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Five takeaways from Virginia lacrosse’s 12-8 win against #1 Notre Dame

What we learned from a massive win in UVA’s season finale.

Matt Riley, Virginia Athletics

In impressive fashion, the Virginia Cavaliers men’s lacrosse team handled the #1 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish by a final score of 12-8 yesterday afternoon. The 11-3 Wahoos have now finished their regular season and have a two week break before NCAA Tournament play kicks off the weekend of May 13th.

Following yesterday’s momentum building victory, we have five takeaways for the team as they approach the postseason.

Matt Nunes is channeling Tillman Johnson

At halftime of this game, Virginia’s 2003 National Championship team was honored as the 20th anniversary of their title approaches. Goalie Tillman Johnson — long renowned for his clutch Championship weekend performance which included a 13-save performance against Johns Hopkins in the finals — wasn’t in attendance, but current keeper Matthew Nunes played in similar heroic fashion against the Fighting Irish.

Registering a career high 19 saves (on 27 shots for an absurd 70.4% save rate), UVA’s sophomore goalie was undoubtedly the star of the game for the Wahoos.

“He was channeling Tillman Johnson,” remarked Lars Tiffany after the game, before adding that “He stole a bunch [of goals] today, especially in that fourth quarter. It’s really impressive what he’s doing. And his run [of success] really started the first time we played Notre Dame. Going into that Notre Dame game, we were a little unsure. And since then he is seeing the ball really well and [Coach] Kip Turner is doing a fantastic job with him.”

Ever the professional, Nunes credited his defense for dictating the types of shots he faced against Notre Dame, noting how they ensured that he was “seeing the shots that I want to see. Low angle, their hands tied up. So a lot of the credit goes out to our short stick d-middies — Noah [Chizmar], Grayson [Sallade], [Evan] Zinn, Jeff [Conner] — and all our poles did really well making them take the shots that I want to see.”

Even so, there were plenty of stops Nunes made that probably should have been Irish scores. With how he has rounded into form as his second season has progressed, Nunes looks primed for a successful May that could rival the runs from other UVA greats such as Alex Rode, Adam Ghitelman, Kip Turner, and, of course, Johnson.

Virginia’s rope unit comes up big

Notre Dame’s starting attack of Chris Kavanagh, Pat Kavanagh, and Jake Taylor combined to score a mere three goals against UVA yesterday. Meanwhile, Virginia’s three true defensive midfielders — Sallade, Zinn, and Chizmar — each scored a goal themselves to give the Wahoos massive momentum boosts throughout the second half.

“I wasn’t happy with the way the short stick d-middies started the game because we weren’t picking up some loose balls at that far end, getting the ball checked out of our stick and having to play defense again,” commented Tiffany after the win. “And we got on them a bit, to tell you the truth. But, boy, they just showed their hearts. Finally getting those balls, coming down, hitting some shots in transition. It’s so rewarding to see the grunts, the grinders, your privates, not your colonels or your generals, just getting some love and making some goals. Gosh those are joyful plays.”

Indeed, Zinn and Sallade’s goals in transition and Chizmar’s open-net score from just over the midfield line all proved pivotal against Notre Dame. Combined with Jeff Conner’s two-way ability and the way all four of them played defensively in this game, those guys arguably made the difference. Chizmar in particular taking a brutal hit in the third quarter and bouncing back up from it was a massive boost for the entire team.

Guys who play on the rope unit will rarely get the credit they deserve. But don’t let that fool you, their value is still momentous and the difference they can make is meaningful in big games such as these.

Cade Saustad and Cole Kastner bully the Kavanaghs once again

For the second time this season, UVA’s tandem of shut-down close defenders took it to the heralded Kavanagh brothers from Notre Dame. Holding them to a combined goal and four assists, Cade Saustad and Cole Kastner actually out-did their performance against Notre Dame from just over a month ago when they limited the Kavanaghs to six combined points.

“What those two can do to the Kavanagh brothers, nobody can do that,” said Tiffany in his postgame presser. “They still get their points, I get that. But to neutralize them... what Cade and Cole do, they’re simply some of the best cover defenders in the game.”

