In the Virginia Cavaliers men’s lacrosse team’s first round NCAA Tournament victory against the Richmond Spiders, star attackman Connor Shellenberger once again established himself as built for the month of May and the NCAA Tournament. He was aggressive throughout the game and consistently beat the Richmond defense via UVA’s two-man game from behind the goal. Shellenberger’s two goal, four assist performance points to how instrumental he is to running the Wahoo offense.
Injuries this season have prevented the redshirt junior from having the all-world point production that he’s accustomed to — his 4.86 points per game is only 11th in the country. Nevertheless, the Tewaaraton finalist is clearly on the upswing health-wise and is back to producing to the degree that is expected of him.
“Connor’s a warrior,” said Lars Tiffany after today’s win. UVA’s head coach added that Shellenberger has “been battling through stuff all year. He’s starting to get into a rhythm, as you can tell.”
Tiffany continued, noting how “the conditions today made it challenging because you couldn’t really rely on planting your foot and changing direction at a hard angle. And Connor did well taking advantage of that coming up the hash [from behind the goal] and making a couple of really nice shots there. With Connor healthy, he now really presents that double threat of ‘Is he dodging to feed or is he dodging to score?’ and he’s the most effective when he’s doing both.”
In the postgame presser, Shellenberger gave credit to the Virginia training staff, particularly Rebecca Vozzo, and said that being healthy and able to practice more over the last month has paid off for him of late. The Virginia captain said that his return from injury has meant that he’s been “able to pose that threat of not just dodging to feed but also turning the corner [to shoot],” and also alluded to his 2-7 shooting in today’s win, chuckling and saying that “hopefully the shooting will come down the stretch as well.”
An element of Shellenberger’s game and UVA’s offense that makes both so dynamic is the big-little picking games (which consist of a Virginia midfielder who is being guarded by a short stick and Shellenberger screening and re-screening for each other at X) that he excels in behind the goal. Richmond struggled to defend such actions mightily, resulting in both of the Charlottesville native’s goals and a few other open looks as well.
“That’s been a big focus since I have started practicing more; getting back to that big-little,” said Shellenberger. “A lot of the credit goes to Coach Kirwan and what he’s able to do with the inside guys which attracts the off-ball [defenders] and then what he’s able to cook up for us on-ball as well. I do have to give credit to the guys that are setting the picks as well. Jeff Conner, Will Cory, these are really selfless guys that are willing to set really hard picks and sometimes take some contact for it. So I think getting back to that and some reps during the week in practice has been super helpful.”
Obviously, Shellenberger’s NCAA Tournament run in 2021 was one of the best in Virginia program history. His 24 points in his first four elimination games led the Wahoos to their seventh National Championship. But, since then and with last year’s quarterfinal defeat to Maryland, an older and more aware Shellenberger has a new appreciation for lacrosse’s May Madness.
“I think when you’re a first or second year you don’t really have an appreciation for how big the tournament is and how few opportunities you get,” he said earlier this week. “After losing last year, it kind of brings you back to earth and you realize how much you have to appreciate these games and getting the opportunity to compete.”
Beyond just valuing the opportunity in the tournament, Shellenberger mentioned that “I think you also realize how hard it is [after losing]. Once you win it your freshman year, you [think you] just win four games and you’re National Champions. But after getting blown out last year, you realize how hard it is to win those four games and just have a different level of appreciation.”
While Shellenberger didn’t quite have the regular season he might have been hoping for, he’s back to full strength and playing his best lacrosse, once again, at the most critical time of the season. With a newfound appreciation for the stakes of the games he’s playing and an obvious penchant for the biggest moments, the man known as Mr. May looks primed for another historic run to Championship Weekend.