BALTIMORE – On Thursday night, while meeting with members of the media in advance of Saturday’s NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse semifinal game against Virginia, Denver head coach Bill Tierney was asked if he had any special plans to stop Cavaliers attackman and Tewaaraton Award finalist Steele Stanwick.
“Yeah,” Tierney joked. “I’m asking the refs if we can use three defensemen on him. That would be the only thing that would be fair.”
In retrospect, it was appropriate that Tierney joked about the Virginia attackman, since it was Stanwick who played a leading role into turning the first semifinal at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday into a laugher.
Stanwick had three goals and two assists on Virginia’s first 11 goals, powering the Cavaliers to a 13-4 lead after three quarters of play and an eventual 14-8 win.
“He’s just a great, great player,” Tierney said. “He’s tough to guard. You slough in on him, he finds open guys. You cover him, he beats you for goals. He’s just so unselfish and such a good player, we didn’t have that today.”
Stanwick’s matched his offensive totals from last year’s NCAA semifinal, when he scored three goals and assisted on two more in a 14-13 loss to Duke in Baltimore. After being hampered by injuries and held scoreless in his last trip to M&T Bank Stadium – an 11-9 win against Cornell in March- Stanwick was thrilled to have a standout performance in a Cavaliers victory in his hometown.
“It’s a thrill to be back in Baltimore,” Stanwick said, “and to play well and get the win just means the world to me. We’ve been here two times in my career and haven’t been able to get over the hump. The job’s not done by any means, but we’re all excited, and we just couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.”
Stanwick’s performance against the Pioneers was actually his lowest point total of the season, as he had three goals and five assists in the first round of the tournament against Bucknell, and torched No. 2 seed Cornell for three goals and four assists in last week’s quarterfinal win. In four games since All-American midfielder Shamel Bratton was dismissed from the team, Stanwick has 25 points (9g, 16a).
“As we have retooled offensively in the last few weeks,” Virginia head coach Dom Starsia said, “what we do now is share the ball a little bit more. Frankly, we also say going into a game that the ball goes to Steele every possession, goes through his hands every possession, and nobody minds. Everybody understands that we’re going to run a meaningful offense when he touches the ball. When you have somebody like that, that point guard, that lifts everybody. You know that if you move smartly, you’re going to get the ball back in a better spot. He’s one of those really rare athletes who impacts all the people around him.”
Having watched the Cavaliers extensively in preparation for Saturday’s game, Tierney can appreciate the impact of Stanwick’s expanded role.
“Stanwick gets more touches now,” Tierney said. “When your best player gets more touches, more good things happen for your team. I thought they were a transformed team four or five games ago, and besides that, he got healthy. Jeff Brown did as good a job on him as he possibly could, and he’s just a great, great player.”
Stanwick now has 69 points on the season (32 goals, 37 assists), and ranks second in the country in total points behind fellow Tewaaraton Award finalist Rob Pannell of Cornell.
As the only Tewaaraton Finalist at this weekend’s championship – the other four finalists are Pannell, Army’s Jeremy Boltus and Syracuse’s John Galloway and Joel White – Stanwick continues to bolster his case for the Tewaaraton, and with 188 career points and a game left to go in his junior season, Stanwick has a shot at the program’s all-time scoring record, currently held by 1997 Virginia grad Doug Knight.
To Tierney, Stanwick is more than worthy of both distinctions.
“This is a guy who comes from a wonderful lacrosse family. Each one’s better than the next, and he’s always a gentleman. We had the opportunity to stay with the Virginia guys in our hotel this week, which is always interesting, but Steele, he’s a gentleman, and he’s a good person and a great lacrosse player.”
At the moment, however, none of the individual accolades matters. The main concern is the program’s first NCAA championship since 2006 – when, coincidentally, Matt Ward gave Virginia its second Tewaaraton – and Stanwick and his teammates will have the opportunity to bring that title home on Monday.
“Probably, six weeks ago, there’s not a lot of people who thought we’d be sitting here today having this conversation,” Starsia said, “but I think the guys in the locker room, I think that they never stopped believing.”
Come Monday, Stanwick and his teammates while look to take Virginia’s NCAA championship potential from a matter of belief to a matter of fact.