Virginia Lacrosse has just four regular season games remaining, so it’s time for a recap for those of you just joining us from the basketball world.
So, what’s happened so far this season?
Let’s start with the basics. Lars Tiffany’s squad is currently 6-4, ranked #12 in the Maverik Men's Division I Media Poll and #14 in the USILA poll with the #24 RPI. They are third in the nation in goals scored per game with 14.9 and assists per game with 9.8, but rank first overall in ground balls per game with 45 (the next closest team is Brown, with 38 per game). All four of Virginia’s losses - Syracuse, Penn, Notre Dame, and Johns Hopkins - have come by a goal, with the last two decided in overtime. The Hoos have wins over Loyola, Drexel, Siena, High Point, Cornell, and Richmond.
What is still to come?
Tonight, the Hoos host Cleveland State at 7pm. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3, and it’s the first meeting of the two programs as this is Cleveland State’s first season in Division I lacrosse. The Vikings are winless on the season at 0-7, and have faced some stiff competition with Duke, Denver, Ohio State, and Penn State in their inaugural season. Nick Wendel leads all goal scorers for Cleveland State with seven goals. The Vikings only score an average of six goals per game, while giving up 16. Virginia should be able to dominate throughout.
Sunday, the Hoos have another shot an their elusive first ACC win as #19 North Carolina comes to town for an evening showdown. Robert Morris follows on 4/11, and Virginia closes out the regular season with a tilt against conference foe (and mortal enemy) Duke. Virginia has lost eight straight games and 11 straight regular season games against the Blue Devils, dating back to 2005 (Duke didn’t play the 2006 season).
If Virginia can manage to win both games against UNC and Duke, they should secure one of the spots in the ACC tournament. If the Hoos beat UNC and lose to Duke, they could still earn a spot in the ACC tournament since UNC has already lost to Duke and still has to face #2 Syracuse and #4 Notre Dame. The fifth place ACC team will face Penn in an exhibition game (the Quakers defeated Virginia 11-10 in OT earlier this season).
So how is the new system working?
They get out and run, it’s fast paced, and it’s high scoring. The players have bought in to the new system, and the utilization of inherited talent coupled with re-tooling current players has been impressive. Moving Zed Williams to attack (from midfield) has been a great move as he has shown to be an outstanding passer (22 assists) as well as finisher (19 goals). For reference, Zed had 22 goals and five assists last season in 15 games.
The defense still needs a lot of work, especially in transition, but Tanner Scales continues to be one of the best lock down defenders in the country. Griffin Thompson, a first year, has started in goal the last three games and performed admirably. There is still much improvement that needs to happen, but he is clearly the guy going forward for the Hoos.
What has truly been impressive is Virginia has not been out of any game. Much like Tony Bennett’s defense, Lars Tiffany’s offense is able to keep the Hoos in any game. Virginia has gone toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the country (Syracuse, Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins) and shown that they’re a capable team. Although giving up big leads is troubling (grumble, grumble), Virginia has shown they can fight back with a furious three goal rally with 2:10 left to force OT against Hopkins and two goals in 1:56 to get the win against Richmond, who has the best defense and best goalie in the country. If this team can make the ACC and/or NCAA tournament...they can make some noise.
Ok, how about some grades?
The offensive unit has been one of the best in the country. Virginia’s top six (Williams, Michael Kraus, Ryan Conrad, Dox Aitken, Ryan Lukacovic, and Joe French/Mike D’Amario) are the best top to bottom offensive unit in the country. The Hoos have three players with 25 goals (Kraus, Aitken, D’Amario), another with 19 (Williams), and the other three listed have at least 10 goals each. New offensive specialist Sean Kirwan has made this attack fun to watch. GRADE: A- The only thing keeping them from an A are some late snafus (turnovers) in overtime that gave opponents possession and led to the game winners.
- Michael Kraus: Phenomenal first year averaging 4.5 points per game. Second on the team in turnovers, however.
- Zed Williams: Adjusted well to the attack and is truly playing like he has been “unleashed”. First player in the NCAA with 30 points and 30 ground balls on the season. Effective on the ride and potent on the man-up unit.
