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Friday, May 14, 2010

NCAA First Round: Behind the scenes of men's lax @ No. 1 Virginia

NCAA Tournament Men's Lacrosse
First Round Match-up
Mount St. Mary's @ No. 1 Virginia - Saturday, May 15, 2010 - 7:30 p.m. ESPNU

The Mount men's lacrosse team hopes it does not end its 2010 season with the same team it opened against - the Virginia Cavaliers. A victory would advance the Mountaineers to the national quarterfinals and one victory away from a final four appearance at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Although head coach Tom Gravante says the key to the game will be for the Mount to play "perfect" - a la Billy Bob Thornton's speech in "Friday Night Lights" (see bottom) - this year's team has a legitimate chance to pull off the upset. A behind-the-scenes look at the match-up follows.

(For game notes provided by Mount SID Mark Vandergrift, see the Mount Athletics site.)

How they got here

Because of the way the NCAA traditionally seeds and distributes its 16-team field, coach Tom Gravante was fairly certain hours before the official announcement was made that the Mount was headed to Charlottesville, Va. But first the Mountaineers would have to survive an eerily similar late-game comeback attempt by the only MAAC team it fell to in the regular season - Siena - in the conference championship on Sunday.

“It was unfortunately a duplication of the last six minutes you might say," Gravante said in reference to the team's April 24 home loss to the Saints.

This time, however, the Mount held on for the 7-6 victory on a last second goal by Andrew Scalley, erasing the nightmare of the team's second-to-last home game this year.

On that day the Mount led 7-4 with 6:06 remaining, but a 4-0 Siena run to end the game - including the game-winner 48 seconds before the final horn - left the Mount stunned and with little hope to earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

As Marist was pre-selected to host this year's tournament, it may probably worked out better for the Mount to take the No. 2 seed. The Mount faced No. 3 Manhattan in the first round semifinals - a team it beat 5-4 on April 17 - and won 10-6. On the other side of the bracket the Saints struggled to put away the host and No. 4 seed in a 9-7 victory.

With neither team playing behind a home-field advantage (though the Mount did travel significantly farther) the Mount was able to hold on this time around.

“When they tied us at 6-6 I said ‘good Lord, when is their luck gonna run out?’" Gravante said. "That was kind of my motto all this week. It’s time for their luck to run out"

Gravante would never call the nation's top-ranked team, which already beat the Mount 15-7 this year, lucky, but he has been preparing to play Virginia since shortly after he hoisted the MAAC trophy.

The NCAA does its best to match teams on a "geographically friendly" basis while also giving favor to higher seeds. According to Gravante the MAAC winner is usually the de-facto 15 or 16 seed (only the top eight teams are actually seeded) and plays the No. 1 or 2 seed. With the Syracuse Orange seeded second and the Cavaliers' home in Charlottesville, Va., so much closer, Gravante said he knew that Syracuse was out of the question.

Deja Vu for Gravante

Gravante has fond memories of postseason trips to Charlottesville, Va., because that is where the Mount opened the NCAA tournament when it last won the MAAC crown in 2003. The 19-8 victory may not have been the outcome he was seeking, but from where he was sitting just months before - potentially on his deathbed - a first round loss in the NCAA tournament did not sting so bad.

"Seven years ago we go down there, my son is just born and I had just come out of transplant," Gravante said. "It was really a miraculous season again with what these kids were able to do for a coach who was fighting for [his] life. When I got out of transplant they were I think 1-5. When I got through with them they want 9-1. That was the first time that we went to the NCAA tournament and [we] faced U-Va."

Maybe that is why Gravante is sympathetic to the tragedy the Virginia campus is experiencing, and why he is able to keep everything in perspective...

Dealing with the Tragedy

The unfortunate death of U-Va. women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love, of which former men's player George Huguely is accused, will not affect the Mount's approach to Saturday's game, says Gravante.

“It’s a really a very sad and terrible thing that has happened to families of two very young and promising athletes," Gravante said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with those families. But we’re not as a staff, we’re not going to use that to motivate our kids. Our kids are flying high from winning a conference championship and we want to keep them focused on the opportunity to still compete.”

Gravante also sympathizes with the Cavaliers and hopes that this will be a welcome distraction for them.

"They’re the No. 1 team in the country and I’m confident that this will be a good thing for those kids to get back on the field ... Hopefully will be a spark in a different direction for these [Virginia] kids to get back on track," Gravante said. "I know they're our opponent, we’re playing them, but that’s an incident down there you wish on nobody."

