A week after a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Maryland Terrapins, the Virginia Cavaliers men’s lacrosse team came storming back today against the first ranked Notre Dame Irish. Winning 15-10, UVA controlled the game early and came back with a knockout blow in the third quarter after Notre Dame tied the game early in the second half.
With a redemptive victory for the Wahoos after last week’s disappointment, we have five takeaways for the team moving forward.
Virginia is the best team in the country
With this win, the Cavaliers have once again established themselves as the best team in the country. The fact that Notre Dame, Maryland, and Virginia are all 1-1 against each other has (for now) established those three as the top teams in the country. But, considering Maryland’s February loss to Loyola and the fact that UVA’s five-goal win over the Irish trumps the overtime victories that Notre Dame has over Maryland and the Terrapins have over Virginia, the ‘Hoos should be #1 on Monday.
Beyond the resumes and the polls, today we saw just how complete this Virginia team can be when playing to its potential, particularly in six-on-six play. UVA dominated its individual matchups and, while Notre Dame was scrappy in the middle of the field and kept the game competitive with their ride and wing play on faceoffs, it wasn’t enough to hang with the Wahoos for 60 minutes.
Last week’s loss to Maryland is definitely still notable and UVA will probably have to get the Terrapin-shaped monkey off their back to win the National Championship in May. But the Terps are limited by their personnel and, if the ‘Hoos play as completely as they did today, Maryland can’t match up well enough against Virginia.
Obviously, there’s still plenty of season ahead for UVA with two games against #4 Duke (including this Friday at home) and another against Notre Dame. But, after this win, it’s hard to pinpoint a meaningful weakness for this squad.
Matt Nunes is back to his best
One potentially perceived weakness after the last few games — and the loss to Maryland especially — was the play of sophomore goalie Matt Nunes. While he hadn’t necessarily been bad, Nunes had definitely started slow in his last three outings and was quite susceptible to bounce shots against the Terrapins. With the vaunted Notre Dame offense including deadly shooters such as Eric Dobson and the Kavanagh brothers, there was probably some concern that the keeper from Texas would take time to get comfortable in the ugly South Bend weather.
Yet, despite his recent play, Nunes had his best performance of the season saving 58.3% of Notre Dame’s shots on goal as he made 14 stops relative to 10 goals allowed. Beyond the raw numbers, he made a number of saves on the doorstep to stunt wide open looks and was better against step-down bounce shots as well.
Nunes’ ability really should never have been in question. The top-ranked goalie in the 2021 class, he seemed to have just fallen into a bit of a slump. The question was when and to what degree he would get out of it. Fortunately for Lars Tiffany’s team, the answer came immediately and to great effect. It wasn’t just his play in the net, either. Nunes was quite solid in the clearing game and made a number of plays out of the goal (including a diving save to prevent an open-net Notre Dame goal when Virginia was in its 10-man ride) to prevent the Irish from capitalizing on too many unsettled opportunities.
With Nunes backing up the individual, on-ball defenders Virginia has, this Wahoo defense can be very good and can realistically stymy any offense in the country.
Cade Saustad and Cole Kastner have themselves a day
Speaking of UVA’s individual defenders, Cade Saustad and Cole Kastner had themselves one heck of a day against Notre Dame’s Kavanagh brothers. Holding Pat (two goals, two assists) and Chris (two goals) to just six combined points compared to their average of 10.5 per game is quite an impressive feat.
That points to just how special a pair that the 6’5” Saustad and the 6’7” Kasnter is. Their length is unmatched and they know how to use it incredibly well. When they can adequately balance being aggressive with maintaining good positioning and the rest of the defense is sound off-ball, those two can shut down any of the best attackmen in the country. With the Kavanagh brothers ending the game kneeling next to each other in the penalty box after losing their tempers in the final seconds, the combined ability of Saustad and Kastner has never been more obvious.
Connor Shellenberger establishes himself as the Tewaaraton favorite
From a pure point-scoring perspective, Connor Shellenberger has had a few quiet games this season. Most of those have been a result of him recognizing that the Wahoo offense can win matchups elsewhere and consequently deciding to help maximize those advantages. But, against Maryland last Saturday, Shellenberger had a goal and two assists while shooting 1-7.
Against the Irish and with another presumed Tewaaraton (lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy) finalist Pat Kavanagh on the other side of the field, Shellenberger picked the Notre Dame defense apart all day long. Finishing with two goals (2-4 shooting) and five assists, Shellenberger dissected Notre Dame as he consistently forced the Irish to slide to him and then found cutters such as Xander Dickson — who lit the scoreboard up with six goals (6-12) and an assist after he also shot just 1-7 against Maryland.
While he was guarded by one of the country’s best defenders in Chris Fake for most of the game, Shellenberger and offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan managed to bully Notre Dame for almost the entire 60 minutes. The way #1 can attack picks in settled offense is unmatched in college lacrosse as his change of direction, practical ambidextrousness, and insanely high lacrosse IQ make him the toughest cover in the country. Add that to his heady play in transition and the ability to attack defenses from anywhere on the field, and his status as the best player in college lacrosse should not be questioned.
After a seven-point performance against the #1 ranked Irish while Pat Kavanagh was largely quiet, Shellenberger should be the current favorite to win the Tewaaraton with Duke’s Brennan O’Neil and Kavanagh a rung below him.
There’s still room to improve
Maybe this is silly to say after handling the number one team in the country on the road in a raucous environment. But this result still indicates that there are areas where Virginia can be even better.
At the faceoff dot, Petey LaSalla won an impressive 58.6% (17-29) of the draws. But that could’ve been far higher if the ‘Hoos had been able to counter Notre Dame forcing LaSalla to flip the ball behind him after winning the draw. Notre Dame’s wing play was better than UVA’s in this game and consistently won them possessions even after LaSalla won the initial clamp. That will be something other teams try to do against the offensively-dangerous LaSalla and Virginia would do well to try to find solutions for such strategies.
Similarly, while scoring 15 goals against this Irish defense is no small feat, there was potential for even more offensive explosion from the Cavaliers. Griffin Schutz didn’t register a point in this game while shooting 0-5. Peter Garno shot 1-6. But that’s fine! Obviously, sometimes players have off games or are just unlucky, and both of those players have proven themselves capable enough that one meh performance doesn’t say much.
UVA still scoring like they did with those guys being quiet, while turning the ball over 18 times, and failing to clear the ball on four occasions (Virginia was 26-30 or 86.7% clearing the ball, which could be slightly improved upon) speaks to the fact that this team is not in its final form yet. And that is a terrifying prospect for the rest of college lacrosse.