The Virginia men’s lacrosse team hoisted the NCAA trophy a little over one week ago after the Cavaliers withstood a late push from Maryland to hold on to a 17-16 victory. It was the seventh NCAA title in program history, and for the first time, lacrosse went back-to-back after the Hoos won it all in 2019.
The Cavaliers got a huge tournament out of redshirt first year Connor Shellenberger. The multi-faceted player earned the title of tournament Most Outstanding Player for his 14 goals and 10 assists. He is just the second rookie to win MOP of the NCAA tournament, joining Virginia’s Connor Gill (1999). That’s it. That’s the list.
With a program that has had the success that Virginia has and had the legendary players that have come through, the term “greatest of all time” shouldn’t be used lightly. Although it’s maybe a little early to put the GOAT moniker on Shellenberger, it’s hard to watch him play and think he’s not destined to be one of the best players to ever come through Charlottesville.
Shellenberger was fantastic in the regular season, scoring 23 goals and dishing 32 assists. In the postseason, he turned it up a notch. His breakout game came against Georgetown in the NCAA quarterfinals as he rattled off six goals as the Hoos cruised to a dominant 14-3 win.
For the season, Shellenberger finished with a team-high 79 points and 42 assists. His 37 goals was second on the team, behind just Payton Cormier (45 goals). He finished fourth nationally in total points on the season, and fifth in total assists. While these numbers are all impressive on their own, they really pop when put into context of Virginia Lacrosse history.
Shellenberger became the first ever Virginia freshman to score 30 goals and notch 30 assists in his first season, absolutely crushing second place Steele Stanwick’s 58 points (36 goals, 22 assists) in 2009. His 37 goals are good for second for a first year season, narrowly edging Stanwick and falling just three behind Joe Yevoli’s 40 goals in 2002. And assists? Shellenberger’s 42 assists are by FAR the most dished out by a first year Cavalier, blowing Connor Gill’s 30 in 1999 out of the water.
When looking even bigger picture, Shellenberger’s 2021 season lands him in the Virginia record books already. His 42 assists this season put him in a four-way tie for sixth in a single season with Kris Snider (1977), Tim Whiteley (1995), and Connor Gill (2002). The 79 points Shellenberger posted this season are the fifth best in Virginia history for a single-season, one point off of Stanwick’s 80 points in 2012.
It isn’t a surprise that Shellenberger and Stanwick are named in the same conversation as the former has admitted to modeling his game after the latter. “I don’t know how much my game models his because it’s tough shoes to fill, but definitely Steele Stanwick,” Shellenberger responded when asked who he looked up to growing up a Virginia fan. “I remember my fifth grade teacher — her son was on the team — and Steele signed one of my spelling tests when I was like in fourth or fifth grade, and I thought I was like the greatest thing ever....He was definitely my idol for those three or four years that he played here.”
You can see similarities in the way the two play, but Shellenberger has more speed and sheer athleticism than former Tewaaraton winner Stanwick. Shelly can dish the ball and roll the crease like Stanwick, but the pinpoint accuracy and slinging outside shots are pure Shellenberger.
As a senior at St. Anne’s Belfield in Charlottesville, already committed to come play for head coach Lars Tiffany, Shellenberger was rated the No. 1 recruit in the nation by Inside Lacrosse. The experience of being the top prospect in the 2020 class was something Shellenberger enjoyed, but didn’t let go to his head. “I really enjoyed it to be honest. I thought it pushed me in a way, because you’re gonna everyone’s best shot at summer tournaments,” Shellenberger explained. “I just felt like I had to work hard because everyone was kind of coming for me, whether that was true or not, I kind of just had that mindset. So, I liked it.”
Once he got to Virginia, however, he knew that the number in front of his name no longer mattered. Expectations were high for the local kid, but with Virginia returning Michael Kraus, Ian Laviano, and Matt Moore on the attack, things were a little crowded. Redshirt freshman Payton Cormier was also joining the fray after the lefty Canadian sat in 2019 in an injury.
“I felt like I had to prove something to my teammates that I really didn’t,” he said of showing up to the team. “They didn’t care that I was the number one recruit. They care about me as a person and a player and none of that stuff mattered.” Shellenberger admitted that he felt a kind of self-imposed pressure to perform when he arrived in Charlottesville, but that quickly passed.
Moore, a revelation for the Hoos in 2019 after being bumped from midfield to attack partway through the season, had to stay on attack. You couldn’t justify moving him back to the midfield after achieving the first ever 40+ goal, 40+ assist season in school history and setting a new single-season points record with 89. So where did that leave Shelly? After discussions with Tiffany, the 6’1, 195 dynamo decided to go an unusual route and redshirt.
Looking back now and knowing the 2020 season would be a wash due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tiffany lamented not getting Shellenberger on the field, but you can’t argue with the end results when you see the role he played in helping Virginia win another title.
“Looking up when we won and seeing my parents in the stands, it’s about as good as it gets. All the sacrifices that they made for me, and even just driving me to lacrosse when I was a little kid and letting me have that dream,” Shellenberger said from the podium, sitting next to the NCAA trophy. “I can’t thank them enough for supporting me and giving me this opportunity, and then to do it with this group of guys, these coaches, it’s literally what you dream of.”
Virginia fans have three more years to watch Shellenberger, and if the first year was any indication, it’s going to be an incredible journey.