CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The Cattaraugus Reservation and the University of Virginia are in many ways worlds apart, and not only because of the 400-plus miles that separate them. Less than 1 percent of UVA's student body is Native American.
For Zed Williams, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, the easier choice would have been Syracuse or Albany. Both of those schools have lacrosse programs in which Native Americans have played starring roles, most recently the wondrous Thompson brothers at Albany.
But Williams, whose close-knit family lives on the reservation, about 30 miles southwest of Buffalo, N.Y., decided to spend his college years far away from the Empire State. He bonded immediately with the men who lead the UVA men's program -- head coachDom Starsia and associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale -- after which the choice was clear to Williams.
"As soon as I met Coach Starsia and Coach Van, right away I knew," said Williams, who arrived at UVA in the summer of 2013.
Now a 6-2, 185-pound junior who's in his second season as a starter, Williams ranks among the nation's top midfielders. With 21 points (17 goals and four assists), he's the Cavaliers' fourth-leading scorer, and he's second in ground balls with 41.
In its final regular-season home game, Virginia (6-6 overall, 0-3 ACC) hosts No. 13 Duke (7-6, 1-2) at noon Sunday at Klöckner Stadium.
"It may take a little bit more sophisticated eye to appreciate the things Zed does on the field," Starsia said, "but he's one of the first guys that my peers talk about when they call, because they really admire all the things that he does for us on the field."
There were those in the Buffalo area, Williams said, who predicted he would struggle academically and socially at UVA, but he ignored them. Rob Genco, who coached Williams at Silver Creek High School and assisted him during the recruiting process, also heard criticism of Williams' decision.
"I received a bunch of phone calls from other coaches from different colleges that were recruiting him, kind of telling me that I screwed up and this kid's not going to make it [at UVA]," said Genco, who talks regularly with Williams.
"The past has shown that a lot of our Native American kids in general couldn't make it anywhere but certain colleges. I knew that wasn't true with Zed, and I pretty much told them, `I'm sorry you feel that way. He's a jersey to you, but I love the kid, and the decision wasn't made to see him fail.' "
Starsia, who has won four NCAA titles at UVA, loved what he saw in Williams as a person, and Williams' athletic ability was unquestioned. He also excelled in basketball and football at Silver Creek, but lacrosse was Williams' best sport. In five seasons on the varsity, he scored a national-record 729 points, on 444 goals and 285 assists.
"The success he had here on and off the field is unmeasurable and will never be duplicated," Genco said.
Even so, Starsia recalled, he had some concerns "early about whether or not this was going to be the right fit for Zed, whether or not he was going to be able to thrive here."
Those concerns proved to be unfounded.
"The way he's carried himself as an athlete and a student here has surpassed my expectations on so many different levels," Starsia said. "He's just a great kid, and it has been a joy for our program to have Zed in our community, and I think being at the University of Virginia has been good for him at the same time."
Williams, who lives with teammate Jeff Kratky, is majoring in drama at UVA. His passion is not acting, but rather behind-the-scenes work such as stage construction. Starsia has followed Williams' journey at Virginia with pride.
"I would tell you that I have never asked more of a young guy than what we've asked of Zed, in terms of study hall, tutors, mentors and commitment to the academic piece of this," Starsia said. "It was really important that that part of it begin to get some traction before I really worried a great deal about lacrosse. I always knew he could play the game, but I wanted to be sure we were being fair to him by asking him to be here academically and socially.
"He has, again, well-surpassed my expectations, and I would tell you that he's the magna cum laude of effort in my 40 years of coaching young men in similar situations."
To ease Williams' transition, Starsia asked one of the team's veterans, Ryan Tucker, to serve as a mentor in Charlottesville. When Williams arrived in 2013 for a summer transition program, Tucker was waiting to help him move into his dorm.