Shooting from the Hip with Matt Kugler
SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Matt Kugler
Hungry for More – by Cayce Troxel
Standing on the sideline during the NCAA National Championship game last Memorial Day, Cavalier Matt Kugler looked on as his teammate, Colin Briggs, rifled a shot by a helpless Maryland defender. The score gave Virginia a 9-6 lead, and with 1:36 left, it seemingly put the game out of reach for the Terrapins.
The 2011 title would mark the Cavaliers’ fifth NCAA title in school history; more importantly, it would make for a surprising end to what had been an even more surprising season-in ways both good and bad-for the storied program.
Recognizing the weight of the moment, Kugler turned to his best friend and fellow Cavalier, Wyatt Melzer, and attempted to put it all into words. The result?
“‘Dude, we just won a national championship.'”
The Virginia midfielder summed up in a sentence a season lacrosse gurus are still trying to digest-a journey so tumultuous and a run so magical that Hollywood might not even be able to do it justice.
“What made last year so special was how the team really came together and rallied around each other,” Kugler said. “No one believed in us, but everyone just kind of bought in. Once we overcame some team obstacles, it was just like, ‘We’re going full speed ahead and no one is stopping us.'”
Kugler still has a year remaining at Virginia. As one of the team’s four captains, the midfielder is charged with the difficult task of ensuring that the Cavaliers maintain that same “full speed ahead” attitude. That being said, it is hard not to view his title with the Cavaliers last spring as the realization of a dream born not long after Kugler himself.
Although the Cavalier grew up in Northern Virginia, his parents were born and raised on Long Island, a lacrosse hotbed. Both sides of Kugler’s family “have lacrosse roots,” as Kugler described it. His mother played in college at Cortland. It didn’t take long for the same lax-playing genes to reveal themselves in her son.
“Pretty much ever since I started playing sports, I’ve had a lacrosse stick in my hand,” Kugler said. “My parents actually have a picture of me as a naked baby holding a lacrosse stick.”
While learning to walk may have been the only obstacle standing between Kugler and playing for a real team at the time, the precocious player did manage to get a head start on organized lacrosse.
“I started playing for a youth team in second grade,” the Cavalier recalled. “I was technically too young to play then-it was a third and fourth grade league-but my parents were somehow able to get me in there. I’ve been playing for a long time, and I’ve always loved it.”
The same could be said of Kugler’s relationship with U.Va. Around the time Kugler began competing in youth league, he and his family took a spring break trip to Charlottesville, stopping by Monticello before visiting the hallowed Grounds of UVa.
“I still remember walking down the Lawn, doing the tour, seeing the school, getting a t-shirt in the bookstore,” Kugler said. “After that, I was like, ‘I want to go to Virginia.’ From then on, I had a lacrosse stick in my hand and was going to games and watching them with my parents. I knew I wanted to come to Virginia and that I would do whatever it took to get here.”
That included earning three all-district, two all-region, and first team All-Met honors at Robinson High School. An All-American at attack his senior season, Kugler also led the Rams to two-straight state titles and was named MVP of the championship game each time. On paper, it appeared the young player had done more than enough to warrant an offer from his dream school. But with an already full recruiting class, Virginia coach Dom Starsia gave Kugler a choice. He could delay college a year, enrolling in a post-graduate school with the promise of joining the Cavaliers the following season as a scholarship athlete; or he could move on, signing with one of the many other programs that had shown interest in him.
Kugler didn’t hesitate.
“I’ve wanted to come here my whole life so it was kind of an easy decision for me,” the team captain said. “There were other opportunities I could have taken, but I really don’t think there’s any place better than here-a great school and the best opportunity to win a championship each year. It would have been stupid to let that one year change my life.”
Starsia kept his word, welcoming Kugler to Grounds the following fall after he had completed his prescribed year of post-grad play at Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, Connecticut. Although he had to switch positions from attack to midfield his second year for the sake of playing opportunities, Kugler’s time as a Cavalier has for the most part been the fairy-tale he imagined. A key cog in the second midfield line, he appeared in all but one of the squad’s games last season and helped spur Virginia’s title run with goals against Bucknell and Denver in the NCAA Tournament.
With his playing career drawing to a close, Kugler finds his future in doubt for the first time since elementary school and that long-ago visit to Charlottesville that made such an impression. A government major, Kugler recently landed a summer internship with an investment management company in San Francisco. Beyond that though, Kugler’s mind is on the present-and the chance for another championship ring.
“I’m just trying to live it up and take it day-by-day,” Kugler said. “I think people are craving that feeling again-that feeling of winning a championship-and want it even more. We don’t want to settle for anything less.”