NEW YORK (AP) — The Virginia lacrosse teams both anticipated playing for a national championship this month. They just never expected it to be like this.
The men’s and women’s teams awaited word of their NCAA tournament seedings Sunday night, a day after women’s player Yeardley Love was buried in her native Maryland. The 22-year-old was found beaten in her apartment earlier in the week and Charlottesville authorities have charged George Huguely of the men’s team with first-degree murder.
Both teams decided to play on with the support of Love’s family.
The Cavaliers men’s team was given the top seed in the 16-team field. Appearing for the 17th time in coach Dom Starsia’s 18 seasons, Virginia will host Mount St. Mary’s on Saturday night. It will not only be the first game for the team since the program was rocked by the slaying, but also since Starsia’s father died Friday after a long illness.
The women’s team, making its 15th consecutive trip to the tournament under coach Julie Myers, was given a No. 6 and will play at home against Towson on Sunday.
The off-the-field events have left both squads having to find ways to put aside their grief long enough to focus on competing in the tournament.
Starsia, who had not spoken publically since the slaying until Sunday night, said before taking questions that he was not able to answer any queries related to the investigation.
“It’s hard to put into words what this week has been like. Tragic on so many different levels,” he said, noting that he rejoined the team for practice on Sunday. “I was glad to be able to at least consider the lacrosse piece of this again, both on the field this afternoon with the team and talking about lacrosse this evening.”
Starsia has guided Virginia to three national championships, the last in 2006, and said he told the when they met on Monday that there’s no roadmap for the journey just ahead.
“We’re going to try to take this as a group and as a family and try to take this in small pieces and begin to move forward, and today may have been the first small step,” he said.
Starsia said he and Myers talked often this week, and that he was surprized when he asked her Thursday whether or not her team was planning to continue it’s season.
She gave him a quizical look, he said, and said, “Well, we’re playing.”
Few can understand the kind of attention that could follow Virginia’s teams through the NCAAs better than Duke coach John Danowski. He took over the Blue Devils’ program during the headline-grabbing, divisive rape investigation in 2006 and ’07.
The false allegations ignited debates on race, class and athletic privilege at the elite university in Durham, N.C.
The Duke team had months to get accustomed to all the attention before falling by a goal to Johns Hopkins in the national championship game in Baltimore.
“We had eight months to process it and we had eight months to be together,” Danowski said. “I can’t tell you that there’s any similarity. … They’ve got to mourn.”
Danowski says that’s why he has not reached out to UVA men’s coach Dom Starsia.
The Duke scandal prompted the university to cancel the second half of the 2006 season and fire longtime coach Mike Pressler. It then followed the Blue Devils the entire next year, forcing Danowski to spend probably as much time counseling wounded players and trying to keep them talking about their feelings as he did preparing each game plan in his first season.
“I know that winning a game or losing a game — and I said this — didn’t make you a good person or a bad person,” Danowski said. “It just made you part of a team. Winning wasn’t going to make everything go away and losing wasn’t going to. It was just a game, for two hours in the afternoon.”
Playing won’t make things right again at Virginia. But at this point, it's all they can do.
“The 70 remaining athletes have gone through so much in this short time … I have to believe that playing this out would almost be an act of catharsis,” said Robert Carpenter, a former player at Duke who founded Inside Lacrosse magazine after graduating in 1996.
That process has begun elsewhere, too.
Both Danowski and Maryland men’s coach Dave Cottle said they had met with their players last week to discuss Love’s death and Huguely’s arrest. As Cottle said, “I don’t think this is a lacrosse issue. This is a life issue.”
“I’ve been involved in lacrosse for 30 years and I’ve never heard anything like this,” Cottle said. “It’s devastating for all involved — for the families of course, and for the lacrosse community. You don’t want this to be the way lacrosse is being perceived.
“Hopefully, most people intelligently will look at it and say it was an individual act by an individual kid and not paint the whole sport with a brush.”
Carpenter said the Duke case ultimately galvanized a tight-knit lacrosse community, which has national reach but is concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. He hopes the events at Virginia generates a similar show of support within the sport for a pair of reeling programs trying to focus on a game again.
“Life’s just been turned upside down for those at arm’s length from this incident,” Carpenter said, “let alone those closest to it.”