Virginia men’s lacrosse head coach Lars Tiffany had just assumed there would be somewhere he could stay as he traveled north of Philadelphia for the Liberty Bell Challenge in 2016. Tiffany had taken over the mantle for the Cavaliers just three weeks prior to the early-July recruiting event, and he really wanted to see this specific face off specialist. After trying — and failing — to find a room at six different hotels, Tiffany tracked down what looked to be an open room at a Holiday Inn in Quakertown.
After arriving past midnight, he found out the room wasn’t available and was actually being flea bombed.
So, how badly did Tiffany want to see this player take the field? Badly enough that he brushed his teeth in the parking lot, reclined his seat back as far as it could go, and slept in his car. According to Tiffany, he got about five good hours of sleep and boy, was it worth it.
The next day, Tiffany saw Petey LaSalla play and the rest was history. He had seen him play once before — about a month prior when Tiffany was still the head coach at Brown — and knew then he wanted LaSalla on his team.
“Recruiting is not often so black-and-white,” Tiffany told Streaking the Lawn. “In Petey’s case, it was easy to see a young man who could not only gain possession for his team, but create offense and score goals.”
At first meeting, you might not know that he is one of the best — if not the best — face-off men in the country. But LaSalla, a 5-7 spark plug from Miller Place, New York, has been instrumental in Virginia’s success over the last three seasons. He came into Charlottesville ranked the No. 94 player and the No. 8 face-off specialist in the 2018 recruiting class, per Inside Lacrosse.
“His play kind of speaks for itself,” fifth-year midfielder Dox Aitken said of his face-off guru. “Freshman year, you didn’t know what was going to happen when we were putting them in the game, but obviously, he made a reputation for himself pretty early on, and, you know, that hasn’t really wavered at all. You know he’s gonna win face offs, [and] you know — knock on wood — he’s going to win the tough ones at the end of the game when it matters most.”
Right out of the gate, LaSalla was thrown into the mix. He went 7-of-15 in his debut — a 17-9 loss to Loyola — and split time with fellow specialist Justin Schwenk. Over the course of his freshman season, he showed why his coach was willing to sleep in a parking lot to get that commitment. He racked up face off victories, helping his Cavalier team win 10 of 11 games to end the regular season after a slow 1-2 start.
Kip Turner, Virginia’s assistant coach that handles the team’s specialists (face offs and goalies), knows that when Petey gets in the zone, it’s better to let him be. Turner and teammates both described the late-game vibes around LaSalla like someone talks about a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter. “I remember specifically the [2019 NCAA Quarterfinal] Maryland game, I think it was after the first or second face off, where he started going on that run,” Turner stated. “I just let him be. I let him do his thing. You could just tell in his eyes he was going to do everything he could to give us a chance to win.”
With 10:38 remaining and Maryland leading 12-7, LaSalla won the final seven face offs of the game — including one in overtime — as the Hoos turned that five-goal deficit into a one-goal victory and a trip to the national semifinals.
In the semifinals, he did it again. Down 11-8 to ACC rival Duke with 9:49 to play, LaSalla won the final eight draws of the game as Virginia won in double-overtime, 13-12. It was a remarkable feat to see once in the postseason, let alone twice. With LaSalla at the X, Virginia was seemingly never out of it, no matter the deficit.
Against Yale in the 2019 championship game, LaSalla faced his stiffest test yet. The Elis boasted the nation’s best face-off man, TD Ierlan, who came into the game with a 73% win percentage. While the numbers from the game look dire — Ierlan won 19-of-25 — LaSalla did his job admirably by just making it hard for Yale to quickly gain possession and get into its offense. The slight delay at the X allowed Virginia’s defense to prevent the unsettled situations that Yale thrived in or cause turnovers, and the Hoos powered their way to a title.
It wasn’t the prettiest game for LaSalla, but he got the job done.
“He’s just one of the most resilient teammates,” Aitken stated. “He comes off the field after a loss, and he’s so level headed and knows that the next one is his.”
Senior attackman Ian Laviano feels the same way. “Just having him there and [knowing] that he’s going to fight is huge, especially later in games when we’re down a couple goals.” Laviano added before mentioning what a big confidence boost LaSalla brings to the team. “I also have to mention he’s from Long Island...must be something in the water up there.”
This season, LaSalla has been consistently fantastic. Against Robert Morris, he went a perfect 12-for-12 at the X in the first half. At Notre Dame, he went 52% against an Irish duo that, at the time, were best in the ACC. In Virginia’s second game against North Carolina, Petey rattled off 14-straight face off wins over an 18+ minute span of game time that saw a 10-9 deficit turn into an 18-14 lead.
LaSalla attributes those win streaks like he had in 2019 and several times this season primarily to confidence. “If I’m on one of those streaks. I’m just pretty confident in myself, and I’m hearing the whistle pretty well,” he said. “It’s just a lot of confidence and just believing in myself.”
He paused before adding with a smile, “And Coach Turner not getting too much in my head like he does sometimes.”
