Winning by seven goals, the Virginia Cavaliers men’s lacrosse team did what it needed to do against Towson on Saturday. Despite the Tigers remaining competitive for most of the game and even cutting UVA’s deficit to one a few minutes into the third quarter, Lars Tiffany’s team gutted out a win in a potential trap game after having played Johns Hopkins on Tuesday and before facing off against the Maryland Terrapins this coming Saturday.
With the win, we have five takeaways for the team as they approach the toughest stretch of regular season play.
Connor Shellenberger puts his team (& his defender) on his back
In the three games leading into Saturday’s contest, the consensus best player in college lacrosse and UVA’s leader, Connor Shellenberger, scored just nine points with a goal and eight assists against Ohio State, Richmond, and Johns Hopkins. Against Towson, Shellenberger came back to the fore offensively in a big way.
With three assists and a garbage goal in the first half, the redshirt junior fulfilled his typical quarterback duties for the first thirty minutes as he kept the offense working well and didn’t force anything in his individual matchup. He was definitely looking to take more shots than in previous games. Generally, though, he remained relatively passive as has suited the team of late considering the significant number of other extremely capable weapons UVA has on offense.
But, as the ‘Hoos struggled to find the back of the next against Towson goalie Evan Long (who made 19 saves on the day) and the Tigers scored three consecutive goals from the end of the first half and into the beginning of the third quarter to cut Virginia’s lead to one at 9-8, Shellenberger promptly took the game over. After Virginia failed to score on the possession immediately following Towson’s eighth goal, Shellenberger recognized that he was closer to midfield than a few of his midfielder teammates, proceeded to hustle back on the defensive end to help prevent a transition goal, and then dove to the sideline to win the ‘Hoos possession after a Matt Nunes save sent the ball flying out of bounds.
On the proceeding offensive possession, Shellenberger fed Thomas McConvey for a straightforward step-down rip to put UVA up two. Following a Petey LaSalla faceoff win, Shellenberger took it upon himself to get to the cage, sticking home this impressive back-handed goal.
"He has no weakness." pic.twitter.com/2WLa5nGoQQ— Virginia Men's Lacrosse (@UVAMensLax) March 11, 2023
Less than four minutes later, Shellenberger would score Virginia’s next goal on another dodge as he beat his defender underneath and glided across the top of the crease to notch himself a hat-trick.
Eventually they will run out of words to praise Connor Shellenberger's game, but today is not that day! pic.twitter.com/CkfoX1l2tg— Virginia Men's Lacrosse (@UVAMensLax) March 11, 2023
Not even two minutes later, he found Peter Garno with a step on his defender out of the substitution game for a rip from up top to increase UVA’s lead to five. So, in 5:44 of game play, Shellenberger nearly single-handedly took a one goal game and turned it into a blowout.
And he didn’t stop there! With a finish on the crease following his well-timed cut, Shellenberger paid off Thomas McConvey for a nice feed, scoring his fourth goal of the evening. Then, the next time Virginia had the ball, Shellenberger dodged from behind the goal, drove with his right hand, slipped as he reached five and five (five yards up and over from the goal), and proceeded to effectively squat his defender as Shellenberger tried to stand up while the Towson defender stood above him. In an extremely unique play, that drew a holding call on Colby Barsz, the Towson d-pole, and generated a man-up opportunity for UVA. And, in typical fashion, Shellenberger fed Garno again for another step-down score, completing his four goal, six assist, ten point performance.
Per Virginia Athletics, Lars Tiffany commented after the game that “[We’re] certainly really excited about seeing Connor Shellenberger explode the way he did. He hasn’t been scoring a lot of goals for us, but he hasn’t needed to. He recognized as the game progressed, we needed him to go to the goal. We needed him to be more of a one-on-one dodging threat. He steps up and plays that role. And then of course, that obviously now draws slides and now Connor can continue to generate offense with assists. We’re very fortunate to have Connor Shellenberger here.”
