Virginia announced that it will not renew the contract of men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia.
Virginia announced that it will not renew the contract of men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Dom Starsia didn't really start missing the game until recently. After 42 years as a coach, he found himself on the sidelines in the first big weekend of college lacrosse last Saturday.

"During the last couple of weeks I'd wake up in the middle of the night and wonder where the balls are," said Starsia, who was let go as Virginia's head coach after 24 years last May. "Then I'd realize I didn't have to worry about the balls anymore."

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For the most part, Starsia has adjusted well. He is still involved in the game giving clinics, lecturing, writing or visiting with former players or coaches. At age 64, he isn't done with lacrosse, and certainly isn't finished living.

"The end of my career at Virginia is over, but everything else kind of lingers," said Starsia. "My life right now is a bit better than I thought it was going to be. I'm just on a sabbatical. I might need to go up to the house in the Adirondacks, sit on the porch and read a couple of books to get through the spring."

"Then I'll decide if I want to get back into it again or stay on the shelf," said Starsia. "We love this area. We also have a nice group home for our daughters which is only 20 minutes away. It has to be right because we are in the near-perfect situation."

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So was Virginia, which made its parting with Starsia so strange. Before he moved to Charlottesville nearly 25 years ago, the Cavaliers were good but never great enough to win a national championship.

They had everything a lacrosse power needed. The campus was gorgeous and located south, far enough from the cold winters in recruiting havens like Baltimore and New York. Virginia played in the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference with Maryland and North Carolina, but the Cavaliers needed a face for the organization.

Dom Starsia was that guy because he had an endless amount of energy and played a fast-paced style. In a sport where head coaches often lose control on the sidelines, Starsia had the easygoing mannerism that helped him bring 117 All-Americans to the school.

By the time he was finished at Virginia, Starsia had won four national and six ACC championships. The Cavaliers appeared in 21 NCAA tournaments and 13 Final Fours. Because of Starsia, Virginia finally joined Hopkins and Syracuse as national powers.

Former Virginia men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia is looking for 'another great adventure'

Former Virginia men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia is looking for "another great adventure"

But when a program reaches that level, you're only as good as your last national championship, which Virginia last won in 2011. Despite three tournament appearances in the last five years, the Cavaliers went 7-8 last season and 0-4 in the ACC. In the previous 16 conference games, Virginia won only one.

It wasn't so disgraceful that Virginia fired Starsia, but the way the school handled it was. There were rumors that Starsia was going to be retained and then a report that declared he was going to be fired. The school didn't make it official until May 23, six days after the first report came out that he was not going to return.

"I get lightheaded at times thinking about it," said Starsia. "It will take some time before I put it behind me. It affected a lot of people I really like. A lot of people got hurt. I am not walking around with bitterness, but this will not be easily dismissed."

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Starsia liked the challenges of matching X's and O's with Maryland's Dave Cottle, Hopkins' Dave Pietramala and Duke's John Danowski. He liked motivating and getting the best out of a Steele Stanwick or Conor Gill, and developing lasting relationships with his players.

"What I don't miss is the stress in anticipation of a big game," said Starsia, laughing. "I thought it would get easier as I got older. Well, it didn't."

Starsia won a lot of big games. The biggest came in the 1994 NCAA semifinals as No. 5 Virginia upset No. 1 Syracuse, 15-14. Virginia trailed 5-1 in the first period but won the game on a goal by freshman attackman Michael Watson 2 minutes and 10 seconds into the sudden death overtime.

"A lot of people had not seen Virginia play that type of game in over 20 years," said Starsia, who was in his second season then. "That game gave us and our program confidence. It set the tone for some really great Virginia versus Syracuse games to come."

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Starsia's toughest loss came against Hopkins, 9-8, in the 2005 Division I semifinals. Virginia had gone ahead, 8-7, with 12.9 seconds left in the game but the Blue Jays scored with 1.5 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.

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Short stick midfielder Benson Erwin raced down the field and scored in the overtime to give the Blue Jays the win.

"That 12 seconds seemed like a thousand," said Starsia. "And to this day, I bet you that was the only shot Benson Erwin ever took and made. And I still believe if Dave [Pietramala] had a time out left, he would have called it and we still might be playing."

Starsia is Division I's all-time winningest coach with a 375-149 record, including 10 years at Brown where he was 101-46.

"Dom got his teams to play with great confidence," said Cottle, a consultant with the Chesapeake Bayhawks. "They were always athletic and highly skilled. An excellent judge of talent, he enjoyed recruiting. He was at the top of the game for decades."

But during the last couple of years he admitted thinking about the end of his career.

"You know you are a lot closer to the end than to the beginning," said Starsia. "If you don't think about it then you are just kidding yourself because you want to plan out what comes next when it comes to an end. Coaching is a 24/7 commitment and so much of our lives are defined by that. This has been a part of me for 42 years and I have cherished almost every minute of it."

Starsia remains busy. He is helping run and organize the Harlem Lacrosse group. He has written stories for two local lacrosse magazines and made stops at Bryant and Wagner colleges, and will be visiting Loyola Blakefield soon. Pro lacrosse has already made one attempt to sign him and will make another one soon.

"I am doing a little bit of everything," said Starsia. "I don't do a lot of heavy lifting with the Harlem lacrosse group, but it's a labor of love. I am there to generate enthusiasm and awareness. I feel great, the time off has allowed me to work out regularly.

"I miss practice, the recruiting, the alumni association, the going on the field and giving a good player grief and then having him give it back to me in a nice way," said Starsia. "But right now I'm going to wait and see. I'm going to put everything off until the spring and then see how it feels. Right now, the fall has been a smorgasbord of stuff."

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