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.
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.
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."
"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.
"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.