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NCAA Lacrosse: Virginia’s defense led the way in National Championship win

The Virginia defense had its struggles over the season, but stepped up when it mattered most.

NCAA Lacrosse: Mens Championship-Virginia vs Yale Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Men’s Lacrosse season started on February 9th in Baltimore, Maryland as the Hoos traveled to face the Loyola Greyhounds. Loyola opened up an 8-4 halftime lead, then cruised to a 17-9 win as the Cavaliers allowed two different players to score five goals apiece.

After that game, head coach Lars Tiffany expressed some disappointment in defensive performance. “We tried to hold our slides on defense and they made us pay for that,” Tiffany said. “When we did slide and double the ball, they seemed to find openings. It was one of those frustrating days as defensive coordinator trying to figure out the magic formula and there wasn’t one.”

There may not have been a magic formula, but Coach Tiffany — alongside goalie coach Kip Turner and volunteer assistant Bo Lori — helped the Wahoo defense grow and flourish over the course of this season.

Now, the Cavaliers are two weeks removed from the program’s sixth National Championship, having held the dangerous Yale Bulldog offense to just nine goals in a 13-9 win on Memorial Day.

That all began with the Cavaliers looking inward and creating a sense of ownership around the defense. In Tiffany’s first year, he would gather the defense for unit meetings in the bowels of now-demolished University Hall. Tiffany would dominate the discussion, with him talking at the players rather than it being an exchange.

“Coach Tiffany will tell you, we had these defensive film sessions that when he came in three years ago. Lars was talking the entire time,” fourth year defensive midfielder Dave Smith said after the game, the NCAA trophy snugly in its box at his side. “He was the only one that could talk, because we had no idea what we were doing.”

As the seasons went by, the amount Tiffany talked decreased as the players took more of an active role in the meetings.

“What I have enjoyed year three, when our defense gets together and we talk for the 20, 25-minute meetings there is feedback, back and forth, Coach, why don’t we do this,” Tiffany said from the post-game podium. “Sometimes they have watched their own film coming to the meetings with ideas and relating it to other games. There is a system that we can make fine tweaks to and they’re a part of it. So they have ownership of it and that engagement, that’s what I have really enjoyed.”

In Tiffany’s first season, Virginia gave up 13.3 goals per game. That number improved to 11.4 in year two and fell further to 10.3 this season. Over the course of the postseason — the six games spanning the ACC and NCAA tournaments — Virginia held opponents to an even 10 goals per game. Their best performances of the season? In the ACC title game (held Notre Dame to four goals) and the National Championship game.

Against Yale in the title game, the Cavalier coaching staff came in with a perfect game plan to counter a Bulldog team that averaged just shy of 20 goals per game (and almost nine goals per first quarter of play) in the first three games of the NCAA tournament. Yale dropped seven goals on Georgetown in the first round before the Hoyas could score. In the tournament semifinals, they took a 10-2 first quarter lead against Penn State that the Nittany Lions couldn’t erase.

“We knew they wanted to attack in early offense. If you watched them in the last couple games -- especially tournament games -- they blitzed teams in the first quarter with early offense then settled it down 6 vs. 6,” fifth year defender Logan Greco explained. “We thought if we could control the first quarter and control early offense, we would have a good chance to slow them down.”

And control they did. It started at the face off X where first year Petey LaSalla more than held his own against the nation’s best in TD Ierlan (who boasted a 76% win percentage coming into the game). LaSalla and the Hoos won 2-of-4 face offs in the first quarter, and 4-of-10 in the first half as Virginia built a 6-2 lead.

“It was huge,” Turner said of his face off man’s performance after the game and how his play helped slow the Bulldogs. “That’s kind of what we talked about. It’s amazing how many clamps he actually had, but credit to Yale.”

The stat sheet doesn’t do LaSalla’s performance any favors as Ierlan was credited with 19-of-26 on the day, but even being able to wrap up the ball long enough to prevent fast breaks did wonders for the defense. Once settled, Virginia got sticks in the passing lanes, closed out on shooters, and were active on the hands of the Yale attack.

Yale turned the ball over 20 times, 15 of them caused by the Virginia defense. First year Cade Saustad — who was named to the All-Tournament team — grabbed six ground balls in the title game (after averaging just two ground balls per game over the rest of the season). First Team All-American Jared Conners had six ground balls. Second year walk on Kyle Kology forced two turnovers. Smith did things like this:

Holding it all down and setting the tone early was second year goalkeeper Alex Rode. He followed up a career-high-tying 19 save performance against Duke in the semis with a 13-save showing in the title game, stifling Yale at every turn. His performance earned him the title of Most Outstanding Player as he amassed 32 saves and 20 goals against for a save percentage of 62%.

“He’s one of those guys that if he gets pretty hot, he’s pretty darn impressive and today he got hot,” Turner said of his keeper. “He’s one of those guys though, you tell him to work on something, you tell him to do something he tries it and he’s super coachable. I think we found something down the stretch for him to be aggressive to the ball. He was super aggressive to the ball and got to almost everything.”

Virginia will lose the likes of Logan Greco, Ryan Conrad, Dave Smith, and Matt Dziama from the defense, but return players like Rode, Conners, Kology, Saustad, John Fox, and Will Rock.

“We’ve seen failure. We’ve seen 0-4 seasons in the ACC. We’ve been the laughing stock of the NCAA,” Smith said of his journey as a Cavalier. Now, the Hoos are the National Champions, in huge part thanks to the defense.