With the Virginia Cavaliers just holding on to beat the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday afternoon, the squad has quickly turned its attention to Monday’s National Championship contest with the third seeded Maryland Terrapins in a quest to repeat as National Champions.
At 15-0, the Terps will likely be heavy favorites as, despite only playing within the Big Ten in the regular season, they’ve proven their mettle as the most talented and complete team in the country with back to back wins over ACC teams in their quarterfinal and semifinal matchups. Saturday’s win over Duke was particularly eye-opening as head coach John Tillman and his team manhandled a star-studded Blue Devil squad, 14-5.
With such a matchup against an imposing Maryland team, there are a number of critical components to the game where the Wahoos will have to be at their very best.
Cade Saustad needs to contain Jared Bernhardt
Starting with what will likely be the most significant matchup come Monday afternoon: Cade Saustad will need to cover the USILA Most Outstanding Player of the Year, Jared Bernhardt. Bernhardt is a piece like no other as he’s been the most dominant college player in years this season. His ridiculous combination of superior size, Hulk-ish strength, ridiculous speed, and calculated footwork make him a nightmare to guard as he’s capable of embarrassing defenses as both a goal scorer or a distributor when opponents over help.
Tasked with guarding him on Monday will be Virginia’s top close defender, junior Cade Saustad. Having guarded opponents’ best players all season long, the Texan is no stranger to marquee matchups. But, in Bernhardt, Saustad will face a task like no other. Fortunately, the Dallas native might actually be the defender best equipped to limit Bernhardt’s impact. At 6’5”, Saustad has a few inches on Bernhardt and his length combined with his strength should allow him to prevent Bernhardt from consistently beating him top side.
Granted, there is no stopping Bernhardt. He’s going to get his no matter what — his 16 goals in the last three games is evidence of that. Rather, if Saustad can just maintain his matchup with Bernhardt and prevent him from becoming a massive stressor for the rest of the defense, he’ll have done his job.
Of course, with Bernhardt’s deadly feeding ability, Virginia’s off ball defense will also need to be on point as guys like Logan Wisnauskas can punish any lackadaisical off ball play or over-concentration on Bernhardt.
The specialists have to dominate
With Maryland’s high powered offense and stingy defense, it’ll be a tall task for Virginia to purely outplay the Terps in settled half field sets. To compensate, the Cavaliers will need dominant play from their specialists.
First and foremost, Petey LaSalla is potentially the most impactful player in this game. A second team All-American, the Rocky Point High School graduate is capable of rattling off win after win at the faceoff ‘X’ and taking over a game. Matched up against Justin Shockey, LaSalla will be favored to win a majority of the draws. Yet, for Virginia to the type of dominant performance he had in the 2019 quarterfinals against Maryland when he won the last nine faceoffs of the game.
Fortunately, with first team All-American and Outstanding Midfielder of the Year Jared Conners and an array of capable short sticks on the wing, LaSalla will have help in his pursuit of as many extra possessions as possible.
On the back end, goalie Alex Rode will have to come up big once again. The Most Outstanding Player in the 2019 Final Four, Rode — like LaSalla — is well accustomed to the big stage and has made countless big stops in his four year career at Virginia. For the ‘Hoos to repeat as champions on Monday he’ll have to do it again against the highest power offense he’s seen yet.
Next level shooters like Bernhardt and Wisnauskas will no doubt put the senior goaltender to the test, but Rode’s penchant for making big saves in the biggest moments should give Virginia the opportunity it needs to go the distance with Maryland.
Complementary players must create offense
On the other side of the ball, the Cavaliers will need to rely on some of their complementary offensive pieces to create offense. Both due to Matt Moore’s potential limitation due to a shoulder injury on Saturday and the general leveled playing field on championship Monday on just one day of rest, Virginia’s role players will have to take on more responsibility.
While Moore is limited, emerging star Connor Shellenberger will likely draw the matchup Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Nick Grill. The Maryland defense will look to key in on the redshirt freshman who’s put up eight goals and five assists in his last two games. As a result, guys like Payton Cormier, Charlie Bertrand, and (yes) Dox Aitken should look to create offense for themselves.
With 2 goals & 4 assists today, Connor Shellenberger forged his name in the UVA lacrosse record books.— Zach Carey (@zach_carey_) May 30, 2021
With 73 points this szn he's now tied for the 9th highest scoring szn in UVA history.
With 40 assists he's tied for 9th most in a single season.
Both are freshman records. pic.twitter.com/pIoZpLfseQ
Both Cormier and Bertrand came up huge against North Carolina to combine for five goals. Of note, each found their respective groove as dodgers rather than solely off ball players benefitting off others. Earlier this season those two were practically unstoppable on the lefty wing but have since shrunk into the background of the UVA offense.
If those two and Aitken — who has gone quiet since his midseason resurgence — can provide a scoring punch as initiators then the UVA offense has the potential to hang with Maryland. The Terps defense is incredibly well coached and talented. But, if the ‘Hoos can get enough quality shots against sophomore goalie Logan McNaney, there’s no reason they can’t wrack up enough points on the scoreboard to defend their title.