Unfortunately it is not the only tragedy the team has dealt with as U-Va. head coach Dom Starsia lost his father recently.

“Playing might be the last thing on their mind, but we’re hopeful that those kids will reorganize themselves under their coach Dom Starsia and get ready to play lacrosse," Gravante said. "And on top of that, coach Stardija lost his father. He’s [wasn't] in Charlottesville [as of Tuesday].”

Scalley's Take

Freshman Andrew Scalley (Sc-Al-Lee, as opposed to Skull-Lee) is still riding the high of his buzzer-beating game winner in Sunday's MAAC title game. But that does not mean he is not focused on a re-match with the team that put the Mount in a 0-1 hole to start the season.

"I definitely think it’s going to be a lot closer," Scalley said. "I think we’re on top of our game right now and everything’s falling into place right now for us. But I mean, they’re the No. 1 team in the nation, they’re there for a reason, they’re a great team so we’re just trying to keep it close and play our game and hopefully it works out."

Quick to praise his teammates, Scalley realizes that it will take more than one man to defeat the tournament's top seed.

"Brett Schmidt has had a great season also, and he’s been drawing the best defender from each team, but I think they’ll be switching off throughout the game depending who’s hot and who’s not, but I’m not really too worried about the defender," Scalley added. "I’m just trying to play the game and keep our offense in mind."

Scalley also mentioned the team's leading scorer, Cody Lehrer as someone who has drawn the attention of opponents' defenses. And for that matter, Scalley also realizes that the game will not be had on one end of the field.

"I’m proud of the team and all the effort we put forth throughout the year and couldn't have done it without the defense," he said. "And we’ll be facing a pretty tough team against Virginia so hopefully they keep it up and [we] stay on top of our game."

Van Arsdale Connection

To the untrained eye, it may appear as if first-year assistant coach Max Van Arsdale took a step down from his time at as a player at Penn State. But not only is the Mount still playing while the 2-11 Nittany Lions look to next season, but Van Arsdale and Gravante will have a chance to catch up with an old friend Saturday - Marc Van Arsdale.

Max's uncle, Marc, is the Cavaliers' associate head coach and played one season with Gravante in college.

“Marc was a senior at Hobart College when I was a freshman and really helped me tough through a lot of freshman issues – school, social life – and he was like another big brother," Gravante said.

So it comes as no surprise that he is so fond of his old teammate's nephew serving as one of his assistant coaches.

"Now we have his nephew as my assistant, which is wonderful,” Gravante added.

Max is eager to match-up against his uncle Saturday night and says that many of the things they do from the sidelines mirror each other.

"We both have very similar philosophies in terms of how the game is played," Max said. "We both believe that you have to take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves."

That meshes well with Gravante's belief that the Mount will have to play flawlessly to stay in the game. But Max says that will not faze the Mount staff in its preparations for the nation's top-ranked team.

Said Max: "It is fun to try and match wits with someone who you have a lot of respect for. But as soon as that first whistle blows we are both going to do what we have to to end the other's season."

How the Mount can win

As has been hinted at, Gravante believes the Mount has little margin for error - and rightfully so.

“You gotta be perfect. You really have to be perfect. In terms of maintaining possession and taking very quality shots," Gravante said. "A team of this caliber – you get one chance against them. They proved that the first time we played, which we told our kids.”

Gravante calls this U-Va. team some of the "best athletes in college sports" and noted that they can ill afford to turn the ball over and still expect to stay in the game.

“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast," Gravante said. "It’s also somewhat of a pleasure to watch these kids in motion because you get a first-hand look at how the big dogs do it.”

The Mount will also rely on team MVP and junior goalie T.C. DiBartolo to play one of the better games of his career. The second-team All-MAAC member has been the Mount's most consistent player throughout the season and will be expected to stand his head at times throughout the 60 minutes if the Mount is to have a chance.

Who could be next?

If the Mount pulls off the biggest postseason win of any sport in the school's NCAA Division I history, it will have one of two teams awaiting it in the second round:

Denver @ No. 8 Stony Brook - Saturday May 15, 2010 - 5 p.m. ESPNU

The winners will match up Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium in Stony Brook, N.Y., on Saturday, May 22, at either 12 p.m. or 2:30 p.m.

Remember, 7:30 p.m. ESPNU. Or if you plan or making a road trip here is ticket information and the stadium's address.

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