It would have been foolish for Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia to insist that playing in a men's NCAA semifinal Saturday against Duke is all about faceoffs, groundballs and goaltending.
So Starsia told the truth: In a season unlike any other, the top-seeded Cavaliers have been consumed by emotions far more exhausting than running a fast break in the waning seconds of a tie game.
Virginia's season changed dramatically on May 3, when UVA women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love was found slain in her campus apartment. George Huguely, a senior on the Virginia squad, was charged with first-degree murder in her death.
At that point, the sport took on a different meaning for Starsia and his players.
"There are things that are here and just going on that are bigger than lacrosse and more important than lacrosse games," Starsia said. "I don't think these young men need any additional pressure on themselves, but to dismiss these things would be naive."
The Cavaliers (16-1) are competing for a title, but they're also playing for Love and the Virginia women's team, which was eliminated from the NCAA tournament last week.
"For us to want to sort of carry the banner a little bit for the women's team, that's just the way it is," Starsia said. "The two programs have been supportive of each other and will continue to do that and feel that way about each other, and I'm not going to deny that at all."
The baggage was almost too much too handle in the quarterfinal round, when Virginia squeezed past No. 8 seed Stony Brook 10-9.
"There were some times on Sunday when I wondered whether or not our tank might be running dry, the emotional tank, and I give our kids some credit for kind of reaching down and kind of gutting out a win there," Starsia said.
Virginia's only loss this season was to Duke (14-4), although the Cavaliers avenged that defeat with a 16-12 win in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
The first semifinal game Saturday matches upstart Notre Dame (9-6) and Cornell (12-5), with the winners meeting Monday for the championship.
If any program can understand what Virginia is going through, it's Duke. The Blue Devils went through a similar emotional swing in 2007, one year after false rape charges against members of the lacrosse team forced the president of the school to cancel the 2006 season.
"You can't prepare for it. To me, it's apples and oranges," Duke coach John Danowski said. "We grieve as a world community for the death of a young person. We grieve in the academic community. It's a young person and domestic violence and we don't understand it. On so many levels, we can't wrap our heads around this any better than anyone else can. We're not experts on crisis management. We just try to survive each day, and that's what I'm sure the Virginia community is doing."
Notre Dame entered the tournament unseeded, but advanced with wins over Princeton and Maryland behind 6-foot-4 goaltender Scott Rodgers, who yielded a combined 10 goals in the two games.
Notre Dame is considered an outsider in the semifinals, but coach Kevin Corrigan believes it's time for the sport to acknowledge the strength of teams beyond those in the East.
"I guess I'll feel like we've gotten to the point of acceptance when I no longer get this question," he said during a conference call. "I feel like we've been around for a while now. I feel lucky to be where I am and have a great bird's-eye view of what's going on around the country.
"It's fantastic for the sport. But it's not a new phenomenon that you have new teams beyond the traditional powers. It's been that way for 10 years."
Cornell, the seventh seed, is seeking its first title since 1977. The Big Red took Syracuse to overtime before falling in last year's title game, and coach Jeff Tambroni is delighted to get another chance to bring home the championship trophy.
"I always say this never gets old, that's for darn sure," he said. "It's not something we'll ever take for granted. You work so hard each and every day to get to this point. You want to enjoy it, but you want to make the most of it."