With just over twenty seconds left in regulation, the score sitting at 11-10, and High Point’s Nick Rizzo streaking right at Wahoo goalie Mathew Nunes, there was only one thought on the freshman’s mind.
“I just had to step up,” said Nunes, “Everyone played so great. Our guys play hard for me all the time. So when it’s my turn to step up I gotta step up.”
Step up he did. With Rizzo’s shot fired at the net, Nunes fell to his knees while simultaneously sweeping his hands and his stick to his left to deflect the Rizzo shot away and out of bounds, effectively saving the game for Virginia.
After seeing the ball fly out of bounds and hearing the whistle blow as Head Coach Lars Tiffany called a timeout, Nunes started violently jumping up and down and pumping his fists as he ran to the Virginia Cavaliers sideline.
“That’s something I’ve been dreaming of,” he said after the game, noting how that moment felt synonymous to the play of UVA goalie greats. “You watch Alex Rode out here, you watch Kip Turner out here, you watch Tillman Johnson, you see those highlights... it’s a dream come true.”
“Thank goodness for Matt Nunes,” said Lars Tiffany. “11 saves at halftime and obviously a huge one at the end. We can’t be relying on a freshman goalie to win us ball games, but essentially that’s what Matt Nunes did today.”
Having only played two games in a Virginia uniform, Nunes is already staking his claim as the next in line to join those greats including Turner, Johnson, Adam Ghitelman, and Rode. His sixteen saves against High Point on Sunday including a number of point-blank stops right on his door step kept the ‘Hoos in the game all day long.
Of course, Rode’s departure after winning his second consecutive National Championship last season means that Nunes has quite the shoes to fill. Yet, despite that potential aura of pressure, Nunes has taken everything in stride.
“I can’t say enough about him,” emphasized Connor Shellenberger. “Having to walk in with the shadow of Alex Rode. Nobody’s talking about it, but I’m sure he’s feeling it.”
Nonetheless, Shellenberger hasn’t seen any sort of intimidation from the freshman keeper. “This fall I could see, this kid is unbelievable. Just his work ethic. Going to the facility two, three times a day to get extra shots. Most goalies don’t want to get extra shots because they see so many.”
“His work ethic,” Shellenberger listed, “his composure, and we just saw his heart today. His competitive level is off the charts.”
Considering that Shellenberger is known to be one of the most dedicated players with one of the strongest work ethics, his praise of Nunes and the job he’s done in filling Rode’s shoes is legitimate.
Of course, Nunes isn’t alone in his quest to live up to the greats before him. For starters, one of those greats and the 2006 National Champion goalie Kip Turner has been instrumental in his job of coaching Nunes since he arrived on Grounds in the fall.
“He’s the best goalie coach in the country,” said Nunes. “He’s helped me, we go through film, every tiny detail. He knows exactly what I’m going through so a lot of [the credit] goes to Coach Turner for sure.”
Tiffany echoes those sentiments, saying that “Matt Nunes chose Virginia because of the goalie tradition here that continues with Kip Turner who is a fantastic goalie coach.” Tiffany pointed to how Nunes — who is the top-ranked incoming goalie — “had every opportunity, every school in the country was after him. But he saw Kip Turner and the history and great tradition of goalies here. He saw that goalies get better here.”
Undoubtedly, the position that Nunes has come into is a favorable one, save the ridiculous expectations of being the backbone of a two-time reigning national championship team. Nunes touched on how much he loves UVA as a school, saying that “the university is awesome, the first semester was great. Just being on Grounds is beautiful. Better weather than Texas.”
Additionally, the roster around Nunes means that he has had the opportunity to grow and settle in. With an experienced, stout defense of guys like Cade Saustad, Grayson Sallade, Cole Kastner, Quentin Matsui, and others, Nunes can rely on others. “Those guys have made it the easiest transition possible,” he said. “Stepping up to division one lacrosse from Texas lacrosse is a big step. But those guys have made it easier.”
Nunes also credited his backup goalies Dave Roselle and Miles Thompson who “have been super impactful. Even just in the fall helping me through drills or in games, because these games are long.”
But, Tiffany mentioned how Nunes “is his own person,” and that, at the end of the day, he’s responsible for his successes. Tiffany emphasized how “the emotional strength that he has is astounding as a first year. He doesn’t skip a beat. He doesn’t need a lot of therapy, he doesn’t need a lot of coaching, he doesn’t need a lot of talking. He’s got it, he’s got it.”
Nunes absolutely does have it as he’s quickly establishing himself as one of the strengths of the roster — something that is remarkable for a first year goalie with the expectations he has on his shoulders. He’s starting to step up and into the shoes of the greats that came before him, now it’s just a question of how far he can walk in them.