PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia-- --The magic number in lacrosse on any level is eight. That's the number you want to reach or limit a team to as far as goals if you want to win most games.
Virginia is very much aware of the number eight. In 16 games this season, the top-ranked Cavaliers have allowed more than eight goals only five times, and they're still unbeaten. And that's why Virginia will beat Massachusetts today in the NCAA Division I championship at Lincoln Financial Field.
Forget all the pretty offensive stuff. The Cavaliers don't give up a lot of goals.
They take teams out of their offensive rhythm because they exert pressure from the back line to the midline. They are aggressive and relentless, and they have three defensemen who not only abuse attackmen, but they also take away their will to play against them.
Everyone has heard about Virginia's offense. Fans are now comparing the Cavaliers to the Syracuse teams of the late 1980s because of the precision shooting, the quick, hard passes and the constant motion. But next time, take a look in the back at the long poles held by Ricky Smith, Matt Kelly and Michael Culver. Virginia might have the nation's best defense as well.
"They believe in constant pressure," said Towson coach Tony Seaman. "No matter what you do, they don't change their game plan. They don't back off if they give up a goal or two. Their guys attack your offense. You can't hold the ball against them. The pressure puts you in an uncomfortable position during the entire game."
Few teams have held up. Mighty Syracuse scored 15 goals against Virginia on March 4, and 10 in the semifinals Saturday, but the Orange was never a serious threat late in either game. Johns Hopkins and Princeton could only score six goals each, and Maryland combined for 10 in two losses.
Even in man-down situations, Virginia has held the opposition to a conversion rate of 20-for-72. The Minutemen can't handle this kind of pressure. They can't deal with the Cavaliers' superior athleticism on defense.
"They don't have a dominating defenseman, a Pat McCabe, like we had at Syracuse," said former Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., "but they're solid and well-balanced."
OK, maybe Virginia doesn't have a McCabe, but the Cavaliers do have senior Michael Culver. He is athletic, smart and seldom gets caught out of position. He is the shutdown specialist. Need proof? Go ask Maryland attackman Joe Walters. While being blanketed by Culver in two games this season, the Terps' all-time leading scorer was held to zero goals and one assist. Culver has also shut down other top attackmen during the past two seasons, such as North Carolina's Jed Prossner and Albany's Merrick Thompson.
Culver will probably match up against Massachusetts' Sean Morris today. Morris has 33 goals and 37 assists this season. Now, he'll have Culver and big trouble. Advantage Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers are good at accepting roles. Smith has excellent stick skills, but also speed that allows him to run down ground balls. More importantly, he can get out on the break to start clears. Virginia has a clear percentage of .851 this season, and a lot of them have gone through Smith.
Kelly is only a freshman. He'll eventually become the prototype for Virginia players, who are some of the most athletic in the sport. Kelly starred in lacrosse and as a running back in football at New Trier high school near Kenilworth, Ill. He was offered several Big Ten football scholarships but opted to play lacrosse.
He'll get a little crazy with the stick every once in a while, which drives Virginia coach Dom Starsia nuts. But he'll eventually become a star once he gets through the first-year training period. The Cavaliers have one more piece to this defensive puzzle named Mike Timms. He's 6 feet 5, weighs 222 pounds and can run with any midfielder. Culver takes out the top attackman, and Timms takes out the top offensive middie.
It's a super strong unit. Virginia can go into any game knowing it can gamble because it has enough firepower to create ample opportunities both offensively and defensively. But today against the Minutemen, it won't need to gamble much.
Though Massachusetts has been playing with great confidence, the Cavaliers will run up and down the field as usual. The Minutemen can't handle Virginia's offense, and they certainly can't handle the Cavaliers' defensive pressure. They wear teams down. They'll grind their way to the championship.