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Virginia lacrosse’s nation-leading offense still seeking perfect balance

Established as the best in the country, the UVA offense somehow still has room to improve for May.

Connor Shellenberger carries the ball against Duke.
Virginia Athletics

Through nine games so far this season, the Virginia Cavaliers’ men’s lacrosse offense has established itself as the best in the country. Scoring 18.11 goals per game, UVA lacrosse is as high flying as ever before with the margin between the Wahoos and Notre Dame (who’s second in goals per game) larger than that between Notre Dame and the tenth highest scoring team nationally.

Beyond the raw scoring numbers, Virginia also leads the country in shooting percentage (37.6%), in offensive efficiency (37.7%), and in assists per game (12.22), while the Cavaliers are second in man-up offense with a 62.5% success rate and commit the ninth-fewest turnovers per game (14.56). Additionally, UVA is the only team in the country with three players averaging over five points per game as Connor Shellenberger leads Division I men’s lacrosse in assists per game and Payton Cormier and Xander Dickson are second and third in goals per game.

With Shellenberger as the leading man alongside two fantastic scorers in Cormier and Dickson on the attack and a blossoming midfield supporting cast with Thomas McConvey, Griffin Schutz, Jeff Conner, Peter Garno, Ricky Miezan, and Patrick McIntosh all midfielders who can initiate the offense, there is no shortage of weapons for Offensive Coordinator Sean Kirwan to utilize.

Granted, Kirwan notes that what’s most valuable about this embarrassment of riches is how selfless they all are on the field. “It’s been incredibly rewarding because of the guys in our locker room and in our offense,” he said this week. “They have truly taken to a team approach. They all can create, they all can make up something out of nothing it seems. But the way they’re sharing the ball and doing it in that way has made it incredibly rewarding.”

Notably, he adds that issues could arise if the ball were to die in any one player’s stick, but emphasized that “we haven’t really had to address that too much and when we have it’s been buttoned up quickly.”

Starting with one of the best players in the college game, Connor Shellenberger is the undisputed leader of the team and of the offense. With loads of pressure on his shoulders, Shellenberger’s play is always carefully analyzed under a microscope.

“I think Connor’s done a tremendous job with it,” says Dickson. “I think there’s so much pressure on Connor from the outside and I think he does such a great job handling it. Everyone’s expecting him to do this, this, and this, but he just comes to work everyday, [with] a hard hat. He doesn’t let anything get to him. He’s the most humble kid I’ve ever seen.”

For a player who was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2021 NCAA Tournament as a freshman, the standard Shellenberger sets for himself has always been particularly high. Understandably, there are times he doesn’t meet such expectations. But, for his teammates, Shellenberger’s mindset is nothing but a positive.

“That’s a good thing to have,” notes Cormier. “If he’s able to tap into that standard that he sets for himself, that’s going to be a good day for everybody else on the offense.”

So far this season, while Shellenberger has selflessly taken a step back at times in order to allow other players to win their matchups, the Wahoo quarterback has also been potent in finding Cormier and Dickson on the inside. “Whenever Connor has the ball I run like crazy,” says Dickson “He’s always eyes up so if I see he has the ball I just run because he has his eyes up the whole time he’s dodging. It’s all Connor.”

The redshirt senior adds that “I think a lot of it is chemistry,” as he points out how “We built a lot last year and I just know, I can read his body language and know when he’s ready to feed, know when he’s ready to dodge, know when I should come set a pick for him. But a lot of it is also Coach Kirwan. He knows how Shelly likes to dodge, he knows how I like to cut, so partially [credit] to Coach Kirwan and a lot of it is just chemistry over the years now.”

In Virginia’s base 1-4-1 offense (one midfielder up top, four players across the middle with two attackmen on the crease and a midfielder on each wing, and one attackman behind), Shellenberger pairs both an incredibly high lacrosse IQ with pin-point passing ability in order to find his extremely efficient finishers around the crease.

The majority of the time, Dickson and Cormier are those two players as they instinctively weave, pick, and cut around each other to try to find an opening Shellenberger can exploit when he carries the ball behind. “Xander and I know going into games that if we keep moving off ball, one of us is going to get opportunities to catch it and be a big threat,” says Cormier.

With the instincts and abilities of the players, Kirwan has built an attack unit that is capable of embarrassing even the best defenses. Lars Tiffany emphasizes that, like how Nick Saban still coaches up his defensive backs by getting his hands on them, Kirwan understands “the nuances on the inside [of the offense],” and can mold players like “Xander Dickson or Ian Laviano who were more dodgers in high school,” into potent cutters and finishers. “Kirwan does a great job working with Cormier and Dickson,” he says, adding that “I give Kirwan a lot of credit because of his extra little attention to those guys.”

