Virginia men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia had good reason to think about the Cavaliers' past losses in the NCAA championship game when Syracuse came back from a six-goal deficit yesterday to close within one with 3 minutes 36 seconds left.
The Orangemen were exchanging high-fives; on the Virginia sideline, one player dropped to his knees in despair. The Cavaliers had lost four title games in overtime since 1980, and they looked as if they were on their way to a similar fate.
But freshman Conor Gill helped write a different ending by scoring a goal and adding an assist in 21 seconds to give Virginia a 12-10 victory and its first title since 1972.
"I am happy for all the old Wahoos out there who never experienced this before," said Starsia, his voice hoarse from yelling during the game. "I was starting to worry after our close losses that maybe [there was a jinx]. I tried to keep it from the players. But that is why as soon as we won, the first thing I did was take a sigh of relief."
The game played before 24,135 was the first loss for eighth-seeded Syracuse (12-5) in four title contests at Byrd Stadium. Virginia won its first NCAA team title in any sport since the men's soccer team in 1994.
After midfielder Tim Byrnes's goal, Virginia called a timeout and Gill told attackmates Tucker Radebaugh and Drew McKnight he thought he could beat his defender, Orangemen freshman Billy St. George, and create a scoring chance. Gill did just that, scoring with 2:59 left to give Virginia an 11-9 lead.
Virginia (13-3) won the next faceoff, and Gill assisted on a goal by Henry Oakey 21 seconds later that gave Virginia a 12-9 lead and a firm grip on the championship. No sooner had the ball gotten past Syracuse goalie Robby Mulligan than the Cavaliers on the field joyfully jumped on Gill, and the players on the sideline began celebrating.
"They were out rushing on me, but I got the opportunity to shoot and made the most of it," said Gill, who had five goals in Virginia's 16-11 semifinal victory over Johns Hopkins Saturday and was named the most outstanding player of the final four. "I did not even see the ball go in."
But he could tell by the reaction of his teammates it had. As the game ended, Starsia turned to assistant Chris Colbeck and hugged him for several seconds while the Virginia players threw their equipment in the air and spilled onto the field.
Radebaugh, a senior all-American, hugged assistant coach Doug Knight, a former player who was on the losing end of the 1994 and 1996 national title games, before going into the stands to hug his family.
"I am still in shock by all this," Radebaugh said. "The coaches kept telling us it would be a game of runs and whoever had the last run would win."
Virginia had the first and last runs yesterday.
The Cavaliers took a 5-1 lead after five players scored unassisted goals, the last of which came from Jay Jalbert with 4:45 left in the first quarter.
It took Mulligan 19 minutes to record his first save, but the Orangemen (12-5) eventually settled down.
"They were getting good looks at the cage, and I wasn't on my game in the first half," Mulligan said.
Hanley Holcomb's third goal gave Virginia a 10-4 lead -- the biggest of the game -- early in the fourth quarter. But Mulligan helped hold Virginia scoreless for 10:29 as Syracuse scored five consecutive goals, a spurt that culminated with Byrnes's goal.
Syracuse was led by junior attackman Ryan Powell, senior attackman Matt Cutia and Byrnes, who had two goals apiece. Powell added two assists but was slowed by a back injury and checked closely by Virginia defenseman Ryan Curtis (Landon).
Even before the game started, Starsia said he sensed a "certain energy" in the Cavaliers' locker room. Freshman goalkeeper Derek Kenney was wearing his full uniform and equipment more than 90 minutes before the game began.
Leading a strong defensive effort by the Cavaliers, Kenney made eight of his 12 saves in the second half, including four one-on-one saves.
"I definitely thought the team fed off my saves, and that made me play even harder," said Kenney, who became the first freshman to start for an NCAA title team since 1987. "I thought I would be able to save most of their shots today."
As the Cavaliers' on-field celebration wound down, seniors David Baruch and Michael Leahy chose to sit down near the endline, where they shook hands, smiled and quietly enjoyed the first moments of Virginia's first title in 27 years.
"This is really amazing," said Oakey, a Charlottesville native. "I had seen Virginia lose in two overtime finals and played in a third we lost in overtime.
"I still have that newspaper article from the 1996 [title] game. I hung it on the mirror in my hotel room this morning. I cannot wait to get back and throw it away. All of this is really a fairy-tale ending."
In a New York Minute
The minute that decided Virginia's first NCAA title since 1972: The Virginia men's lacrosse team had its hopes for an NCAA championship endangered in the fourth quarter when Syracuse began cutting into a six-goal lead. In the end, the game turned in 58 seconds.
Syracuse midfielder Tim Byrnes scores on a 15-yard shot past Virginia goalkeeper Derek Kenney to cut Virginia's lead to 10-9.
Virginia faceoff specialist Jason Hard outdraws Syracuse's Chris Cercy, and Virginia wins possession.
Virginia freshman Conor Gill takes his defender -- freshman Billy St. George -- behind the goal. St. George slips, Gill goes to the goal and shoots a four-yard shot past Orangemen goalkeeper Robby Mulligan to give Virginia an 11-9 lead.
Virginia faceoff specialist David Jenkins outdraws Jason Denicker, and Virginia gains possession.
Gill again goes behind the goal with the ball, and then beats St. George to the front. As Mulligan races to double-team him, Gill flips the ball to a wide-open Henry Oakey, who shoots into an open goal to give Virginia a 12-9 lead.
Syracuse defender Marshall Abrams receives a one-minute penalty for hitting Oakey after the shot, giving the Cavaliers a man advantage and automatic possession.
CAPTION: Chris Cercy, left, battles for faceoff against Jason Hard, who gained possession for Virginia after Syracuse had cut six-goal lead to 10-9 late in game.
CAPTION: Jason Hard, left, fends off John Denicker of Syracuse, which lost at Byrd Stadium for the first time in four title games.