When asked recently about Chris LaPierre, Virginia men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia was quick to say the fifth-year midfielder has "always been one of my favorite guys."
"And there's just an element of toughness in the middle of the field that we didn't quite have last year," Starsia said. "And his presence, even in practice, is quite remarkable."
LaPierre entered the 2013 season as a two-time All-American, and the UVa lacrosse program's first solo captain since 1981. But a preseason knee ligament injury limited LaPierre to just three games, before the decision was made to cut his senior year short and apply for a medical hardship.
That hardship was granted last June, and now LaPierre and is back on the field with his UVa teammates, preparing for Thursday night's season opener against Loyola at Klöckner Stadium.
"I'm definitely one of the guys that likes to be the leader of the team, and likes to lead by example on the field. So it was definitely a different role for me, to try to help out off the field," said LaPierre. "It was a tough decision, like I said. But ultimately, I'm happy with the way everything worked out. And I feel as good as I'll ever feel, in my opinion, and I'm excited to get back at it."
"He's a special kind of athlete. He's the kind of guy who thrives in this level competition," said Starsia. "And I think having him back elevates us as a team overall."
The Cavaliers struggled with LaPierre on the bench in 2013, finishing 7-8, and missing the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in Starsia's 21 seasons as head coach. LaPierre's final appearance came in a 12-10 win over Vermont at Klöckner on March 5.
The Cavaliers lost their next six in a row.
"It definitely hurt us last year, not having him, with on the the wings, and ground balls. Because he's just been such an animal over the past three seasons with us," said senior defenseman Scott McWilliams. "It definitely took a toll on him last year, and I definitely think he's excited to get back on the field with all of us this season."
"I'm excited to get out there with my teammates," said LaPierre. "Especially the group of guys that we're with, we're all really close and we enjoy playing with each other."
And Starsia says LaPierre is looking like his old self again as the season approaches.
"Even a week or two ago I might have said he was at 99 percent," Starsia said. "I think it's taken him a while to come back. He finally took the brace off. That helped me a little bit, emotionally, not to have to look at the brace and stuff. And I would say he's just about back all the way now."