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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Perhaps the real step forward lay in the details at Klockner Stadium on Saturday night: the new navy warm-up T-shirts worn by Virginia lacrosse staff and players with the phrase "One Love" written in orange on the back; the national print and TV media crowding press row; the starting lineup introductions, when senior All-American Ken Clausen jumped high into the arms of his teammates, pumping his fists in readiness to let his team's play on the field answer the myriad questions surrounding their program this week.
And then, the moment of silence held before the game's start for fourth-year UVa women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love, killed 13 days ago allegedly by fourth-year men's lacrosse player George Huguely, who, rather than joining his teammates in their quest for a national championship, now sits in the Charlottesville-Albermarle County Jail, awaiting his fate.
UVa coach Dom Starsia, who recently lost his father after a long illness, said that despite practicing together this week, he wasn't quite sure how his team would perform in its first game since the tragedy.
"There was no way to guarantee the result of today's game," Starsia said. "I knew we were the heavy favorites, but with everything else going on, it was certainly complicated for us. I was telling the guys that I wanted us to win so we'd have more time to help each other. It would've been really hard if we've had to disperse right now."
|Shamel Bratton finished with three goals and two assists in the win.|
The top-seeded Cavaliers answered his call, looked every bit a potential national champion as they blew out MAAC conference champion Mount St. Mary's 18-4 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday night.
A crowd of 3,355 (capacity is 8,000) gave the Cavaliers a standing ovation as they ran onto the field before the game, cheering loudly throughout the first half. As the lead grew, the cheers quieted but most fans remained and stood again for the team after the final whistle.
"It just felt really good to get out and play," junior Shamel Bratton said.
The Mountaineers won the opening faceoff, but after that moment, it was all Cavaliers, who jumped to a 12-1 lead in the first half. Scoring riches spread throughout the team, with senior captain Brian Carroll, junior middie Bratton and sophomore attack Chris Bocklet notching three goals each, while junior middie John Haldy had two. Sophomore Steele Stanwick was one of 11 Cavs to score and led the team with five assists, while Bratton added two.
"It really helps having the teammates around, being close together," Stanwick said. "We were excited to get out and play."
Stanwick's early pick of a Mount St. Mary's pass attempt and fast break to score set the tone for the Cavaliers' dynamic offense. Their high-intensity passing style worked to their advantage, as several times they notched consecutive goals within a minute's time.
"They blew me away how well they played tonight," said Mountaineers senior defenseman Matt Nealis. "They're a very, very fast team; usually the teams we play are good teams, but it's a completely different caliber game. We hadn't played them since the beginning of the season [when the Cavaliers won 15-7] so they got off to the right start right off the bat."
The Mountaineers finally found the scoreboard at 10:22 in the second quarter as sophomore Bryant Schmidt scored during an extra-man period off an assist from brother Brett Schmidt. That shot was the Mount's only score in the half, as the Cavs continued their assault, taking a 9-1 lead at the 2:51 mark with Carroll going unassisted from the right wing on his third goal of the half. The Hoos took a 12-1 lead into the half, thanks in large part to a 21-8 shot advantage in the second quarter.
"They're the No. 1 team in the country for a reason," Mount St. Mary's coach Tom Gravante said. "They were able to get a variety of shots today, inside and outside. This team moves the ball very well. I won't be surprised if these young men win the whole thing this year."
UVa opened the second half scoring at the 12:26 mark with a shot by Bocklet off an assist from Bratton. Even as the Mountaineers managed a few goals late in the game, including three consecutive scores by freshman Andrew Scalley, the Cavaliers proved too deep. They ended the game a perfect 22 of 22 on clears.
UVa sealed a share of the ACC regular-season crown April 10 with a win over UNC. The Cavs went on to win the ACC tournament, including a win over Duke, the only team to beat them in the regular season. They appeared a surefire favorite for the national championship moving into NCAA tournament play. But with the sudden, unexpected tragedy of Love's death, the team's future seemed uncertain.
"It's a very horrible incident the community has had to persevere through," Gravante said. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Starsia and that's what we hope for, that his team will come out and play for him. It's truly a shame, the loss of two lives down here, and I'm certain the community is still going to be affected."
UVa players fielding questions after the game appeared solemn, not at all the faces of a victorious squad. The UVa media relations department issued a disclaimer before press questioning, reminding the media that any questions relating to Love's death and Huguely's arrest wouldn't be answered given the nature of the ongoing investigation.
Senior captain Mike Thompson talked of how the fourth-year players in particular bound together this week, focusing on the final home game of their UVa careers. When asked about the absence of one particular senior, Thompson stopped. "I'm not really sure how to answer that, and I don't really want to talk about it," he said quietly.
Many postgame questions focused on the emotional toll of the past two weeks. When asked what he told his players before the game, Starsia paused, a hand over his face, and let out a long sigh. "Like I said, I think it's been an emotional week," Starsia said. "The lacrosse game in and of itself is not nearly the most important thing happening. But winning the game meant we got to stay together."
UVa moves on to face Stony Brook next Sunday in the NCAA quarterfinals. And having a common goal may be what the team needs the most right now. "I didn't know how I'd feel going into game, and the moment of silence was obviously tough," Thompson said. "But you keep moving forward. It feels good to have order back in your life. Once that whistle blows, there's not a whole lot of time to think about everything. You just play."Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.