Minutes after the Virginia men's lacrosse team lost the 1996 NCAA tournament final to Princeton in overtime, Cavaliers Coach Dom Starsia made a statement and a prediction.
"I am not an emotional guy, but this is really difficult," Starsia said. "When you look for justice, sometimes it is hard to figure out. But we will be back."
The Cavaliers are back today, and they will face Syracuse at Byrd Stadium in an attempt to win their first national championship since 1972. Since then, they have advanced to the final four times -- and lost in overtime each time.
"I have tried to improve with each loss and hope we have learned something from the losses," said Starsia, who also was a part of the Cavaliers' loss in the 1994 final. "Each team is different, and maybe this team does not have the talent some of the others did. But I have asked a lot of them physically and have thrown a lot of details at them, and they seem to handle them well."
The third-seeded Cavaliers (12-3) advanced to the final by defeating second-seeded Johns Hopkins, 16-11, in a semifinal Saturday. Although they face a Syracuse team that is seeded eighth, they lost to the Orangemen, 14-12, in the teams' season opener March 6 -- Virginia's fourth consecutive loss to Syracuse.
In addition, since losing to Georgetown in its regular season finale, Syracuse (12-4) has looked impressive during the tournament. It defeated three-time defending champion Princeton in the first round, upset top-seeded and previously undefeated Loyola (Md.) in the quarterfinals and avenged its loss to Georgetown, 13-9, Saturday after falling behind 4-1.
And these kinds of late-season performances are almost standard operating procedure for Syracuse, which is making its 17th consecutive final four appearance. It has won five national championships in 11 years and is 3-0 in title games at Byrd Stadium. (Syracuse or Princeton has won every championship since 1991 and all but one since 1987.)
In an NCAA tournament quarterfinal against Virginia last season, Syracuse faced a six-goal deficit late in the third quarter but won, 17-14.
The Cavaliers have not forgotten that -- or other recent NCAA tournament disappointments, which finally prompted them to make a variety of changes in team rules and practice regimens this season. In 1997, they lost to Maryland in the quarterfinals on a goal with 12 seconds to play. And then there was the overtime loss in the 1996 final.
Henry Oakey, a fifth-year senior, was Virginia's highest-scoring midfielder in 1996 and had one goal and one assist in the championship game. But a couple of months after the loss, Oakey tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was unable to play in 1997. Even though he received a medical redshirt year, enabling him to play this season, Oakey said he was not planning to return to the team. He did so only after talking to his roommate, Virginia football star Patrick Kerney.
"I was really thinking I was not going to play this year, our loss to Syracuse [in the 1998 quarterfinals] was so disheartening," Oakey said. "But Pat told me if I did not play, I would regret passing up on my final chance 10 years from now."
Oakey said he carries a newspaper article from the 1996 title game in his wallet as a reminder of how close that team came to a title.
"It had been such a special season, and that loss [in the title game] has definitely been on my mind," Oakey said. "I know this is my last chance to win the title -- and I hope I can take that article out of my wallet on Monday afternoon."
Starsia said he is also hoping to be able to rectify today something he was unable to do in 1996.
"I remember thinking that I would not be able to give [all-American attackman] Doug Knight a championship hug because we had lost," Starsia said. "But he is an assistant with us now, so if we win [today], someone better tell him to look out."
One crucial difference between the 1996 Virginia team and this year's is that Virginia now has two very good faceoff men, junior Jason Hard (71 won in 121 attempts) and sophomore David Jenkins (65 of 123). In the 1994 and 1996 title games, Princeton won the overtime faceoff and scored before Virginia could get possession.
"I think Virginia's faceoff men make the team extra dangerous," said Syracuse Coach John Desko. "Probably our first responsibility [on defense] will be to take away any fast-break opportunities they might get off the faceoffs."