The Virginia men’s lacrosse team was just one of many that had an offseason that you could very easily classify as “weird.” The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the arrival of student athletes on Grounds, impacted fall workouts, and generally made it more difficult for new faces (or returned faces, in the case of Dox Aitken) to get ready for the season.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, the team was both only able to hang out with each other and also not allowed to really do anything. Time together off the field was limited as group sizes were strictly regulated. While the team felt they were close, they weren’t as tight-knit as in previous years.
Virginia had three weeks off between the end of the regular season and its first-round NCAA tournament game, something that was also a side-effect of the pandemic. Teams were only allowed to schedule 15 games or scrimmages, and head coach Lars Tiffany built in a couple open weekends at the end of the season to allow for what — at the time — seemed like inevitable cancellations or postponements.
Instead, everything went smoothly. While no COVID issues is definitely to be considered a good thing, this meant the Hoos had significant down time heading into the win-or-go-home portion of the season.
Unsure how to handle the time off, Tiffany reached out to Virginia head football coach Bronco Mendenhall. From the conversation with Mendenhall, Tiffany tailored things to fit his team. This meant giving his squad a little more time off up front to rest their bodies and recover, and he wanted to focus on getting healthy, getting faster, and getting closer as a team.
“Our team has gotten a lot closer over these three weeks,” senior attackman Ian Laviano said of their downtime between games. “That’s credit to Lars’s plan and what he’s had us do, but I also think we’re all bought in now, and the younger kids are looking towards the older kids to see see what they do.”
In order to achieve better team unity and cohesion, Tiffany set up a few events. The team put the young guys versus the veterans in scrimmages, and they headed to Palmer Park for a softball game. There, guys like Charlie Bertrand and Payton Cormier — or the “Hefty Lefties” as the duo is affectionately called — excelled, and midfielder Dox Aitken stroked a home run.
Tiffany also invited players over to his house for small group dinners where he fed them meatless burgers and sausages (he’s a vegetarian).
“Most importantly, it was great just being able to connect with the guys on a different level. Whether we’re playing softball, or whatever, just that competitive aspect of me came out a lot, which I love,” Laviano said. “I thought these three weeks were great, for building team chemistry, for individuals getting their bodies right, but also as a team we we got closer, and we definitely got better.”
Heading into the fourth quarter in Virginia’s first round game on Sunday, that closeness among players was evident. The Cavaliers trailed Bryant, 10-9, with 15 minutes left to determine if they’d continue on in the postseason or not.
A large circle formed on the Virginia sideline, but a few people were noticeably absent: the coaches. “There were actually no coaches there,” senior attackman Matt Moore said after the game. “That was just our captain, John Fox. He brought us all together ... I mean, you look up and it’s just all your teammates, everyone arm around each other. We kind of just looked each other in the eye and not much was said — John had some words of motivation to say — but really, other than that, we were kind of just looking at each other, guys smiling, guys just believing in each other.”
The Hoos came back and scored four straight to open the fourth quarter, take the lead, and secure the win. Going forward, Virginia will need to rely on those close bonds as they face a talented Georgetown team on Saturday as they look to return to championship weekend.