An offense that is extremely pick-heavy, the big-little two-man games the ‘Hoos utilize behind the goal with Shellenberger and one of the two players being guarded by a short-stick only further utilizes the strengths of this personnel. In a 2-2-2 set (two players behind the goal, two on the crease, and two up top), the offense relies on Shellenberger to make the right decisions to create an advantage.

“Connor does a really great job of assessing what his defender is doing with the pick,” says Tiffany. “If Connor sees the defender focus on Connor the whole time, then he’ll try to run the defender into the pick because he’s not looking at the pick. If he sees the defender turn his head to get through the pick, then Connor will refuse the pick and split back to the direction he came from.”

Tiffany adds that “that’s what Connor does a really great job of assessing the moment of truth. That split second decision of ‘what is this defender trying to do?’ Then the second piece of it, he’s so poised in making good decisions. If he gets the step, he’ll take it. If not, he doesn’t force it.”

Beyond those three attackmen, there’s still plenty that UVA’s midfielders bring to the table and, potentially, more they can bring down the stretch. Cormier’s childhood friend, Thomas McConvey hasn’t skipped a beat after transferring from Vermont this offseason. In fact, he led the team in scoring against Maryland (four goals, one assist) and helped Cormier (six goals) dominate against Duke last week as Kirwan implemented some “Nations” offensive sets with McConvey, Cormier, and McIntosh picking for and cutting off each other as lefties on the right wing.

“Sean understood what they were doing and Duke did it well, taking away our knowns,” said Tiffany after the 16-14 loss. “But [the offense] was still able to generate some good shots.”

In a sign of how versatile Kirwan’s offense can be, UVA was able to respond to Duke short-poling Cormier and found success by forcing multiple short-stick Duke defenders to guard those nations actions and putting Cormier in advantageous dodging positions. Additionally, while Shellenberger had a quiet game against Duke’s Kenny Brower, midfielder Jeff Conner stepped up as an initiator from behind the net with three assists in the game.

Even with Shellenberger limited and appearing to be a bit banged up, Kirwan believes that the offense “handled that really well. As long as we didn’t turn the ball over early in possessions we were able to get through the layers of what we tried to do offensively. I think we were able to get some positive looks throughout the game. I thought our guys, for the most responded, really well to that.”

Bottom line, there’s always another guy who can step up individually on this offense. Griffin Schutz hasn’t even been mentioned at length as the former top incoming freshman in the 2021 high school class has had his moments of significant production this season, while Ricky Miezan and Peter Garno have flashed with outside shooting presence and the ability to get the defense rotating off dodges from up top.

Of course, as Virginia has lost two of its last three games with close defeats to #1 Duke and #5 Maryland, there is still room for improvement for this dynamic group.

“Looking back, we feel like we left a lot on the table in both those games,” says Kirwan. “I think our takeaway is we have to button up our fundamentals, making sure we’re doing things the right way. Obviously, we do not care about turnovers if they’re done in the right way and I think making sure that we’re not careless with the ball... there’s a fine line between playing fast and playing reckless and we want to make sure we are flirting with that line but not ever crossing it.”

Notably, as Kirwan alludes to, the Wahoos have dealt with some turnover issues in recent games. After turning the ball over 16 times against Maryland and 18 times versus Notre Dame, the ‘Hoos gave the ball up 18 times (including 11 non-caused giveaways) versus Duke.

Of course, Tiffany and his staff have always emphasized playing freely and allowing their offense to take risks and try to push the envelope. But, as Kirwan said, tip-toeing that line between playing fast and being reckless is difficult.

“That’s what we got to figure out,” adds Tiffany. “Because I want Petey [LaSalla] to run and I want that transition to go. But Sean Kirwan can dial up some really good six v six offense too. So we’ve got to find a balance there that was unfortunately a little too lopsided with the turnovers [versus Duke].”

Kirwan went further, saying that “one of the things we want to improve on is the consistency through a game and making sure we stick to the tenants that make us successful. There are some games where we can get away from that at times. So we’re just constantly trying to piece together that complete game when it comes to our style.”

He continued, admitting that “we’re never going to truly piece together a perfect game, I don’t believe in that. But, at the same time, we can stick to our fundamentals and our tenants for 60 minutes. That’s something that I do believe we can do so we’re striving for that. We want to make sure that we’re playing at our tempo that we want to play at against our opponents for the entire game.”

“We still want to play our style,” he says. “That’s what makes us great, that’s what makes us dangerous and we’re not going to change too much there.”

As the Cavaliers play their fourth consecutive top-10 opponent later this evening with a 6:00 PM opening face-off against #10 North Carolina and the most efficient defense in the country (allowing goals on just 17.6% of defensive possessions), this is yet another opportunity for the Wahoo offense to take a step closer to finding that proper balance between playing fast and the over-aggression that’s given them problems of late.

With May and the NCAA Tournament drawing closer, it seems like only a matter of time before this elite offensive group takes its production to an even greater level.