Following a tough, one-goal loss to the Duke Blue Devils last week, the Virginia Cavaliers men’s lacrosse team got back on the right foot today with a 19-12 win against a hot Syracuse Orange squad. The 12th ranked team in the country, the young Orange simply couldn’t hang with the Wahoos as UVA picked up its ninth win of the season.
With the victory, we’ve got five takeaways for Virginia moving forward.
Highlights: Virgina 19, Syracuse 12— Virginia Men's Lacrosse (@UVAMensLax) April 22, 2023
Xander Dickson is among the best attackmen in the country
Earlier this week, 25 men’s and women’s players were selected as nominees for the Tewaaraton Award or, for those who are unfamiliar, college lacrosse’s version of the Heisman. Two Virginia attackmen were included on the men’s side with Connor Shellenberger and Payton Cormier included, but their line mate Xander Dickson left out.
Against Syracuse this afternoon, Dickson made his case for inclusion quite successfully. Scoring seven goals (tied for the second most in a game in program history) and adding two assists, Dickson tied a career high in points and displayed an uncanny ability to score in a multitude of ways. Dubbed the “Slim Reaper,” Dickson scored off of isolation and created for himself a number of times against the Orange in ways that he hasn’t much in his career before now.
After the game, Lars Tiffany emphasized how valuable it is “for Xander to continue to develop his game in multiple ways.” Tiffany continued, noting that Dickson “is a great feeder too. We don’t ask him to do a lot of feeding because we’ve got a quarterback, Connor Shellenberger, who does that. But Xander can do that. And now, he can win some matchups! He’s isolating, so he’s not just an inside guy. We’re thrilled to have that second presence.”
Tiffany alluded to how Virginia typically likes to have two attackmen who can initiate the offense and added that “Xander is kind of becoming that second quarterback and that’s really making our offense even more dangerous.”
Dickson himself added that “this week, with [Offensive Coordinator] Sean Kirwan, a point of emphasis was getting back to dodging especially in two man games with [Shellenberger] and, when I have a shorty, taking advantage of it. That was a huge thing this week and I’m glad it paid off today.”
There are plenty of extremely talented attackmen in college lacrosse and, while Dickson likely doesn’t care much whether he was nominated or not, he should be considered amongst the best nationally considering just how dynamic of a player he is.
Cade Saustad dominates his matchup with Joey Spallina
Flipping to the other side of the ball, fellow fifth year Cade Saustad had a similarly impressive performance in his matchup against Syracuse’s boy wonder Joey Spallina. An elite talent for a true freshman, Spallina had nothing going against the bigger, longer, and more experienced Saustad.
On the game, the Long Island native registered just two assists with the second coming in garbage time after Tiffany had pulled his starters. In fact, in the time those two spent on the field at the same time, Saustad matched Spallina in points as he assisted Noah Chizmar in transition late in the third quarter.
Beyond shutting Spallina down by matching the freshman’s physicality, Saustad flashed off ball as well, causing four turnovers and picking up four ground balls. His aggression as the second slider is practically unmatched in college lacrosse as his ability to dislodge the ball and prevent easy catches and finishes on the inside was especially valuable versus a Syracuse offense that is so dangerous on the interior.
“Cade Saustad did a fantastic job today with guarding #22 Spallina, but then being ready to help on the crease and chopping the crease when feeds were thrown in there,” said Tiffany. Such play from one of the team’s veteran leaders defensively is great to see as Saustad continues to have a stellar final year in Charlottesville.
Matthew Nunes is coming into his own
After that defeat last week in Durham, Matthew Nunes addressed the locker room and definitively stated that that was the team’s final loss of the season. Registering a career-high 17 saves against the Blue Devils, Nunes had yet another solid performance in today’s game with 10 saves compared to 10 goals allowed.
Additionally, that 50% save rate is a bit misleading considering the number of doorstep stops he made and the difficult shots that got past him. Really, there were only a few Syracuse goals that he probably could’ve saved.
In the last month or so, Nunes has really come into his own in the cage as he’s shaken off some early season rust that saw a few games where he went cold at times. Most notably, however, has been the way he’s stepped up as a leader of the defense. Evidenced by that moment after the Duke loss, it’s clear that he’s becoming comfortable speaking up and asserting his role as a voice for the Cavaliers.
“It’s something we were hoping to see and, honestly, anticipated,” said Tiffany after today’s win. Adding to that, Tiffany commented that “He’s a very mature man. He’s a second year and he’s starting to say ‘Hey, this is my defense. This is my voice.’ Having that leadership, having that energy from a goalie is so critical.”
UVA is deadly after a loss
It’s been neatly six years since the Virginia men’s lacrosse program lost consecutive games. Put another way, UVA is 19-0 coming off a loss since 2017. That has been especially evident this season as the Wahoos have stormed to victory against quality opponents in all three games immediately following a loss.
After falling to Maryland in overtime back in March, UVA beat #1 Notre Dame by five on the road. Following the first Duke defeat, the Cavaliers spanked #14 North Carolina 19-12. And, off the back of the second Duke loss, Virginia beat #12 Syracuse by the same 19-12 score.
“Whenever we lose we are as hard on ourselves as anyone,” said Dickson. “Had we won the Duke game by one we probably wouldn’t have been this angry this week in practice. But when you lose, nothing is hidden in the film room and nothing is not said. So I think that loss illuminated a lot of things we should have worked on earlier and that we really dug into this week.”
Obviously, stringing together wins and avoiding losses is how UVA will have to play once May rolls around. But the way this team responds to adversity is no small thing and such performances project well for Virginia’s odds once elimination games come their way.
Virginia has quality depth at close defense
This has been the case all season long, but this UVA team is notably deep at close defense and is fortunately built to sustain injury at the position. With Quentin Matsui out today and wearing a boot on the sideline after a phenomenal performance against Brennan O’Neil last week, Richmond transfer Griffin Kology stepped in flawlessly for the injured veteran.
“I really liked Kology,” said Tiffany after the game. “He had a couple big ground balls there. We’ll take his effort today. He’s a smart player. He understands slide schemes. He stepped in [and] did a really nice job there. Not as physical as Matsui, because Matsui was hitting everybody last weekend. But Griffin is more of a cerebral player and he did a nice job helping on defense today.”
Saustad added that “I think this is the most deep defense I’ve ever been a part of at Virginia. Griffin Kology started for Richmond for an entire season. So we have full trust in all of our poles.”
While Matsui’s status moving forward is uncertain, he does have three weeks to recover before the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And, with Kology in particular able to fill in alongside All-Americans Cole Kastner and Cade Saustad, Virginia is set up well to lessen the impact of his absence.