It’s hard to sum up Shellenberger’s stunning performance better than Tiffany did right there. But this is exactly why #1 is the best player in college lacrosse. His hustle to win possession on the defensive side of the ball was exactly the spark Virginia needed and, from that point onward, there was nothing Towson could do to slow Shellenberger down as he scored or assisted on six of the next seven UVA goals to put the game out of contention. He recognized what the team needed from him, and he executed. There’s nothing more you could ask of him.
Defense hounded Towson but let up a few good looks
While the Virginia offense started slowly as Long stuffed them for much of the first half, the UVA defense and ride in particular played out of its mind. On the game, Tiffany’s defense forced 14 turnovers and held Towson to a 79.2% clearing rate (19-24). The Tigers were completely outmatched against UVA’s hyper-aggressive close defenseman and playmakers in the middle of the field. As such, the Wahoos took full advantage.
That being said, eventually, Towson was able to exploit some of that aggression to find good shots and, for the most part, they converted on those looks. The 12 goals the Tigers scored can’t all be attributed to the defense itself. But there were definitely some breakdowns that Tiffany will want to correct before this coming Saturday. Of course, UVA still won by seven goals in a weird game. So any real criticism of the defensive personnel is nit-picking. But there definitely were a few things to clean up.
UVA loses the battle at the faceoff dot
Somewhat surprisingly, Virginia lost the battle at the faceoff dot on Saturday with Towson’s Matt Constantinides taking all of the draws for the Tigers and winning 18-35 (51.4%). For his part, Petey LaSalla did still win a majority of the faceoffs he took as he controlled 16-30, picking up 11 ground balls while doing so. Meanwhile, LaSalla’s backup Mac Eldridge went 1-5 on the day.
Again, nothing disastrous by any means. The half-field offense and defense are good enough for Virginia not to need to dominate possessions. But, it is relatively surprising that LaSalla wasn’t more dominant and that Eldridge couldn’t be more effective as a counter. Obviously, this could be more of a one game fluke against a quality opponent in Constantinides. Yet, with the nation’s leading FOGO Luke Wierman coming to town on Saturday, LaSalla and Eldridge will have to be at their best to prevent him from controlling the game for Maryland.
Matt Nunes starts cold but heats up
For the second straight game, UVA goalie Matt Nunes overcame a relatively slow start in the cage to make a number of important saves down the stretch. Not making a stop until the 11:38 mark of the second quarter, he let in four goals before notching a save. Fortunately, after making two saves on eight shots on goal in the first half, Nunes stopped seven of the 13 shots he saw in the second half.
Similar to the guys at the faceoff X, Nunes is undoubtedly a quality goalie and is the guy for this team. Of that there shouldn’t be any question. Definitely, his slow starts against Johns Hopkins and Towson are worth noting considering that he’ll be seeing more volume and more difficulty over the next three games. Granted, he’s been stuck in some relatively unfavorable circumstances early in games and hasn’t had proper opportunities to get into a rhythm. Ideally, he can get a couple early saves against Maryland this Saturday and find that early rhythm he’s laced in the last two outings.
Virginia gets off to a perfect start with sternest tests still ahead
Starting this season 6-0 is no small feat. The Cavaliers have played a number of legitimate opponents, but have sailed past all of them. A four-goal win over Michigan in the season opener being the closest contest yet is impressive. They are one of only three undefeated teams left in D-1 men’s college lacrosse and one of only two in the top-20. Wins against #10 Johns Hopkins, #14 Ohio State, #20 Michigan, receiving votes Richmond, and a pair of quality unranked teams in Towson and Harvard have laid a solid foundation for Virginia’s resume.
Now, though, stuff gets real. Hosting #4 Maryland this Saturday, then heading to South Bend to play #2 Notre Dame, and hosting #3 Duke on the following Friday is an absolute gauntlet. If UVA went 0-3 over that stretch it’d be disappointing but understandable. 1-2 a slight bummer, but completely reasonable. 2-1 a meaningful success. 3-0 and you might as well give them the NCAA Championship trophy already (not really, but man that would be massive). Undoubtedly, everything we know about this team right now will be tested over the next three weeks and it’s going to be awesome to see what happens.