For the second straight tournament, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team is playing in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Hoos last went to the quarters in 2019 en route to winning the program’s sixth NCAA title. There was no tournament in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, so the Cavaliers are technically still the reigning champs.
Virginia defeated Bryant, 13-11, in the opening round of the tournament after battling back from a two-goal deficit in the third quarter. Both Matt Moore and Connor Shellenberger had two goals and three assists in the win, and goalie Alex Rode came up with an impressive 18 saves.
Now, the No. 4-seed Cavaliers head to Long Island — Hempstead, to be specific — to face the No. 5-seed Georgetown Hoyas. Here are some things to look out for in the game:
Familiar place, kind of familiar face
Hofstra University is hosting the game, and the Hoos have some familiarity with the Long Island field. Virginia played at Hofstra in the quarterfinals against Cornell in 2011 before eventually going on to win the title. The Hoos’ 2019 quarterfinal matchup against Maryland — a game filled with drama that ended with a Moore game-winning goal in OT — also took place in Hempstead.
“I feel very fortunate to be sort of given a second chance to approach the NCAA tournament from a stance of, yeah, we won the last time, but so we’re having more fun with it,” Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany told media on Wednesday. “I’m not as strict with how we talk about it [being reigning champs], and I do agree [that] going back to Hofstra, having been there two years ago, and having achieved success, I think that there’s something there.”
While the Hoyas aren’t geographically far from the Hoos, this is only the fifth time the two teams have met. The two teams scrimmage frequently in the preseason, but the last regular season game between the two was in 2016 when the Hoos won 8-7 in former head coach Dom Starsia’s final career win. Virginia holds a 4-0 lead in the series, including wins in the quarterfinals in 2003 and 2006. The Cavaliers won the NCAA title in both those seasons.
Georgetown dominated Syracuse in the first round, taking out Virginia’s Achilles heel with a score of 18-10. Ten of the Hoyas’ goals came from two players as Declan McDermott and Jake Carraway netted five apiece. Virginia’s defense, which has improved dramatically over the course of the season, will face a huge test as the Georgetown offense moves the ball well and has multiple threats.
The Hoyas averaged 13.8 goals per game, and put 58% of their shots on cage. Carraway leads Georgetown with 51 goals and 67 points for the season, and five other Hoyas have 17 goals or more. Freshman TJ Haley leads the nation with 49 assists (but with only five goals) and averages 3.50 assists per game.
“They dodge so fast, and how they bang the ball through x, especially with TJ Haley back there and how quickly he redirects it,” Tiffany explained. “Because they’re athletic, you have got to slide. You have got to be ready. So you have got to be ready to slide the recoveries. It exaggerates how quickly you recover back to everyone having a man after you’ve slid.”
Virginia has both Kyle Kology and Cade Saustad available to put on an opponent’s lead scorer, but Haley presents a different kind of challenge. You could see Tiffany use one of those aforementioned defenders to attempt to shut off Haley and put up-and-coming first year Cole Kastner on one of the goal-scoring threats.
Experience for Virginia
The Cavaliers bring back multiple key pieces that helped Virginia win a title in 2019. At the attack, Ian Laviano and Matt Moore played significant roles with each scoring an overtime game winning goal in the tournament. Dox Aitken returned in the midfield, and Jared Conners, Kology, and Saustad anchor the defense. Face-off man Petey LaSalla was stellar in the 2019 tournament, as was goalkeeper and tournament MVP Alex Rode.
“It’s obviously been a pretty long time, even though technically we’re reigning champs, it’s been two years. It’s crazy, because it’s the quarterfinals, it’s at the same field at Hofstra. I do feel kind of the same nerves as I did the year before, but it’s something we’ve done before,” Saustad said of the postseason. “We just tell the guys that it’s just another game, just another playoff game, and if we win, we’re going to Championship Weekend. It’s just all you’ve got to think about.”
Younger players like Connor Shellenberger have benefitted from finally getting to take the field in a tournament game and the experience shared by the upperclassmen. Shellenberger redshirted last season after coming in to Virginia as the No. 1 recruit. With the pandemic cancellations, he’s had to wait longer than expected. “It was definitely nice to finally play,” Shellenberger said of the Bryant game. “Walking up to the stadium last week, you see all the NCAA logos and stuff and you’re like, ‘Dang, this is getting really real.’ So it’s definitely a little bit different with all the media and TV ... but [it’s] definitely nice having it under the belt.”
Payton Cormier, Virginia’s leading goal scorer with 39 this season, missed the 2019 season with an injury. Grad transfer Charlie Bertrand has NCAA experience — he’s won two titles with DII Merrimack — but is going through all of this with a new team. All of them will be pivotal if the Cavaliers are looking to repeat as champs.
How to Watch
Day: Saturday, May 22