The Virginia Cavaliers men’s lacrosse team kicked off the 2023 season this afternoon with a 17-13 victory over the talented and feisty Michigan Wolverines. Payton Cormier (five goals, one assists), Connor Shellenberger (three goals, three assists), and Thomas McConvey (three and three) led the ‘Hoos in scoring on the day while Matt Nunes anchored the Wahoo defense with 15 saves despite starting a bit slow. At the faceoff X, a banged up Petey LaSalla, who was in a boot all week leading up to this game, won 13/24 (54.2%) of his attempts while freshman Mac Eldridge won 4/7 in a solid performance for the true freshman.
Beyond the numbers of this win, we have five takeaways for the Cavaliers moving forward after a solid but difficult season opener. While this isn’t included as a takeaway, it should be noted that gutting out a four goal victory over Michigan. Especially on a day when #2 Maryland lost to unranked Loyola, #3 Georgetown lost to unranked Johns Hopkins, and #8 Duke lost to #18 Jacksonville, handling business against a receiving votes squad in Michigan is a good win.
Virginia has ridiculous size in the offensive midfield
This isn’t necessarily news, but the sheer size and athleticism that UVA has in its offensive midfield is quite something. A few times, the ‘Hoos trotted out a line of 6’3” 220 pound Griffin Schutz, 6’4” 210 pound Thomas McConvey, and 6’2” 235 pound Ricky Miezan which is practically unheard of.
Beyond just their sheer size, newcomers McConvey and Miezan made their presence felt almost immediately by scoring the first and fourth goals of the game for the ‘Hoos. Each did so with moves that indicated their value for UVA this season as McConvey dodged down the right alley and finished with his strong left hand and Miezan used his speed and strength to sweep across the top and rip home a goal from the same right alley. McConvey later added a clutch righty off-hand goal out of a wing two-man game with Cormier to put UVA up 14-12 with 11:52 left in the fourth and then iced the win with an open net, man-down goal with 1:13 remaining .
While Schutz didn’t score on his seven shots, he still had a number of good looks that were a few inches from finding the back of the net. That trio might not always run together, but that type of presence out of the box is something that few teams in the country will be able to match up against and provides a really nice complement to Connor Shellenberger and company at attack.
Wahoo offense benefits from remaining opportunistic
This probably wouldn’t have been a Virginia victory without opportunistic play offensively and in the middle of the field. Petey LaSalla’s goal in the first quarter and a collection of transition goals built UVA’s lead and the first half. LaSalla’s second step down score from essentially the same spot in the third quarter similarly extended the Wahoos’ lead to 13-10.
It’s no surprise that Virginia pushed the ball in odd man opportunities or that they tried to exploit the substitution game with LaSalla. That’s been a central component of Sean Kirwan’s offense since he and Tiffany were at Brown (and even before when Kirwan coached Division III lacrosse), But the importance of it in this one and how it essentially proved to be the eventual difference for the Cavaliers as they struggled at time to produce offense in settled six-on-six points to how such production shouldn’t be taken for granted.
UVA short stick defensive midfielders get beat too consistently
This game was closer than it needed to be simply because the Virginia defense wasn’t matching up effectively against Michigan’s midfield for much of the first half. The Wolverines were constantly dodging UVA’s collection of short-stick defensive midfielders (SSDMs). Three of Michigan’s goals in the first half came off of wing dodges where the Wolverine player found space at goal line extended and got underneath a UVA SSDM to get a clean look on goalie Matt Nunes’ doorstep.
As the game progressed, the Cavaliers began helping more significantly to their SSDMs and were able to prevent Michigan from generating too much success. But that’s something to absolutely keep an eye on as this season progresses. UVA’s poles, even in the absence of LSM Ben Wayer, were solid and kept the dangerous UM attack from burning them that much. Cole Kastner in particular held Josh Zawada to two goals and two assists.
But, when UVA plays deeper and more talented offenses, the early struggles for the SSDMs could become far more significant. Obviously, this is just game one and the ‘Hoos should be expected to improve as the season progresses and injuries to Evan Zinn (who played through pain today) and Danny Parker (who was out) should help as well.
Newcomers get opportunities at attack and close defense
While the starters for UVA in this game were the expected veterans, freshman attackman Truitt Sunderland ended up playing the majority of minutes alongside Payton Cormier and Connor Shellenberger in favor of Xander Dickson or Griffin Schutz (both who played extensively at offensive midfield) at attack. Meanwhile, at close defense, sophomore and Richmond transfer Griffin Kology ended up splitting time with Quentin Matsui as the third close defender.
After the game, Lars Tiffany emphasized the value of having legitimate playable depth throughout the roster and how he was pleased to be able to play those guys in this game. Neither was especially impactful, but they didn’t make many if any mistakes this afternoon. Additional time within the program should only mean that they get more comfortable. Long term, it’s good to see those guys getting chances now to build on for the future.
Connor Shellenberger takes over in the second half
Despite a relatively quiet first half when he had one goal and an assist on UVA’s nine goals in the first thirty minutes of play, Shellenberger made his presence felt in a massive way in the second half. Scoring two goals and adding two assists, he played a major part in five of UVA’s eight second half goals.
His play when he dodged from X, curled to his right, got knocked down, passed the ball to Xander Dickson behind the net while laying on the ground, and thus created the space for a wide open Payton Cormier to finish on the crease won’t go down in the stat book as an assist, but is evidence as to his constant impact on this offense and for why lacrosse ought to count hockey (second) assists.
Balancing being appropriately aggressive in hunting his shot and opportunities with allowing other weapons (especially from the midfield) will be something Shellenberger should only get more adept at as the season gets going. But it was good to see him put more onus on himself in the second half to hunt his own shot and thus create open looks for his teammates. There’s great depth and variety to Virginia’s offense. But Shellenberger is still the best player in college lacrosse and being able to count on him in big moments like this should not be undervalued or underutilized. He’s simply elite.