Now 2-0 on the young season, the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers handled business against the #18 Harvard Crimson this evening by a ridiculously high-scoring final of 25-21. With the win, we have five takeaways.
UVA offense is firing on all cylinders
Despite a weird second half characterized by sloppy defensive play (especially after Lars Tiffany emptied the bench), the prevailing storyline from this game is the dominance of Virginia’s starting offense. Building a 9-0 lead just 7:53 into the game and a 20-8 lead come halftime, there was nothing that UVA could do wrong on that side of the field. That’s absolutely absurd scoring. 20 goals in a half simply doesn’t happen, especially not against ranked teams. The ball was moving, the team’s initiators were winning their matchups, and Harvard could not keep track of Virginia’s off-ball threats.
There are so, so many ways that the Cavaliers can score the ball. In transition off a save or off a face-off win from Petey LaSalla, out of a two-man game behind the goal with Connor Shellenberger and a midfielder, with uniquely designed off ball cuts, or off alley or sweep dodges from Griffin Schutz or other midfielders up top, there’s a multitude of ways that Virginia can attack opposing defenses. While the Wahoo defense looks to still be a few steps away from where it’ll need to be come the bulk of the regular season schedule, this offense is already humming. With 42 goals in two games, it’s going to take a special team to shut UVA down.
Connor Shellenberger is a wizard
While this still isn’t news, Connor Shellenberger put up further ridiculous numbers against the Crimson as he netted three goals and dished out seven (7!) assists for a career-high ten points. The now sole quarterback of the UVA offense, Shellenberger picked Harvard’s defense apart as he consistently found finishers Payton Cormier (3G, 1A) and Xander Dickson (5G) for finishes on the doorstep.
Shellenberger is the guy who makes UVA’s offense go. He’s the wind beneath the team’s wings. His ability to effectively balance attacking the goal himself and trying to win his individual matchup to score while also forcing the defense to respect him as a passer and thus not over-help is unmatched in college lacrosse. Combine that with complementary players who are incredibly efficient when given opportunities, and scheming up ways to beat Virginia essentially comes down to stopping Shellenberger one-on-one, something very few defenders have been able to do throughout his career.
Penalties and clearing woes present some cause for concern
Despite the comfortable victory (which was made slightly less so by Harvard’s 10 fourth quarter goals against UVA’s backups), there was enough sloppy play from the Wahoos in this one to garner some concern. The excessive penalties throughout the 60 minutes were ugly as Virginia committed a whopping nine fouls. Harvard took advantage, scoring goals on five out of six man-up opportunities and preventing the game from getting completely out of hand.
Notably, three of those penalties came from offensive players along with three from the FOGOs. It makes some sense that, in a game when 50 face-offs were taken, UVA would have enough violations to have some penalties. Still, one would expect more composure from Virginia.
Additionally, some problems clearing the ball were evidence of further sloppiness. Finishing 21-26 (80.7%) isn’t a horrendous rate, but the 18 turnovers will be a few too many for Tiffany and his staff. It felt as though, after the offense built a big lead, the Wahoo defense at times got lazy with the details. That’s something that will need to be addressed in short order with a game against #6 Ohio State in Naples, Florida set for a week from today.
LSM Tommy McNeal impresses in Wayer and Whalen’s absence
With UVA’s second LSM Ben Wayer seemingly injured to start the season, redshirt freshman Tommy McNeal impressed in his place today after only playing limited minutes against Michigan last week. In this one, McNeal had three ground balls and one caused turnover as he got the majority of the runs at LSM secondary to starter Scott Bower and fit in well.
Having depth at LSM is critical in college lacrosse and especially for how UVA wants to play. McNeal’s apparent emergence as another guy at that position could be extremely valuable for the Cavaliers. He’s already on the team’s man-down unit and is starting to look like he could get regular time at LSM.
Granted, it was unclear whether last week’s backup LSM Mitchel Whalen was available against Harvard as he didn’t appear on the field. It’ll be worth tracking potential injuries to Wayer, Whalen, and SSDMs Danny Parker (who was out vs Michigan last week as well) and Noah Chizmar who got banged up tonight.
Lack of depth at FOGO and Goalie is evident
This won’t matter unless it does, but it’s worth noting that, as of writing, UVA only has two active face-off men and only two active goalies. With senior FOGO Gable Braun out for the year with an upper body injury and freshman goalie Kyle Morris redshirting in order to have an extra year of eligibility when Matthew Nunes leaves, that leaves just Dave Roselle and Mac Eldridge as depth behind Nunes and LaSalla.
Both those two backups showed signs of weakness against Harvard. While each was hampered by typically having backups playing around them, neither was amazing against Harvard.
Eldridge, who will be counted on as a counter to LaSalla throughout the season, went 8-19 at the X and served two penalties due to face-off violations. A highly touted freshman, Eldridge should only get better with time and additional reps, so being concerned about him after this high-volume game would be premature. But Virginia having another body to go to late in a game that had an insane 50 face-offs evidently left Eldridge and LaSalla gassed come the end of regulation.
Meanwhile, Roselle, who definitely faced an unfair number of open shots without UVA’s starters playing in front of him, allowed nine goals on 12 shots on goal, only making three saves. That’s not disastrous considering the circumstances of this game. But, if Nunes misses any extensive time, the current decision to redshirt Morris (who has dressed for games as an emergency option) could be challenged.
Again, this lack of depth won’t matter unless/until it does. Still, if Virginia suffers a significant injury from one of Nunes, LaSalla, or Eldridge, the team could be up against the wall.