 to Princeton, a game in which the Cavaliers seemed intimidated by the defending national champions.
"I have won Coach of the Year honors twice, but I probably won't win it here at Virginia," said Starsia. "The expectations are high, it's like this program is on automatic pilot. What I've tried to do is teach these guys to give a little piece of themselves to the group.
"Maybe we'll turn the corner in two years, I hope so. You know, its been a long time since someone told these guys, 'Nice season Virginia.'