For the third time in the 2021 season, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team will take the field against the North Carolina Tar Heels. The two teams split the series earlier this season, and the rubber match holds the most weight as the winner will move on to the NCAA Championship game. Playing a team a third time in a season hasn’t happened a lot for the Cavaliers in program history as this is just the fourth time that it has occurred. For head coach Lars Tiffany, it’s the first time he’ll coach a team against one foe for a third time in one season.
North Carolina won the first matchup of the season as they jumped out to an 11-4 halftime lead before cruising to a 16-13 victory. Virginia made a valiant push in the fourth quarter to close within two with 1:35 remaining, but it was too little, too late. Payton Cormier led Virginia with three goals, and four others notched two goals apiece. Petey LaSalla won 68% of the face offs, and Alex Rode had 14 saves, but the hole Virginia dug for themselves early was too big to get out of.
Offensively, Virginia made things far too easy for North Carolina goalkeeper Collin Krieg. They peppered him with 62 shots, with 33 on cage. For those doing the math at home, that means Krieg had 20 saves. Some were outstanding saves, but some were a side effect of Virginia being too predictable with their shooting.
After the loss to North Carolina — and a lackluster win against Robert Morris — Tiffany emphasized going back to the basics with his team’s shooting. The results were evident as the Hoos rattled off three convincing wins before a closely contested overtime loss to Duke.
Thanks to a modified schedule as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia got a shot at revenge when they went to Chapel Hill in mid-April for a rematch. The second game was extremely competitive, and things got off to a hot start with a combined 12 goals in the first quarter. A late hot streak by LaSalla that saw him win 14-straight face offs turned a 10-9 deficit into an 18-14 advantage. The Cavaliers would go on to win 18-16, and even up the season series.
One of the big differences between the matchups was how Matt Moore approached the game. In the first meeting, the superstar attackman had two goals and two assists, but looked frustrated as he needed 15 shots to get his two goals. It looked as though he was forcing things, rather than letting the game come to him. In the second game, Moore passed with precision, finding his teammates to the tune of six assists with two goals.
“In that in that second UNC game, I think everyone kind of just settled down. That was a big game for us,” Moore told the media on Wednesday. “I think that was a big, big pivot in our in our season to start improving. As a team, I think we do a good job of letting the game come to us, especially in the later games we played.”
Virginia got a huge game from redshirt first year Connor Shellenberger in the quarterfinals against Georgetown, something that will make the Hoos even more difficult to guard offensively. Shellenberger matched a Virginia-record six goals in a postseason game as the Cavaliers cruised to a surprisingly easy 14-3 win over the Hoyas.
He scored in a multitude of ways, taking what the defense gave him. Against North Carolina, the Hoos will have to contend with First-Team All-American defenseman Will Bowen, but the combination of Shellenberger, Moore, Cormier, Ian Laviano, and Charlie Bertrand — along with midfielders Peter Garno, Dox Aitken, and Jeff Conner — all present bona fide threats on attack.
Defensively, the Cavaliers are rounding into form at the right time. They’ll have their hands full with a Carolina team that has scored 16 goals in both games played between the two this season. Chris Gray is a First-Team All-American, and he leads the ACC in goals (46) and points (40). The Tar Heels score an ACC-best 16.67 goals per game, and take advantage of one-on-one matchups well. Defenseman Kyle Kology knows the entire defense will have to be ready, including the short-stick defensive midfielders.
“Obviously a big test. Huge test for shorties as it was in the first two games, [as] they’re definitely an offense that likes to initiate against the short sticks,” Kology explained. “They know what our schemes are, and they know what our strengths are. So you know, it’s going to be about neutralizing some of those strengths.”
In cage, Alex Rode has been fantastic all season. He only had eight saves in the quarterfinals, but had a save percentage north of 70%. This means that when Georgetown finally got the space on Virginia’s defense to take a shot, Rode was there to make the save.
They’ll need to do more of the same this weekend if they want to return to the NCAA title game for the second straight time. The game starts at noon and will be broadcast by ESPN2.