Virginia lacrosse Coach Dom Starsia sticks to his methods in wake of tumultuous year

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; D01

CHARLOTTESVILLE - In recent months, the members of the Virginia men's lacrosse team have sported blue rubber wristbands inscribed with the latin phrase "amat victoria curam." Loosely translated, that means "victory loves careful preparation," but the strict translation - "victory favors those who take pains" - might be more fitting.

The Cavaliers have taken many pains over the last 10 months as they've tried to move past the events of last May and focus on a 2011 campaign filled with national title aspirations. That path begins Saturday when Virginia hosts Drexel in its season opener.

For Coach Dom Starsia, the past year has included the death of his father, a health scare for his wife and the allegation that one of his players, George Huguely, murdered Yeardley Love, a member of the Virginia women's lacrosse program. Those events forced Starsia to evolve but not, he said, fundamentally change who he is or what he preaches.

His methods, for the most part, have proven true, and he sees no reason to amend them now.

"Going to college is about growing up," said Starsia, who has won three national titles at Virginia. "It's about learning to make decisions as a man. And for me, as the lacrosse coach, for all the years I've been doing this, to just say, 'Okay, here's the policy,' and to stick my head in the sand and think that it's being carried out exactly the way I mandated it is unrealistic. I was a college athlete. I know how these things work.

"And so throughout my career I've always, you know, the players are part of the process. They're part of the decision-making. And that hasn't changed."

Starsia's steadfastness stands in the face of the fallout from last spring, when Love's death led to public revelations of Huguely's history of misdeeds - which included drunkenly assaulting a police officer in Lexington, Va. - and of the eight Virginia men's lacrosse players who had been arrested for alcohol-related incidents (two were found not guilty) during their time at the school.

Many coaches who survived such a storm might have looked to assume more control over their teams. Starsia believes that would be doing an injustice to the players currently under his watch. In his mind, they deserve the same opportunities to mature and make their own decisions as those who came before them.

When asked whether the team's alcohol policy had been set for the 2011 season, Starsia said he believed it had, but he could not provide specifics.

"I'm not involved in the final decision part of that," Starsia said, echoing the hands-off approach he has taken throughout his coaching career. "My job is to provide the team with the rules for the university and the state and the [athletic] department, and we live by those rules. I know that the team has had a series of discussions amongst themselves about different standards that they're going to hold themselves to. I'm not part of those conversations because I want them to be able to figure it out for themselves."

Several Virginia players declined to reveal the exact outline of the alcohol policy the team chose to implement this season, though senior defenseman Bray Malphrus called it "the strictest, most stringent rule since I've been here."

"And that's by design," he added.

While the team's rule may in part have been a reaction to the events of last May, it's also a reflection, Malphrus said, of the sense of urgency felt among the team's seniors, a group that feels as if it has underachieved because in the past three years, Virginia has fallen in the national semifinals.

Malphrus, who came up with the team's preseason Latin mantra while reading a book by former Navy SEAL Richard Marcinko, described the seniors as "a more hawkish" group that believes sacrifices - alcohol-related and otherwise - must be made in order to accomplish the team's goals.

Starsia "trusts in us to make those decisions," senior midfielder John Haldy said of setting the team's alcohol policy, "and we try to take a load off his back when it comes to that."

For so long, Starsia said, he was the "strong, silent type," but now he finds himself accepting help from others and suggestions from his players more readily. "I find myself feeling much more vulnerable," he said.

That shift began with the death of Starsia's father last May, four days after Love's death. Three days before the Cavaliers were to compete in last year's national semifinals, Starsia rushed his wife to a local hospital after she complained of chest pains. He thought she was having a heart attack; it ended up being a result of intense anxiety.

And so with a broadened perspective and an altered - if not completely transformed - approach, Starsia stands on the verge of his 19th season at Virginia.

"There are bumps along the way," Starsia said. "I would prefer that nobody stubs their toe. But I think I also have a realistic view of what life is like in this environment, and my job is to help these young guys figure this out and to grow up in their four years here and to emerge at the other end as good citizens, as people who are going to contribute to what's going on around them in the world. On balance, I'd like to think that I've been fairly successful doing that.

"But it doesn't mean that along the way there haven't been hiccups. And with the circumstances of this past spring, you know, all of that just became a little bit more magnified, I think. . . . We've reminded them to be more mindful of their behavior and things like that. But that's not what's important here. What's important here is sort of being able to move on. And more forward, even more so than move on. Move forward in a constructive way."

The hope, for Starsia and his players, is that victory favors them as they continue to work through the pains.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company