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Virginia vs. Towson: Three storylines to watch

Hoos and Tigers face off at 4pm today!

2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship Photo by Larry French/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Virginia Men’s Lacrosse team kicks off the 2021 season this afternoon as the Hoos host Towson at 4pm in a tilt that will be broadcast by the ACC Network. This is the 92nd season in program history, and it has been a long 335 days between games thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Virginia played just six games last season, going 4-2 overall.

Michael Kraus is the biggest loss for the Hoos coming into this season as the fourth year graduated and was drafted No. 2 overall in the 2020 MLL Draft. Kraus scored 14 goals and dished 12 assists last season and finished his career with 131 goals (No. 7 in UVA history), 109 assists (No. 6), and 240 points (tied-No. 4).

Despite losing Kraus, Virginia returns a lot, including preseason All-Americans Dox Aitken, Jared Conners, and Matt Moore. Virginia comes in at No. 5 in the USILA Coaches Poll, and No. 6 in the Inside Lacrosse Media Poll to open the season.

Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Hoos return to action and look to repeat as national champs after winning it all in 2019.

How does the attack shake out?

The Cavaliers have a plethora of really great options on the attack end of the field. In fact, they might have too many great options, if that’s possible. Virginia returns Ian Laviano (11 goals, three assists), Matt Moore (19 goals, 16 assists), Payton Cormier (12 goals, seven assists), and Dox Aitken (nine goals, one assist) from the shortened 2020 season. Laviano, Moore, and Aitken were the three leading scorers from Virginia’s 2019 title team, and all three are potent on attack.

On top of those aforementioned sharpshooters, Virginia adds two huge pieces in redshirt freshman Connor Shellenberger and grad transfer Charlie Bertrand. Shellenberger, the No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class, redshirted last season as the Hoos dealt with an abundance of talent on offense. Then COVID happened. Now it’s a year later. He’s still dealing with an abundance of talent on offense, but the Hoos are going to make it work.

“I’m obviously really, really excited to have Connor Shellenberger,” Tiffany stated enthusiastically. “We saw that once the redshirt tag was put on him a year ago, he played better. It took the pressure off. Being the number one recruit in the nation is a wonderful thing. We all would love to have that honor, but you could tell it was liberating when he no longer had to have that along with trying to be this impact first year at the University of Virginia.”

Bertrand, a transfer from Merrimack College, led his team to the DII NCAA title game in back-to-back seasons (2018 and 2019), was a USILA All-American three times (two-time first team All-American), and won the USILA Top Attackman award in 2018 and 2019. That’s...impressive. The big (6-3, 220 pounds) lefty can initiate and finish and contribute to the ride, something that Tiffany is emphasizing when creating lineups.

“You know, one thing that we we love to do — and you know this — we love to ride,” head coach Lars Tiffany told the media on Wednesday. “First and foremost, you need to be able to run and play almost 60 minutes of the game. If you’re going to be a midfielder, then you don’t need to be maybe as physically fit, you don’t need to be as tenacious on the ride.”

Most likely, you’ll see Laviano and Moore on attack as starters. The third attack spot could go to Shellenberger or Bertrand, but both of those players could also come onto the field as midfielders. Cormier and Aitken are almost a lock at the midfield, with players like Peter Garno getting run as well.

Regardless, there should be a lot of options for the Hoos on that end of the field.

What happens after such a long layoff?

As mentioned before, it has been nearly a year since the Cavaliers have played an official game. The offseason was also impacted by the pandemic, and the team hasn’t had the “normal” opportunities to mesh, get to know each other, and bond. “I feel like we’re still trying to figure out that chemistry,” Tiffany said of his squad.

Virginia scrimmaged last weekend, and Tiffany remarked that the Hoos were understandably rusty. They missed some ground balls, didn’t check as hard, and just generally looked as though they hadn’t played together in over 350 days. That’s to be expected.

But both the coach and players were happy with the effort put in over the long layoff and with how the team has bonded virtually. “One thing that I’m really proud of is everyone really just working hard on their own,” Matt Moore said. “I mean, we really can’t hang out as a team, and that’s probably the toughest part.” Moore went on to add that the time away from the field has made him and his teammates love their time on it even more.

There are some new faces, some returning faces, and some faces that went to Villanova to play football and are back again (hey, Dox). Today’s game will be a good gauge to see how well everyone meshes and where Virginia still needs to make improvements.

What should we expect defensively?

A lot will understandably be said about the Virginia offense this season. So, what should we make of the defense? Alex Rode, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2019 NCAA Championship, returns in cage. He’ll also have long stick midfielder Jared Conners — who had five goals, one assist, 57 ground balls, and 27 caused turnovers in 2019 — to anchor things. John Fox, one of the Virginia captains this year, will lead the way as a short stick defensive midfielder.

Last season was disappointing in a lot of ways, but one thing that was kind of nice is the fact that some first year defensemen got a bit of a cold open. Quentin Matsui (eight ground balls, four caused turnovers) and Scott Bower (15 ground balls, one caused turnover) got the start alongside now-fourth year Kyle Kology. Cade Saustad, who started for the Hoos in 2019, has had time to recover from an injury that sidelined him last season thanks to the pandemic.

There are a lot of questions defensively because of the youth and inexperience on that end of the field, but there’s a lot to like.