That they are. The length that the 6’7” Kastner and the 6’5” Saustad bring to the field can absolutely overwhelm opponents, and it clearly did against the smaller Kavanaghs. It’s part of why UVA matches up so well with the Irish and how, despite Notre Dame (9-2) averaging an eight goal margin of victory in their nine wins, they’ve lost twice to the Wahoos by an average margin of 4.5 goals.

Just as Tiffany said, nobody other than Kastner and Saustad can do what they did to the Kavanaghs and that high-powered Irish offense. As the defense continues to gel as a unit and Nunes continues to gain confidence with each stellar performance, the pieces are clearly coming together for Tiffany’s defense to peak at the right time to complement the nation’s best offense on the other side of the ball.

Xander Dickson stays hot while Shellenberger comes into form

Unsurprisingly, Xander Dickson continued to light up the scoreboard, scoring four and assisting another versus Notre Dame. He has now tied Doug Knight’s single season scoring record at Virginia with 56 goals with at least one more game to play. Once again displaying his developed versatility as a scorer, Dickson found the back of the night in a variety of ways with scores in transition, off a dodge, and off cuts to the goal.

Both on and off the field, Dickson’s presence is cool, calm, calculated but with a flare for the dramatic. He never puts a foot out of line, knows his role, and executes at a tremendously high level. He’s even expanded on what is typically expected of him this season in ways that have added another dynamic element to the Virginia offense. Should this team make a run to the program’s eighth NCAA Championship in a month’s time, Dickson’s ascendance will be among the top contributing factors.

As Dickson went for five points against the Irish, teammate Connor Shellenberger finished with four (one goal, three assists). Until recently, some of the fire that UVA’s leader plays with has been a bit missing, at least with regard to his scoring mentality.

Against Notre Dame (and versus Lafayette last Tuesday), we got a glimpse of the passion that has made Shellenberger such a great player in his time in Charlottesville as he’s once again embracing being aggressive to attack to score rather than just to feed.

Notably, Lars Tiffany attributed Shellenberger’s slightly quiet play in the stretch of games in early and mid April to the lower body injury that held him out of the North Carolina game on April 7th. Tiffany mentioned that “he’s been banged up,” but that “he’s getting to the point where he’s really starting to get comfortable.”

Virginia has been the highest scoring offense in the country all season long. And, for the last three plus weeks, that’s been with a limited Connor Shellenberger. With Virginia’s best player getting the chance to continue to get healthy during the team’s two week break before the NCAA Tournament, what this offense could do in May is something that ought to have defenses shaking in their boots.

While the seeding debate rages, Virginia looks poised

Separating Duke, Notre Dame, and Virginia at the top of college lacrosse is a job nobody should envy right now. With Duke’s pair of wins against UVA, Virginia’s two victories against Notre Dame, and Notre Dame’s win over Duke and lack of a loss outside the group (Duke lost to Jacksonville in February while the ‘Hoos fell to Maryland in March), there’s little if anything that can definitively decide who should be seeded above the others for the NCAA Tournament.

That debate aside, however, there’s honestly little more to ask for from this Virginia team at this moment in time. The pieces seem to be coming together.

Shellenberger is getting healthy. Nunes is saving everything he sees. Petey LaSalla (15-25, 60% against Notre Dame) is battling and typically winning at the face-off dot. The defense looks to be coalescing. The offensive production is sustaining with effective counters from Sean Kirwan negating every adjustment opponents throw at him. The short stick defensive midfielders are making plays on either end of the field. Starting close defender Quentin Matsui has missed the last two games while wearing a boot on the sideline, but Richmond transfer Griffin Kology has stepped in flawlessly in his absence.

This isn’t to say the ‘Hoos will be hoisting a trophy on Memorial Day. Frankly, the championships in 2019 and 2021 have probably set unrealistic expectations, especially since UVA has won it all the last three times the team made Championship weekend and the last six times they made the Championship game.

But, everything is pointed in the direction it should be. No matter if the Cavaliers have to face Maryland, or Duke, or have to beat Notre Dame for a third time in two months, this team has rounded into form. And, honestly, seeding doesn’t matter as much as it can seem. Tiffany and the Wahoos won it all as the four seed in 2021 and the three seed in 2019. Heck, Dom Starsia and the 2011 squad won it all as the seven seed.

In May, seedings don’t matter. Who’s hot and has peaked at the right time does. And, right now, that’s this Virginia team more than it is any other squad in the country.