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Virginia’s Connor Shellenberger is built for the NCAA Tournament

The sophomore exploded versus Brown in the first round after a slow finish to the season.

NCAA LACROSSE: MAY 14 Div I Men’s Tournament - Virginia at Brown Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Connor Shellenberger had played a solid redshirt freshman season for the Virginia Cavaliers. His 55 points in 13 games (4.2PPG) led the team as his contributions from the midfield provided a good counter for the attack-heavy offense.

But, when May and the tournament play came, he made good on the potential he’d displayed from a young age as the country’s number one recruit in the 2019 class. In UVA’s first round contest versus Bryant, Shellenberger pitched in two goals and three assists for a five point performance in the Wahoos’ narrow 13-11 victory.

The quarterfinal contest against #5 Georgetown was where the St. Annes Belfield alum exploded. With six goals and an assist, he shocked the college lacrosse world as UVA easily handled the Hoyas, 14-3.

In the semifinals, Shellenberger didn’t slow down even with Matt Moore leaving the game with a shoulder injury in the second quarter. He dished out four assists and tallied a pair of scores on the way to leading the team in its upset win over #1 North Carolina.

Then, in the National Championship game, he performed yet again with four goals and another two assists in the Wahoos’ thrilling 17-16 victory against the previously unbeaten Maryland Terrapins. That earned him the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award and cemented him as a household name in college lacrosse.

It’s well documented how impressive Shellenberger’s run last season was. It established him as one of the best players in college lacrosse and perhaps the player with the brightest future in the college game as a redshirt freshman.

As the 2022 season began, the Charlottesville native picked up right where he left off. In fact, in his first six games, Shellenberger scored an average of 6.7 points per contest. He firmly established himself as the frontrunner for college lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy, the Tewaaraton Trophy and led Virginia to a 6-0 record.

Yet, with UVA’s seventh game of the season coming against #1 Maryland, Shellenberger fell off from a pure production standard in the final six games of the season. After scoring tallying five points against Maryland and Notre Dame, Shellenberger averaged a mere three points per game in his last six regular season outings.

That reduced production was a result of a number of factors. First off, the redshirt sophomore sustained a shoulder injury at some point in the midseason and had his play severely impacted by that. Secondly, his shooting dipped off since his shot selection took a dive as he had to make up for the absence of Matt Moore a number of times.

After his 52.5% shooting percentage was astonishingly among the best in the nation through the first eight contests of the season — something rare for ball-dominant players like Shellenberger — he scored just seven goals on 38 shots (18.4%) in the last six games of the regular season.

Yet, after sixteen days of rest helped to heal his shoulder injury, to reset his mind, and to evaluate his play in the latter part of the regular season, Shellenberger came out scorching hot against Brown in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. He scored the first two goals of the game — first off a dodge from behind the cage where he carried up the wing and scored with his left hand and second on a beautiful step down shot off a Xander Dickson pass.

From then on, Shellenberger added two more goals — one on a face dodge and dive across the crease for a highlight reel worthy play — and four assists as he was the offense’s catalyst in the 17-10 victory over the Bears.

After the game, Shellenberger credited “our coaching staff [and] the guys around me,” for his return to form. Additionally, he noted how “having conversations,” with UVA’s offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan “and really trying to figure out why [I was] struggling” helped a great deal while the support of “[trainer] Rebecca Vozzo and our support staff spending all that extra time with the guys that were injured,” ensured he was back to near full health for postseason play.

As for why he’s been so good in his five career games in the NCAA Tournament, the sophomore pointed to his drive to just keep playing. “When you get in the month of May, these games are just different,” he emphasized. “When you sit down and realize that you could go home tomorrow and this thing that you love so much and that you’ve prepared your whole life for could be over the next day, there’s a little different motivation going into that game and different emotion and passion that comes out.”

That will power to keep advancing has already driven UVA to a national championship and five NCAA Tournament wins. In fact, it’s been 1,468 days since the ‘Hoos lost a game in postseason play while Shellenberger still hasn’t.

Next up, Virginia’s leading man will look to once again upset an undefeated Maryland team, this time in the national quarterfinals as UVA faces off against the Terps at 2:30 on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an incredibly tall task with Maryland dubbed by many as one of the greatest teams ever. But if anybody can beat these Terps, it’s Mr. May himself, Connor Shellenberger.