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Virginia caps undefeated run with championship

PHILADELPHIA -- Dom Starsia was trying to explain why this Virginia lacrosse team was unique.

He talked about this team's sense of purpose and presence, its calm amid a season of turbulence in the sport.

Really, though, what's been different is the losing.

The seniors, who serve as the epicenter of this team, won a national championship as freshmen. For most folks, that would be the most memorable part of the journey.

But these guys remember the next year, the 5-8 finish that meant they watched the playoffs from home, the first losing season in 17 years at the school.

And they remember last year, a crushing semifinal defeat to Johns Hopkins.

On Monday, the Cavaliers found the best way to erase those memories, putting together yet another season for the lacrosse record books. Virginia topped upstart Massachusetts 15-7 for the Division I NCAA men's lacrosse championship, to finish 17-0, the first undefeated mark in school history and the first championship team to win 17 games in a season.

The Cavaliers won their fourth national title in front of yet another record crowd. Proving that the growth of lacrosse is more than just talk, 47,062 pushed through the turnstiles at Lincoln Financial Field for the championship game, besting even the crowd at this year's basketball championship game. For the weekend, 144,688 watched what had long been pigeonholed as a niche sport.

"We're a product of our past," senior Matt Ward said. "From the 2004 season and the loss to Hopkins last year, all of it. Last year after that loss to Hopkins, we knew how close we were, but we lost. So we knew we had to work harder."

The simple goal -- to work harder -- became a team motto. They wanted each Saturday to be better than the previous one, a tenor set by the seniors who lived the highs and the lows and now graduate from Virginia as the only group to win two national titles in their four-year tenure.

Fittingly, that same group pretty much brought this trophy home.

Senior Matt Poskay, who finished with five goals, broke open a tight game midway through the third quarter when he ripped a high shot from the side, igniting Virginia's offensive onslaught. Following Poskay's lead, the Cavaliers scored six unanswered goals to put Massachusetts to bed.

Those six goals came from three seniors -- Poskay (three in the run), Ward (two in that span) and Kyle Dixon.

"I was joking with some of the parents the other day," Starsia said. "They had me cornered and were trying to get me to say this is the most special class I've ever had. I wouldn't give that to them, but this is a special group."

Overshadowed for the better part of the season by the mess at Duke University, the Cavaliers put together perhaps the quietest undefeated season in sports history. Preoccupied with the allegations, suspensions and arrests in Durham, few noticed the dominant Cavaliers who were embarrassing opponents.

Perhaps now Virginia will finally get its due. Challenged just once this season -- a 7-6 victory over Princeton in March -- the Cavaliers dismantled teams by an average eight goals per game. With offensive weapons all over the field, they led the nation in scoring and five times scored 20 or more goals on the season.

With a national player of the year at virtually every stop on the field -- Michael Culver on defense, Dixon at the midfield and Ward on attack -- this team boasts a dream talent pool.

"I don't know how many undefeated teams there have been," Massachusetts coach Greg Cannella said, "but I'll mark them up there with anybody you like."

The antithesis to Virginia, Massachusetts was a team no one expected to be playing on Memorial Day. Coming into the tournament unseeded, the Minutemen rode a strong defense to their final weekend appearance, but even after upsetting Maryland in the semifinal, were given little chance against Virginia.

That was more than fine with the Minutemen, who have turned the chip on their shoulder into a man-advantage.

For a while it appeared UMass' magical run and its stingy defense might just bring a new national champion to the table. The Minutemen survived Virginia's initial onslaught -- a 4-1 first-quarter lead that pushed the Cavaliers opening period to 81-31 on the season -- to make it 5-4 at half and an even tighter 7-6 midway through the third period, when Jamie Yaman juked Virginia goaltender Kip Turner in front for an easy goal.

"It looked like it was going to cave in there for us, but we fought back," Cannella said. "We have a lot to be proud of."

But just when it started to look like a game, Virginia made it a blowout. On the ensuing faceoff after Yaman's goal, UMass' Jack Reid was called for slashing. Reid said he had asked an official if it was OK to go after the faceoff guy while he was still engaged and was given the go-ahead, but when he made the play, he was whistled for the foul.

"I'm sure that hurt us," Reid said of the penalty. "If I could take it back, I would, but I thought I was in the green to go."

With Reid out and UMass a man down, Virginia's potent offense practically salivated at the chance to score.

It took Poskay all of 25 seconds to score, igniting the run that led Virginia to its second championship in four years.

Whether or not this goes down as the greatest season in men's lacrosse history is a debate that will rage on.

Virginia's national championship season might be the most important in lacrosse history. Desperate for good news in a season of turmoil, the sport finished the season with something positive to talk about.

"This is a group of respectful, thoughtful, hardworking young men who accomplished something memorable this spring," Starsia said.
"Hopefully we created the kind of impression here in this spring of 2006 that we all walk away from this lacrosse season with. That might be the greatest accomplishment of all."

Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at dgoneil@msn.com.