There has been just one game this season — an early loss at the Carrier Dome — where he struggled, going 11-for-33. He will have a chance at revenge as the Hoos host Syracuse on Saturday at noon.
What Tiffany and Turner love about LaSalla is that he’s not just a FOGO — or “face off, get off” — type of specialist. You can leave him on the attack and you’re going to get production out of him. LaSalla had eight goals, including two in the title game, and an assist in the 2019 season. This year he’s scored seven goals and dished out six assists in 13 games.
“It’s scary for other teams for sure, especially because he’s got a right and a left hand, he’s got stick skills, he can shoot the ball, he’ll make the one more pass,” Turner said of Petey’s arsenal of weapons. “If you’re their defensive coordinator, I’m not sure what you do.”
Petey is undoubtedly a gifted athlete. In lacrosse, he was a two-time US Lacrosse All-American, two-time all-state (NY), three-time all-county, and three-time all division. Those same skills that make him a difficult matchup on the lax field made him a force on the gridiron. At Rocky Point High School, LaSalla played running back and linebacker and set school records for most touchdowns in a season (20) and most in a career (43).
“First of all, he’s a good lacrosse player, bottom line,” Turner said when asked about what specifically makes LaSalla so special. “That helps him outside the face off X. Inside the X, he just has that kind of hopping quickness. He was a running back in high school, and he was like a ridiculous running back in high school, so he just has those quick twitch wrists and hamstrings.”
Turner stated that in addition to the physical attributes that make him a good player, he’s got the mental abilities to gauge what opponents are trying to do and adjust his style as needed. That adaptability came in handy before the 2020-21 season, when the NCAA modified the face off rules. The “motorcycle grip” — think of someone holding the stick like they’re holding the handlebars of a motorcycle — was outlawed, and players were no longer allowed to drop to a knee for the face off. Instead, they instituted “neutral standing grip,” meaning players stay standing (crouched), and have to have the hand closest to the head of the stick palm-side up.
This changed the way he approached face offs. “I just got back to training, got back to my roots,” LaSalla explained of the modifications. “It’s not too too different in the technique, but it’s just a little different the way you have to set up, so it’s not too bad.”
LaSalla took it in stride, but according to Turner, he struggled a little as he adjusted. “It’s like you know how to ride a bike, but you suddenly try to ride a unicycle,” Turner explained. “He was getting beat up a little bit practice at times, but with a guy like him, it didn’t take too long for him to get back on top.”
And on top he is.
With a 66.9% win percentage on the year, LaSalla sits atop the ACC face off standings. He’s won 220 face offs already this season (which leads the nation), surpassing his 216 wins in 2019 and putting him in second place in the Virginia record books for the single-season face off win total. Schwenk holds the top spot with 242 wins (2018), a number that looks well within reach with Syracuse and the postseason still to play.
He’s also within striking distance of the career wins total in Virginia history as he sits just 95 wins behind the mark of 604 set by Jack DeVilliers from 2002-05 with another season (or two) left to play.
The Tewaaraton Award, which goes to the nation’s best player, announced their updated 25-man watch list on April 22nd. LaSalla made the cut, along with just one other face off specialist in the country. The other nominee — Mike Sissenberger from Lehigh — leads the nation with 79.6% win percentage, but has just four goals on the season.
You can tell very easily when a player is liked based on the immediate reactions from their teammates when asked about them. When asked about LaSalla’s personality off the field, everyone lit up as they responded.
“He’s one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met,” Aitken laughed. “I think he comes off as a pretty quiet guy, but once you crack the shell...[it’s] just like, endless content from him.”
Quentin Matsui, a second-year defender who has a locker right next to Petey, concurs. “On the field, everybody can see that obviously he’s a beast and super focused,” Matsui told media via Zoom. “But then off the field — he’s [No.] 23, I’m [No.] 22, so we share lockers — he’s a hilarious guy. He’s super upbeat. He’s just funny. He makes everybody laugh in the locker room.”
While his coaches — and for that matter, media — don’t get to see the same side as his teammates, they see a player that is obviously well liked. “We see a quiet man,” Tiffany said. “The guys tell me he’s hilarious. A couple times I’ve picked up a little bit if I get into a room, and he doesn’t see me... Petey, he’s reserved around me, but apparently he’s really, really funny.”
Tiffany described LaSalla’s humor as “subtle,” and added that he’s big into video games when he’s not playing or studying for classes in his American studies major. Laviano said his humor is “dry” before adding, “He definitely wins over the locker room. He has a presence in there. He definitely shines into the locker room.”
“Once you crack the shell, which fortunately I’ve done, it’s just endless content from him,” Aitken said before recommending Petey get the “mic’d up” treatment for a game or practice. Upon realizing the knowledge of being listened to might make LaSalla clam up a bit, he had another suggestion.
“I’ll bug him one day,” Aitken laughed. “I’ll put a bug on his back or something.”
It was nearly five years ago when Tiffany called Turner to say, “I can’t find a hotel. Screw it, I’m going to sleep in the truck.” It appears that LaSalla was well worth the inconvenience, both on the field and off.
“We are super lucky to have him,” Turner stated.