Humbled champs still hungry

The Baltimore Sun

They don't resemble the gun-slinging, goal-scoring machine that dominated Division I men's lacrosse at the outset in 2006, then made a habit of bludgeoning opponents throughout its drive to perfection.

When No. 2 Virginia faces third-ranked Johns Hopkins today at Homewood Field, the Cavaliers will be sporting a little more vulnerability, a little less firepower and the memory of a painful lesson learned.

About five weeks after it suffered a stunning, season-opening 11-10 home loss to unranked Drexel, Virginia is a fast-improving work in progress.

The defense looks more like a sturdy backbone. The offense, which lost a combined 103 goals from a trio of All-America graduates and is in development at midfield, is an attack-driven unit with an undisputed leader in junior attackman Ben Rubeor. He is tops in the nation with 26 goals.

Remember the 2004 Cavaliers, who followed their national championship by stumbling early and often and missing the NCAA tournament with a 5-8 record? That's not happening with these defending champs. Virginia (6-1) rolls into Hopkins (4-1) riding a six-game winning streak. It already has knocked off Syracuse and Princeton.

"Winning is something you learn. I don't think it's a natural thing. It's a tough thing to do," said Rubeor, who scored 58 points last year and was one of seven scorers with at least 40 points on that 17-0 squad.

"We didn't expect to lose early in the season, but we knew it was a possibility. This team hasn't played that much together. That [loss to Drexel] kind of reassured our humility. Because of the way we've reacted to it, it has become kind of a blessing in disguise."

Virginia coach Dom Starsia said, "Perhaps [the loss] finally allowed us to put last year behind us.

"We don't have the goods to get to 20 [goals] right now. Our defense has to keep us in this [Hopkins] game. We're going to need increased production from our midfield to be the team I think we can be. We're starting to get healthy. Almost everybody is adjusting to new roles."

The Cavaliers, who lost the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Matt Ward, from their attack as well as midfielders Matt Poskay and Kyle Dixon, are built differently this time around.

The offense, which still looks to score off transition chances that the defense creates, used to feature midfielders such as Dixon, who could run past defenders from up top in a six-on-six setting. That unit was set in the fall of 2005, and it shot the ball or passed it smoothly, based on how aggressively opponents would slide. No one finished like the Cavaliers last spring.

Senior Drew Thompson (six goals, three assists) is now clearly the dean of the offensive midfield. Freshman Brian Carroll starts, and the third spot soon could belong to either sophomore Steve Giannone or junior Jack Riley. Senior Foster Gilbert and sophomore Gavin Gill, who had trouble getting on the field a year ago, add depth.

Virginia still loves to harass opponents in the middle of the field, loves to generate goals by double-teaming ball carriers. But the defense, which often got overlooked in 2006 and lost All-American Mike Culver - freshman Ken Clausen has replaced him in close - brings experience and athleticism.

Senior defenseman Ricky Smith, sophomore defenseman Matt Kelly, sophomore long-stick midfielder Mike Timms, junior midfielder Will Barrow and senior goalie Kip Turner anchor a group that has allowed just 6.7 goals per game.

At the other end, Virginia is top-heavy on attack, where Rubeor (also a team-high 13 assists) often initiates from behind the goal. Sophomores Danny Glading and Garrett Billings have followed him as the Cavs' other top scorers. The trio has produced 51 of Virginia's 99 goals and 35 of its 60 assists.

"[The Cavaliers] are scoring goals in different ways. A lot of it starts with the defense. They kill you between the boxes," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "[Rubeor] is the pulse and the heartbeat of that team. He scores on loose balls, diving, dodging, riding. He's dynamic."

As a team, the Cavaliers appear to be evolving in that direction. Besides lopsided wins over Mount St. Mary's and Virginia Military Institute, they've averaged a modest 11.2 goals per game. But they are clearing well, forcing turnovers, pushing the ball with confidence, shooting a solid 30.7 percent. They could be gathering steam for another title run.

"I love the journey," Rubeor said. "It's possibly more challenging and more interesting to work with a team that isn't necessarily rolling on all cylinders. But we're so close. I feel like our team is on the brink of breaking out."

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