Aug. 29-Sept. 12, 2003
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For Dom Starsia, the summer of his content
For Dom Starsia (center), being more candid with his players has paid off.
For Dom Starsia (center), being more candid with his players has paid off.

By Dan Heuchert

The desk in his bright, sunny corner office at the McCue Center holds a thick stack of congratulatory notes, received in the aftermath of coaching U.Va. to its second NCAA men’s lacrosse title in the past five years. The championship trophy rests conspicuously on a bookcase behind him, where potential recruits can’t miss it. Starsia, dressed casually, smiles easily these days.

“Number two seems like it has been more noticed,” he said, attributing the increased response to national television coverage and the record crowds that watched the Final Four in Baltimore. “A lot of old friends have been back in touch.”

U.Va.’s championships have indeed been popular in the tight-knit lacrosse world, where many of the players, coaches and fans hail from a handful of Northeastern private schools. Starsia is regarded as one of the sport’s good guys — and rightfully so; he’s affable, enthusiastic and approachable. His former players love him. Even his top assistant, Marc Van Arsdale, was happy to return to his former post at Virginia after a stint as the head coach at Pennsylvania. “We have such a good relationship,” he said. “Working with Dom is a whole lot more ‘working with’ than ‘working for.’”

(For his part, Starsia insists, “I’m not really that nice.”)

The Starsia File

Dom Starsia At Brown:

• All-Ivy League and All-
New England defense
man, 1973 and ’74

• Third-team All-American
in 1974

• A member of the Brown University Athletic Hall of Fame and New England Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

• 10 seasons as head

• Compiled record of 101
wins and 46 losses

• Two Ivy League titles

• Five NCAA tournament

• Two national coach of
the year awards

At U.Va.:

• 11 seasons as head

• Compiled record of 125
wins and 42 losses

• 11 NCAA tournament

• Two NCAA champi-

• Four ACC titles

• Teams have produced
59 All-Americans

• 39 All-ACC selections
n Six ACC Rookies of the

• Five ACC Players of the

Starsia and his wife, Kristin Lasagna, are also respected as the parents of developmentally delayed twin girls, a circumstance that he says tempers his competitiveness. “They don’t care if we win or lose,” he said. “I don’t find myself absolutely consumed with winning and losing. … I don’t have the same narrow fire burning” as some of his coaching colleagues.

Starsia also earns popularity points for having paid his dues. After taking up the sport as a freshman at Brown University, he became one of the top players in school history. He then worked his way up the coaching ladder, finally becoming Brown’s head coach in 1983. After 10 seasons there, he took on the unenviable task of succeeding longtime U.Va. coach Jim Adams. In 1994 and 1996, Starsia’s Cavalier teams reached the NCAA final, only to lose to Princeton by a single goal each time.

Now he can say, “We did everything right but score the last goal.” But the narrow defeats led to

long summers of self-questioning. Should he get tough and become more of a disciplinarian like some of the great coaches in other sports — Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Woody Hayes?

Starsia says he was not tortured by those thoughts. In fact, he welcomed them. “There is value in the self-examination that comes with losing,” he said.

In the end, he did change, although both he and Van Arsdale say the alterations have been more subtle than precipitous. But if there is one event to point to as a catalyst, it may have come before that first championship season.

In the fall of 1998, a few of Starsia’s players were involved in a series of minor alcohol-linked disciplinary issues. Lacrosse players have long had a reputation as party-hearty types, Starsia said, but the incidents led him to question how committed his team was to playing championship lacrosse. Though he had long taken a laissez-faire attitude toward off-the-field conduct, he decided “enough is enough” and called a preseason team meeting. “I told them they needed to deal with it,” he said.

To his surprise, the players took up the challenge. They came up with a series of self-imposed, self-enforced restrictions on in-season drinking, including an outright ban on alcohol during the season-ending month of May. When one of the team’s leading partyers stood up and announced that he would be adhering strictly to the rules and expected them to follow suit, Starsia knew he had something.

The results were noticeable, Starsia said. Practices became sharper. Teammates grew closer, bonding from their shared sacrifice. And the bounces began to go the Cavaliers’ way.

The team reached the Final Four in College Park, Md., that spring. “I remember it being scorching, the first real hot weekend of the year,” said Conor Gill, one of the team’s stars.

It’s impossible to tease out whether the team’s off-the-field abstinence better prepared them for the heat, but Starsia said, “It probably gave us a little bit of an advantage” — if not physically, then mentally. The Cavs disposed of Johns Hopkins, 16-11, in the semifinals, then scratched out a 12-10 victory over Syracuse in the final.

The self-imposed party rules became a tradition. “It was hard not to do it after that,” Gill said, adding that each team modifies them a bit each year.

The trophy also came as a relief for Starsia. “Winning the championship in ’99 gave me self-confidence that other people didn’t think was an issue,” he said. “Now I worry less that I should be Bobby Knight and John Wooden. Now I just try to be Dom Starsia. It’s a heck of a lot easier.”

That’s not to say that he’s become a teddy bear. One of the changes he does acknowledge is a greater willingness to confront a player who he believes is wasting his potential. “I think I’m more honest than I used to be,” he said. “I’m less tolerant of behavior that takes away from what we’re trying to accomplish as a group.

“I look at kids that are wasting their time, and more and more I feel like they need to know that.”

He’s willing to challenge his stars as well as the end-of the-benchers. Chris Rotelli, the fourth-year star of this year’s championship team, remembers thinking that he had arrived as a player after a sensational sophomore year that earned him all-conference honors. Starsia, however, kept pushing him to improve.

“He doesn’t let guys get comfortable,” Rotelli said. “He sees everybody’s potential … He doesn’t really sugarcoat anything for you. He expects a lot from players, and he challenges you. I really like that.”

The extra effort paid off. “My senior year might have had my biggest improvement overall,” Rotelli said. He earned the Tewaaraton Trophy as the nation’s best player, and in July was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Male Athlete of the Year. “[Starsia] was a big part of that.”

Likewise, Gill found Starsia intimidating when he first arrived at U.Va. but became more comfortable around the coach as he saw different sides of him. “I came to respect him a great deal. … I respect him right up there with my parents.”

As much as Starsia pushes his players to improve, he also recognizes when to back off. In 2002, the Cavaliers reached the Final Four, but were forced to play Syracuse without one of their top players, who was injured in the previous game.

The game was tied after regulation time expired, forcing one sudden-death overtime, and then another. Finally, Syracuse scored the goal that broke the tie.

Despite an outstanding season, the mood on the trip from New Jersey back to Charlottesville was somber. Too somber, Starsia decided. Upon arrival at University Hall, he held the players on the bus until they acknowledged their achievements.

Later, the team adopted its motto for the 2003 championship season:
“One Goal.”


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