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What to watch for in #2 Virginia’s heavyweight clash with #1 Maryland

The ‘Hoos and the Terps are in a league of their own in college lacrosse and go to battle on Saturday at 3:00.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship Photo by Larry French/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

In a contest between college lacrosse’s undisputed top-two teams, the Virginia Cavaliers and the Maryland Terrapins face-off on Saturday at 3:00 PM in Washington D.C.’s Audi Field. A rematch of last season’s national championship game, this is a matchup of two teams who have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack this year.

Both have plenty of returning players that make up experienced rosters that also have been revamped with transfer additions and young talent. As each team is incredibly complete from end-line to end-line, there are a number of critical matchups that should determine the outcome of this game and likely who will enter the second half of the season as the favorite for the National Championship.

A historic rivalry that’s played to the final whistle

Virginia and Maryland are two of the most successful lacrosse programs ever and have long had one of the game’s most thrilling rivalries. While not quite on par with the games between UVA, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, and perhaps Princeton back in the 20th century, Virginia versus Maryland never disappoints.

In fact, the two teams have met a ridiculous 93 times dating back to 1926 with Maryland just slightly leading the series 47-46. Maryland was particularly dominant in the pre-NCAA days with nine national titles compared to Virginia’s two while the ‘Hoos have turned the tides with seven NCAA Championships compared to Maryland’s three.

In recent memory, these two teams have had seemingly countless thrilling contests. To start with perhaps the most intense lacrosse game ever played, Virginia just came out on top in the seventh overtime off a Brian Carroll goal to win the 2009 regular season contest, 10-9.

Then — after Maryland had handled Virginia 12-7 in the regular season — Virginia won its fifth National Championship in a 9-7 victory of the Terrapins in 2011.

Unfortunately, after Maryland left the ACC in 2014, the teams haven’t face off in the regular season. Nevertheless, the last two NCAA Tournaments have provided us without a taste for just how fantastic the competition is when these two teams meet.

In the 2019 quarterfinals, Virginia overcame a five-goal deficit in the fourth quarter to take the 13-12 win after a 6-0 run. Dramatically, the tying goal from Michael Kraus was called a goal despite the fact that his shot quite obviously only hit the crossbar rather than fully breaching the goal-line.

Nonetheless, the fairly ridiculous call stood and Matt Moore clinched Virginia’s first appearance to the Final Four and Memorial Day Weekend since the 2011 championship.

Then, last year, the two teams met again as the undefeated Maryland squad appeared destined to take its revenge. But, a Virginia team led by the emerging Connor Shellenberger and veterans of the 2019 team denied the Terps despite a furious fourth quarter comeback. That late push ended after UMD face-off man Luke Wierman shot the ball into UVA goalie Alex Rode’s chest in the final seconds and Virginia secured its second straight championship.

With the two teams meeting this weekend, plenty of emotions from the last two games will remain as either team looks to stamp its authority as the best in college lacrosse.

A repeat face-off battle with a spoiler

With Wierman — who had an open lane at the goal and a one-on-one opportunity with Rode to send the game to overtime — as the player with the most bulletin board motivation heading into the contest, his matchup with Virginia’s Petey LaSalla could be the determining factor in this game.

The two went face-off for face-off last May as LaSalla came out just on top, winning 16 of the 30 draws the they took against each other. But — perhaps the key to the battle at the X this go around — LaSalla won five of seven against Maryland’s second face-off guy Justin Shockey in that game.

This season, though, the complement to Wierman at the X is a familiar face for LaSalla and the Wahoos. Gavin Tygh — who transferred to Maryland after two seasons in Charlottesville — is the perfect counter punch to Wierman. There will be nobody better to plug in to battle LaSalla and make him work than the guy who spent two years as his backup.

On the season, Wierman 68% (90/133) at the face-off X with Tygh at 58% (25/43). Meanwhile, LaSalla is 63% (80/126) with his second in command Gable Braun at 45% (22/49). It’s likely that LaSalla will see the majority of the draws for Virginia and he will be favored going into this matchup. But the combination of Wierman and Tygh will take some beating as the ‘Hoos and the Terps do battle for possessions.

