Aug. 1, 2016
“But at the same time, I’m a lacrosse nerd,” Kirwan said. “Growing up, I’ve loved watching Virginia, just like I love all the top teams. I definitely know where [the Cavaliers have] been and what they’ve accomplished in the past. So for me, it’s exciting to be a part of it as well. Being a part of that history and that success is truly humbling, and honestly I can’t wait to get started to help continue that success.”
In late June, Virginia hired Lars Tiffany to run its men’s lacrosse program. About three weeks later, UVA announced that Tiffany’s assistant coaches at Brown, Turner and Kirwan, would follow him from Providence, R.I., to Charlottesville.
Turner, a 2007 graduate of the University, will work with the Wahoos’ goalkeepers and faceoff specialists. He was the starting goalie on the team that in 2006 won the third of Virginia’s four NCAA titles under head coach Dom Starsia, Tiffany’s predecessor.
Kirwan, a 2012 graduate of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., near Boston, will direct the Cavaliers’ offense.
“Sean Kirwan is the hottest offensive coordinator in the country right now,” Tiffany said.
Kirwan, who won’t turn 27 until October, spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, a Division III powerhouse, before joining Tiffany’s staff at Brown as the offensive coordinator.
In 2015, Kirwan’s first season with the Bears, they averaged 13.9 goals per game, the fifth-most in Division I. In 2016, when they advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four, the Bears led the nation in scoring (16.3 goals per game).
In its season finale, Virginia learned first-hand how explosive Brown’s offense could be. On April 30, the Bears defeated the Cavaliers 19-11 in Kennesaw, Ga.
“Obviously you are focused on your team and each possession that you get,” UVA attackman Ryan Lukacovic said, “but it’s hard not to notice, whether you’re playing Brown or you’re just watching them play from an outsider’s perspective, the energy and fast pace that they play with, and I think it definitely rubs off on you a little bit.
“Watching them play, it looks like they’re having a ton of fun, and they’re being successful doing it at the same time. That’s what makes it even more fun.”
Tiffany called the addition of Kirwan, who was a two-time All-America attackman at Tufts, an “aha moment” in his tenure at Brown.
“Deep in my heart,” Tiffany said, “I’ve always wanted to coach a team that plays fast, uptempo, aggressive-style lacrosse that’s in an expressive environment and not an over-evaluated environment, where we don’t criticize every turnover, where we strike fear in our opponent because we play fearless lacrosse … And so Sean brings this system that matches in my heart what I’ve always wanted.”
Kirwan credited his mentor, Mike Daly, for whom he played and coached at Tufts and who, coincidentally, succeeded Tiffany at Brown this summer.
Daly is “the reason why I coached the style of play that I coached at Brown and I’m going to be coaching now at Virginia,” Kirwan said. “He opened my eyes to a whole different approach to the game, and now I can’t see myself coaching any other style.”
Asked to describe that style, Kirwan said, “It’s an offense of constant pressure. We want to put as much pressure [as possible] on our opponent in all phases of the game.
“We want to make sure the defense never has an opportunity to rest and recover and reset. So it’s a philosophy of constant pressure, putting that on the defense, making them as uncomfortable as we can. And then in turn, the more we practice it, the more comfortable we’ll be while other teams are not used to it, making them even more uncomfortable.”
Kirwan is from New Jersey, where as a senior at Mountain Lakes High School his teammates included Scott McWilliams, who later became a standout defenseman at UVA. Kirwan, who knew from an early age that he wanted to become a lacrosse coach, was still at Tufts when he began working at Tiffany’s summer camps.
“Obviously Tufts had been getting some good buzz and had had some great success, so that’s where our relationship hit off,” Kirwan said.
When assistant coach Steve Doyle left Brown for Drexel, Tiffany called to see if Kirwan might be interested in the job. During their subsequent interviews, they talked about the Tufts offense, and Kirwan explained its structure.
Tiffany decided the time was right to implement the system at Brown.
“Two, three years earlier, he might have been a little bit more leery to proceed in through that door,” Kirwan said. “But thankfully [Brown] had the personnel for him to feel comfortable, because it’s the kind of style that you can’t go halfway with. It’s not just two feet through the door. You gotta jump through that door, whether it’s open or closed. You gotta be ready to commit to it and take the lumps because of it.
“As we always say, you live by the sword and you die by the sword with this type of system.”
Virginia averaged 10.6 goals per game in 2016. The Cavaliers finished with a 7-8 record and missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in four seasons.
Kirwan, who has a bachelor’s degree in child development from Tufts, is confident his system will thrive in Charlottesville.
“The beauty of it is that Virginia has been known and still is known for their athleticism, and that’s such a key aspect for playing this style,” Kirwan said. “When you have athletes that can run up and down and have that athletic advantage over your opponent, that’s really the key. From there, it’ll be a challenge, a great challenge that I’m eager to get started on, to make sure we’re putting guys in the right spots to really fit those pieces to the puzzle together.”
From preparing for the `Hoos in April, Kirwan said, he’s familiar with some of their personnel. But he’s also excited about getting to know the players who didn’t see much action, if any, on April 30 “and seeing what we have from top to bottom on the roster and trying to find roles for all those guys and making sure our schemes match their strengths and weaknesses,” Kirwan said.
“The style we play is not necessarily a certain X or a certain O. It’s a philosophy, and then the Xs and Os come with finding the strengths of your team and making sure what you’re doing strategically is maximizing the potential and the talent that you have.”
Kirwan said he spoke to Lukacovic on the telephone recently.
“Ryan is definitely going to be someone that I lean on and make sure he’s going to help me get up to speed with the guys we have on the team,” Kirwan said. “We had a nice conversation the other day, and I’m eager to work with him as well as the rest of the guys on the offensive end.”
Lukacovic, a senior, is the Cavaliers’ top returning scorer. He scored 20 goals and had a team-high 16 assists in 2016. Others back include senior midfielders Zed Williams (27 points) and AJ Fish (22 points), junior attackman Mike D’Amario (20 points), sophomore middie Ryan Conrad (12 points) and junior middie Matt Emery (11 points).
Kirwan said he’ll review videotape of Virginia’s returning players, but no personnel decisions will come until he’s seen everyone on the field in practice.
“I want to be fair, and I’m sure these guys see this as an opportunity to start with a clean slate,” Kirwan said. “I definitely want to make sure I honor that opportunity as well.
“At the end of the day, we want to put the best six offensive players out on the field when it matters most, and we want to make sure we instill that trust in those guys and give a fair shot to all of them for that hard work they put in all summer.
“So it’ll be exciting to get to see them on the field and get to work with all of them. And then again, it’s just that puzzle-piece aspect of it: trying to find the right fit and the right mold and then going from there at breakneck speed.”
Lukacovic, who’ll return to UVA in a couple of weeks, can’t wait to get started.
“I think everyone is extremely excited about all the coaches that have been brought into Charlottesville,” Lukacovic said, “and when we get down to Charlottesville, I think they’re going to do a good job of making sure all of us understand their style of play and how they want it to be implemented into our team and our specific guys. Hopefully we’ll be able to practice it throughout the fall and get pretty effective in playing that way.”