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#7 Hoos host Drexel to officially kick off new era in Charlottesville

Virginia kicks off the home slate after picking up road win to open season.

New head coach Lars Tiffany warms up with the team in fall practice.
Inside Lacrosse Photo: Jaclyn Borowski

Last Saturday, the then-No. 15 Men’s Lacrosse team hit the road for Baltimore to take on then-No. 5 Loyola. The Greyhounds, led by talented sophomore attackman (and shortlister for the Tewaaraton Award this season) Pat Spencer, were a formidable foe for brand new Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany to face in his first outing as a Hoo. Virginia answered the call, edging out a 16-15 win over Loyola behind outstanding performances from Dox Aitken, Ryan Conrad, Tanner Scales, and Will Railey.

The game, which was the first ever streamed on Twitter, featured a new-look, fast-paced, up-tempo Virginia team that took 40 shots, grabbed 45 groundballs, and scored six goals in the fourth quarter alone. In addition to the over 4,600 fans in the stands, over 680,000 unique visitors viewed the Twitter stream, making it the most-viewed Campus Insiders stream on the platform (including beating out college football and basketball).

Tiffany’s new strategy was evident in Virginia’s win at Loyola. He guided Brown to its first Final Four in 22 years last season, utilizing what he’s described as a system to “prepare young men for life.” It’s one that keys in on aggressive ball movement and allows the attackmen and midfielders the creative freedom needed to fly up and down the field and quickly put points on the board.

Midfielder Aitken and Conrad illustrated that freedom to a T in Baltimore. Aitken, a first year, rattled off four goals and was named the Alpha Lacrosse Player of the Week for his performance. Second year Ryan Conrad added three goals - including the game winner - as he spent the majority of the time on the field as a two-way midfielder. Conrad finished shooting 3-of-7 on the day, grabbed five groundballs, and caused a turnover in the win.

A huge piece of Tiffany’s scheme is utilizing two way midfielders (like Conrad), and having athletic defenders who disrupt opponents and are able to fly up the field on clears. He doesn’t often use short stick defensive specialist midfielders - instead preferring midfielders who can stay on offensively - but got a lot of excellent play from Matt Dziama (one assist, four groundballs). Will McNamara played primarily defensive midfielder for Dom Starsia, but saw a lot of time on the attack on Saturday, finishing with an assist and three groundballs.

Tiffany has utilized one of the brightest young coaching minds in the business, Sean Kirwan, to engineer his offense. Kirwan effectively serves as the team’s offensive coordinator and had the same role at Brown. The Bears’ offense scored an average of more than 16 goals per game in 2016. His fast-break offense was a key reason why Dylan Molloy, with 62 goals and 54 assists, won the Tewaaraton Award as the best player in the country. What can Virginia fans look for from his up-tempo style?

What we can first tell from that clip is that Kirwan wants the clear to seamlessly transition into the 6-on-6 offense. Then, Kirwan wants quick, close-range shots to produce as many scoring chances as possible. Although Virginia struggled on the clear against Loyola (20-for-25), some of those issues could be rust or adjustment. On attack, Kirwan has some options. A lot of options, really. Fourth year Zed Williams has made the move from midfield to attack as Tiffany and Kirwan want his scoring abilities as close to the goal as possible. Against Loyola, Zed had a goal and three assists (including a behind the back assist that led to the winning goal), but would have had a more impressive stat line if they included hockey assists. First year Michael Kraus (two goals, three assists) impressed in his first game, and Joe French and Ryan Lukacovic (attack turned midfield) bring even more options to the table.

Defensively, as mentioned above, Tiffany wants rangy, athletic players. He runs the defensive unit himself, and has an incredible leader in Tanner Scales to anchor the defense. Scales, now a fifth year, was the ACC rookie of the year his first season and has had a very successful career at Virginia. He marked Loyola’s Spencer for the majority of the opener, holding their biggest weapon to just two assists and four turnovers. Around Scales, you have Scott Hooper, Zach Ambrosino, and Jared Conners who each bring their own specialty. Hooper and Conners have great stick command and combined for five caused turnovers against the Greyhounds. Ambrosino plays very physically and can lay a big hit if necessary. Oh, and don’t forget Michael Howard, a long stick midfielder who I believe will be a big part of the transition/clear game before too long.

In goal, Virginia got an outstanding first game performance from Will Railey, who despite giving up 15 goals, had 11 saves. In Tiffany’s style, expect to see high scores (including goals against) and a fair amount of turnovers - something he sees as a necessary evil to their fast-paced play.

Today, Virginia officially kicks off the Tiffany era in Charlottesville when Drexel comes to town. This will be the season opener for the Dragons, who went 6-9 last season including a 14-7 loss to Virginia. Drexel’s leading scorer, Robert Frazee, returns for his senior season after scoring 24 goals as a junior. They also return their leading points getter, sophomore Matthew Varian (18 goals, 11 assists) and junior Jacob O’Donnell. Their goalie, Jimmy Joe Granito averaged 9.58 goals against and had a 55% save percentage last season. He will probably see and give up a lot more than 10 goals, especially if Drexel’s face-off guy, Nabil Akl, wins just 43% of his attempts like he did last season. Virginia’s Jason Murphy was solid at the X against Loyola, winning 13 of 24 attempts and scoring a goal.

The game will start at 1pm and will be broadcast by the ACC Network Extra (online). Tickets are still available for pre-purchase and the weather should be excellent, so go see the Hoos!