For Howard, Milikin, end of their U.Va. lacrosse careers may be in sight
Michael Howard didn’t know if he was a Virginia-caliber prospect in lacrosse. Dom Starsia decided he was.
Now, both Richmonders will likely play their final match at U.Va. on Sunday against No. 13 Duke. That decision similarly may not entirely be their own.
Milikin, born in Texas but raised in Richmond, excelled at football and lacrosse at Woodberry Forest School, to the point he went into his senior year unsure if he’d play football at Stanford or lacrosse at U.Va.
Milikin had drawn interest from a number of major football programs, most of whom told him he’d need a strong senior season to earn a scholarship offer. Instead, he suffered a hamstring injury and didn’t play football his last year in high school.
What would Milikin have chosen, if both options were on the table?
“It would have been a really tough choice,” Milikin said. “I didn’t have to make that decision. … And I had an awesome backup plan.”
Starsia, Virginia’s coach, made a number of recruiting trips an hour north to see Milikin, including some in football season, but said he rarely saw Milikin play because of the injuries.
But he saw plenty when he watched him play lacrosse.
“I saw somebody that I thought had as good of defensive instincts as anyone I had seen in a long time,” Starsia said.
Milikin had fashioned himself more of an offensive player, but when practice began his first year at U.Va., and he had a short stick in his hand, he knew the coaches had other plans.
Milikin was just excited to play. And then came the hamstring injuries, again — one over Christmas break and one in practice the week leading up to the first game. He missed one game, then another. Eventually, Starsia decided the prudent move was to redshirt him.
Also redshirting that season in 2013 was another freshman from Richmond — Howard. And like Milikin, Howard went into his senior year of high school uncertain if he’d be playing at U.Va., but for a different reason.
Howard, whose father and sister attended U.Va., grew up wanting to play for Starsia.
“During the recruiting process, I never really thought that I’d be good enough or that my academics would allow me to come here,” Howard said. “It was kind of a dream come true.”
Starsia saw the athletic ability and potential in the 6-foot-5 Howard, who played his high school lacrosse at Collegiate School, where he also starred in soccer and basketball.
“I remember seeing a big kid that could really move his feet,” Starsia said. “Very raw, lacrosse-wise. Probably a much better soccer player in high school than he was a lacrosse player.”
Howard said he actually took a step back before making strides forward with his lacrosse game in college. He suffered a torn labrum his senior season in high school and had surgery that May. He arrived at U.Va. with “terrible” stick skills, and said a running joke among teammates debated whether he was the worst player on the team.
After his sophomore season at U.Va., Howard went back to Richmond to work a summer job. He spent his downtime playing wall ball, firing passes and shots against a brick wall near a basketball court on the lower campus at Collegiate. A couple hundred a day.
It paid off.
“I wasn’t certain we were going to get there,” Starsia said. “But Michael’s really worked at it, and he’s turned into one of the best long sticks in the country.”
Both players will be recognized Sunday as part of senior day festivities before the Duke match. But both, having redshirted, are eligible to play one more season for U.Va. (6-6, 0-3 ACC). Both would like to, but think it’s not likely.
Milikin, an economics major, said Virginia doesn’t offer a graduate program that will help further his career goals. He’s been accepted to a graduate program for management at Notre Dame. He could go there and, if the program is interested, play his final year for the Irish. He also has a job offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars, whom he interned with last summer.
Starsia noted that, unlike football and basketball players who are on full scholarship, coming back for a fifth year for a lacrosse player means paying some if not all of their tuition bill. To do that if the school doesn’t offer the graduate program an athlete is seeking can be a tough financial sell to families.
“We don’t have as many graduate programs available as some other schools do,” Starsia said. “In football and basketball, when they come back for a fifth year, they’re on a full scholarship. For their family it’s like, ‘Hey, go ahead and go back. Play football and get a master’s in something.’ But for our guys, they’re really paying for it.”
Those kind of family financial considerations could drive Howard away from his fifth year, as well. He was drafted by the Chesapeake Bayhawks in the seventh round of Major League Lacrosse’s college draft. Howard can graduate, take a job and play for the Bayhawks next year, or come back to U.Va. for one more season.
Those decisions will be made down the line. Sunday, with their team fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament and aiming to end a seven-match losing streak against Duke, Milikin and Howard will take the field with a little extra emotion and a lot more family members in the stands.
“I don’t know if it’ll actually hit me in that moment that it’s my last game,” Milikin said. “You can’t really know.”