With Heavy Hearts, Virginia Lacrosse Teams Aim for NCAA Championships

When the University of Virginia men's and women's lacrosse teams take to the field this weekend, they will be focused on winning national championships. But they certainly will also be thinking of the players that are missing from the field.

The first-round NCAA Tournament games will be the first for both teams since Yeardley Love, a senior on the women's team was found dead and beaten in her off-campus apartment on May 3. Her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely, a senior on the men's team, has been charged with first-degree murder in her death and is currently being held in the Charlottesville Regional Jail.

Coaches and players expected to spend the past two weeks preparing for their title runs. Instead they have buried one of their own and closed ranks to grieve and practice away from the media spotlight.

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The men's team finished the season at the top of the rankings and have been considered the overwhelming favorite to win their fifth national title and first since 2006. They open up with Mt. St. Mary's on Saturday night in Charlottesville.

The women's squad comes into the tournament as the No. 6 seed, gunning for their fourth national championship and first since 2004. The women will host Towson in Charlottesville on Sunday afternoon.

The head coaches of both teams have declined to talk to the media about the specifics of case and the ongoing investigation, but earlier this week they did address how their players were coping in the wake of Love's death.

VIDEO: The UVA lacrosse coaches talk about Yeardley Love and the NCAA tournament.Play
UVA Coaches Speak: Playing Through Grief

Virginia men's head coach Dom Starsia spoke of the "extraordinary circumstances" his team has been handling, which he said were "just so tragic on so many different levels."

"There are so many things that need to happen here on a personal level, that the lacrosse piece of this has been a little secondary until closer to today," Starsia said in a telephone interview with ESPN after the tournament seedings were unveiled last weekend.

Virginia women's head coach Julie Myers told CBS College Sports Network last Sunday that her team was "building back to normalcy."

VIDEO: The Funeral for Yeardly LovePlay
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"I think it will be a new normal; it won't be anything that we're used to," the 15-year veteran coach said.

Dr. Eric Morse, a sport psychiatrist who works with professional and college athletes and teams, said that getting back on the field and playing again can help athletes get their emotions out.

"You channel your energy, your frustration, your grief and you channel it towards your opponent," Morse said.

A former collegiate player described the ups and downs the teams have been dealing with from the end of the regular season to the start of the playoffs.

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"These guys went from being on cloud nine in the prime of their lives, to being locked onto the worst emotional roller coaster they may ever have to endure," said Robert Carpenter, publisher of Inside Lacrosse magazine and a former lacrosse player at Duke University. "Absolutely it will feel good for them to get back onto the field. It will take them a step closer to getting their lives back."

Love's death and Huguely's arrest have also thrown a giant spotlight on the Virginia lacrosse programs for actions off the field. Eight of the 41 players currently on Virginia's men's lacrosse team, including Huguely, have been charged with alcohol-related offenses during their careers at the school, according to court records.

Both games this weekend are sure to generate significant media attention, far greater than usual for a first-round matchup between an overwhelming favorite and an underdog. The spotlight on the sport this time of year may be reminiscent of the frenetic media coverage of the Duke men's lacrosse team in 2007, the season after the university suspended its program due to the rape accusation scandal. The Blue Devils went all the way to the NCAA title game that year, losing to Johns Hopkins, but the media focused more on rehashing the previous seasons' drama than the action on the field.

Carpenter said there are key differences between the two stories that the media needs to remember as it covers the tournament this year.

"This wasn't a team act - the Duke incident occurred at a team function with multiple players present, at least," Carpenter said. "This was a stray act of a sole individual, and I don't think current players will feel any sort of personal attachment to even the most accusatory questions thrown at them."

Morse said the preparation for each team is different.

For the women's team, he would advise they make their season a tribute to Love. "I would keep her locker the way it is, I would start the grieving process and bring the team into a circle and talk about their teammate. I would address the grief and keep her as part of the team and the rest of the season is a tribute to her."

He said if he were advising the men's team he would say don't change the routine, don't change the way you practice and keep your focus on the goal. Morse said the men's team needs to take it cues from the women's team on how to grieve.

The collegiate lacrosse world is described as a small, tight-knit community. Athletes from rival colleges played together in high school or through summer programs and it seems like every player or coach at a top program has some connection to a player or coach at Virginia.

Maryland men's head coach Dave Cottle told ABC News last week that Love's death was a "tragedy" that was affecting his team too.

"We have guys on our teams who knew the accused and we have guys on our team who were friends with the victim," Cottle said. "It really bothers them."

At Virginia, it is not just the women's team that is preparing to play through grief this weekend. Many in the lacrosse community believe that it is not just the women's team playing for their fallen teammate, but the men's team as well who will play in Love's honor. By all accounts, the men's team is also grieving for the loss of their friend and coming to grips with the fact that one of their own is accused in her death.

Six players on the men's team served as pallbearers at Love's funeral last weekend in Baltimore.

Breaking down the men's tournament on InsideLacrosse.com, Quint Kessenich asked, "Are the Cavaliers mentally and physically ready to play lacrosse?"

Kessenich, perhaps the sport's top analyst, said that it would be "impossible to predict" how Love's death could impact the men's team.

"Playing lacrosse will be an important part of the healing process, the field will be an oasis from the tragedy that has engulfed their lives. But questions, distractions and a potential media circus will challenge even the most focused Cavaliers," he wrote.

Carpenter credited Starsia, who has been coaching at Virginia for 18 years, with helping his players "view these games as a part of the healing process, not something that will cause them to unravel."

"Dom Starsia is a great communicator who sees lacrosse as something that helps develop people, not something that should define them," Carpenter said.

The Virginia teams are not the first this school year to play through grief. Last fall, University of Connecticut's Jasper Howard, a starting cornerback on the Huskies football team, was stabbed to death during a fight on campus.

The Huskies went out the following weekend and lost an emotional game on the road to No. 22 West Virginia that went down to the final minutes. Before the game, both teams met at midfield to share a moment of silence. After the game, UConn head coach Randy Edsall said that despite the loss, he believed his players honored their teammate with their performance.

Morse said that in the wake of a tragedy, too much emphasis is placed on winning and losing.

"The question is did you pay tribute to your fallen teammate. Did you give it everything you had in the proper memory of your fallen teammate?" he said. "If that turns into a loss you're just as proud. If that's a win, well winning always feels better than losing. But I don't think losing makes you feel worse about the grief."

The Virginia men's team has had its share of tragedy over the last few years. In November 2008, Will Barrow, who played for the Cavaliers 2006 national championship team and was the captain of the 2008 squad, committed suicide. Sports media relations director Michael Colley died of a heart attack in July 2009 at age 46. Starsia's father passed away last Friday from cancer.

For now both teams seem to be viewing the tournament as a way to continue to work through the emotions and grief, one game at a time.

"(The players) know if we win, we get another week together, and if we win (again), we get another week together," Myers told CBS College Sports Network last weekend. "We're playing for Yeardley."