Free-flowing play against a rigid system

If this rivalry needed more fuel to the fire, the contrast in styles between the two programs is notable. In contrast to Virginia Head Coach Lars Tiffany’s free-flowing, love of the game approach to coaching and playing, Maryland’s John Tillman is the calculated, systematic opposite.

Tillman’s most cherished sideline tool is his iPad where he constantly reviews game film. Tiffany’s is a traditional wooden stick made by the Onondaga’s legendary craftsman Alf Jacques that was a post-mortem gift from his father which he uses to warm up with his players before each game.

Tiffany emphasizes letting his players play and allowing for creativity to display the beauty of the game. Tillman is sternly dedicated to every minuscule detail of the x’s and o’s.

Each is a fantastic coach with a staff that lives up to the strategic and leading acumen of their boss. But the differences in approach couldn’t be more obvious and add to the aura of this contest.

Maryland’s dynamic midfield duo versus Virginia’s defensive midfielders

On either side of the field, there are countless fascinating matchups to study. When Maryland has the ball, the Terps’ best player Logan Wisnauskas will be the player to watch. He will be guarded by either Cade Saustad — who is Virginia’s best cover man but suffered a minor knee injury against Johns Hopkins two weeks ago and has been day-to-day this week in practice — or Cole Kastner who has had an incredible start to his second season as he contained UNC’s Chris Gray last week.

But, the key for Maryland’s offense and Virginia’s defense will likely come at the midfield position rather than the attack. The Terrapins have a pair of small, lightning quick middies in Anthony Demaio and Kyle Long along with a number of other midfield threats.

That is where Saustad’s potential absence could really hurt UVA. In his absence, long-stick-midfielder Scott Bower has bumped down to play close with has left Virginia’s third and fourth LSM’s Mitchell Whalen and Jake Giuleri to split time with Virginia’s second LSM Ben Wayer still out with an injury from early in the season.

UVA’s stable of short stick defensive midfielders will provide some help as Grayson Sallade, Noah Chizmar, Jeff Conner, Evan Zinn, and Jack Peele can all hold their own. But if Saustad is out Whalen and Giulieri will need to come up big against a deep Maryland offensive midfield.

Connor Shellenberger and Matt Moore versus Brett Makar and Matt Rahill

On the other end, all eyes will turn to arguably the best player in college lacrosse Connor Shellenberger in his matchup with fellow preseason first-team All American Brett Makar. Makar — who guarded Matt Moore in the National Championship last year while the Big Ten’s DPOY Nick Grill got the Shellenberger assignment — will be tasked with trying to contain a player who’s only ever been limited by his own selflessness.

In that National Championship game last year, the redshirt freshman Shellenberger had his way with the senior Grill as he scored four goals and added two assists to lead the ‘Hoos to their second consecutive crown. Makar has an even bigger test on his hands as Shellenberger has come even further into his own in his second season.

Through six games, Shellenberger has 40 points — good for 6.67 points per game which is second nationally — and is the frontrunner for college lacrosse’s Heisman, the Tewaaraton Trophy. Containing Shellenberger is the first near-impossible step in limiting the high-flying Wahoo offense.

Then there’s also the small matter of defending the most-accomplished attackman in Virginia lacrosse history in Matt Moore. While Makar struggled to defend Moore last May — Moore had four goals and two assists alongside Shellenberger — Matt Rahill will now get the matchup.

Long story short, there’s no stopping this duo. At least one of them will burn any defense in their way. While Moore has taken on more of a secondary role to Shellenberger this season, he’s still as talented and deadly a dodger as he’s ever been while he’s also incorporated his non-dominant left hand into the equation.

For Maryland to win on Saturday the Terps will have to do the impossible and find a way to slow down these two. They’re far from the only weapons on the Wahoo offense. But that’s where it starts for Virginia.

All in all, this game is must watch television. The heavyweight clash will be shown on the Big Ten Network at 3:00 PM ET on Saturday. If you’re a sports fan, tune in. It’ll be worth it.