I’m in love with this midfield, especially Ryan Conrad and Dox Aitken. Both have played significant amounts as two-way middies, something that is crucial in a Lars Tiffany system. Defensively, Will McNamara and Matt Dziama have been solid. GRADE: B+
- Ryan Conrad: I cannot say enough good things about this kid’s game. Virginia would not be as successful as they have been - or kept games as close as they have - without Conrad. The second year middie doesn’t have the flashiest stats (12 goals, eight assists), but he leads the team in ground balls with 54 and is on the field for the majority of the game. He plays wing on face offs, and runs both offense and defense for the Hoos.
- Dox Aitken: Dox now owns the “goals scored by a first year midfielder” record at UVA, eclipsing the previous high of 19 set by Larry LeDoyen (1983) and Jay Jalbert (1997). He is one of three players with a team-leading 25 goals and shoots a team-high (tied with D’Amario) 42% among the starting offensive players. He uses his frame well on both ends of the field, but is still learning defensively...I feel he is going to do something even more to impress down the stretch.
In case you thought I was an easy grader with my offense and midfield...welcome to defense. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but Virginia is giving up 13 goals per game to opponents. Yikes. The defense had an overhaul with Tiffany coming in as the defensive specialist, and the players are having to adjust to both the higher possession games and playing out more (being more aggressive). They played their best game (by far) against Richmond last weekend as they held the Spiders to just seven goals (and 0-for-6 EMO), but will have to give first year goalkeeper Griffin Thompson more support. GRADE: C-
- Tanner Scales: As the senior anchor of the defense, Scales is one of the best lock down defenders in the country. On top of that, he’s one of the captains for the Hoos and helps Coach Tiffany as the “no-nonsense” guy. He’s a great representation of the program.
- Scott Hooper: Leads the team in caused turnovers with 19, has 27 ground balls, no turnovers, and no penalties. A clean, technical player.
Goalie play has been a struggle. Virginia started the season with Will Railey in cage, but have moved to first year Griffin Thompson. The defense hasn’t made either goalie’s life particularly easy at times, but Kip Turner has done well dealing with replacing Matt Barrett unexpectedly. GRADE: C-
Face offs have been more of an advantage than I had expected with Virginia winning 54% at the X. With the high-possession style that Tiffany employs, being able to limit the opponent’s opportunities is huge. GRADE: B
Midfield specialists like long stick midfielders (LSM) and short stick defensive midfielders (SSDM) have been...ok. Coach Tiffany doesn’t use SSDMs as many other coaches (including Dom Starsia) do, due mainly to his affinity for utilizing two-way midfielders who can stay on the attack end. In the same vein, the Hoos will keep LSMs on the attack end following a successful clear in an attempt to take advantage of mismatches. GRADE: C+ (I want to see more transition goals from LSMs and less SSDMs beat on scoring plays)
- Griffin Thompson (Goalie): Griffin has started the last three games and put up increasingly impressive performances. The goalie position would have gotten a way worse grade from me four weeks ago, but I’m a pushover.
- Jason Murphy and Luke Brugel (Face Offs): I have been pleasantly surprised by this duo, who are winning 56% and 57%, respectively. Want to see a little more consistency as a couple games have seen long stretches with having issues getting possession.
- Jared Conners (LSM): Welcome to the party, Jared. The first year defender has 37 ground balls on the season and scored two goals against Richmond - one of which was the game winner with :57 left in the fourth quarter - to become the first long stick to score a goal this season for the Hoos. Is a player to watch going forward.
It’s hard to assess a team that has four one-goal losses. If they had lost to Richmond, I would have dropped them to a C- range, but I have truly been impressed with the fight and athleticism in this team. They’re never out of a game. Coach Tiffany tempered expectations in the fall - and maybe having lower expectations out the gate is making me more impressed with this team - but no team will want to see this Virginia team across from them on a bracket come tournament time. Still a lot of ball to be played and a lot of improvements to make, but damn it if it isn’t a ton of fun to watch. GRADE: B-
Check out the action tonight against Cleveland State at 7pm on ESPN3! Go Hoos.