By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BALTIMORE — Some eight months after Lars Tiffany succeeded his mentor, Dom Starsia, at the University of Virginia, his much-anticipated debut as the Cavaliers’ head men’s lacrosse coach finally arrived. It proved to be scintillating stuff, as No. 14 UVA edged No. 6 Loyola 16-15.
With all the focus on Tiffany, however, it was easy to forget that Saturday also marked the UVA debut of freshman Dox Aitken, one of the most heralded recruits to enter the program in recent years.
If Aitken, who starred at the Haverford School outside Philadelphia, was nervous, it wasn’t apparent. On an unseasonably warm afternoon, the 6-2, 190-pound midfielder scored a game-high four goals in front of an amped-up crowd of 4,618 at the Ridley Athletic Complex.
“It’s really impressive,” Tiffany said of Aitken’s performance. “What a venue. What an atmosphere. He must not have looked up, because I looked up a few times and got a little nervous. There were a lot of people rooting against us here, and this feels like a really big deal.”
Through it all, “Dox kept playing,” Tiffany said.
Aitken said: “For me, these are the type of games that I dream about. So to have this as my first game, I couldn’t ask for a better scenario. It’s perfect.”
The Wahoos were far from perfect Saturday. They botched five clears and turned the ball over 21 times, and their defensive breakdowns often led to point-blank shots for Loyola. But they showed an aptitude for the up-tempo system that Tiffany and his assistant coaches, Sean Kirwan and Kip Turner, installed after coming to UVA from Brown, and they figure to get more comfortable playing that style as the season progresses.
“It is something we believe in, and that is the way we’re going to play moving forward,” Tiffany said. “The men in this program have bought in. They recognize how hard we have to work in practice to be able to play hard and play fast all day, and prove that you can play hard an entire game … That’s really hard to, and I’m not sure we quite proved it today, but that will continue to be our quest.”
Nine Cavaliers scored at least one goal Saturday, and four had at least two: Aitken, sophomore midfielder Ryan Conrad (three), freshman attackman Michael Kraus (two) and senior attackman Joe French (two).
Kraus and senior attackman Zed Williams led the Wahoos with three assists apiece.
Conrad, who’s from nearby Timonium, said the players are excited about Virginia’s new offensive approach. In 2016, when the Cavaliers finished 7-8 and missed the NCAA tournament, they averaged 10.9 goals per game.
“I’m a player that throughout my whole life has always been fast and aggressive and trying to go as fast as I can at all times, and up and down on offense and defense, and I think that’s kind of the philosophy we’ve been stressing this fall,” Conrad said. “And I think our whole team, me included, and Dox and everyone, has really embraced it.”
Virginia led 10-5 in the third quarter and 14-11 in the fourth. Each time the Greyhounds (0-1), whose new offensive coordinator is former UVA associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale, rallied to tie the score.
“Being realistic,” UVA defenseman Tanner Scales, “you know a great team like Loyola is going to fight back.”
Virginia battled, too. Senior midfielder Ryan Lukacovic, off a pass from Kraus, scored with 3:05 left to put the `Hoos ahead 15-14,. Six seconds later, however, Loyola’s faceoff specialist, Graham Savio, answered with an unassisted goal.
The Cavaliers weren’t fazed. They won the ensuing faceoff, and their possession ended when Williams flipped a behind-the-back pass to Conrad, who fired a shot past Loyola goalkeeper Grant Limone with 2:17 left.
Conrad’s goal was the 13th scored in the fourth quarter, so there was ample reason to believe the shootout would continue. But with 1:15 left, UVA goalkeeper Will Railey, in his first college start, made his 11th and final save. The Greyhounds never got another good opportunity to pull even.
“I can confidently say that, yes, this is the best I’ve felt after giving up 15 goals,” Railey said, smiling.
The Greyhounds’ final lead was at 5-4, in the second quarter. That would not “have been the case if Will Railey, our goalie, hadn’t stepped up,” Tiffany said. “Sure, when you give up 15 goals you may not feel like you’ve played great, but that’s part of being a goalie in this system. You’re going to see a lot of shots.
“We cannot both attack and prevent the counter-attack. It’s almost impossible. So Will Railey today was seeing a lot of shots that most goalies don’t want to see.”
As the teams traded goals in the fourth quarter, Railey knew a save might prove pivotal.
“Once the minutes started winding down,” he told reporters, “I was like, `We’re going to have to make one stop here, we’re going to make one save here.’ It all comes down to those key stops in the final minutes, and I think as a whole defensive unit we were able to do that, and that’s what secured the victory for us.”
As a freshman in 2016, Loyola attackman Pat Spencer totaled 89 points on 37 goals and 52 assists and was named a second-team All-American. Led by Scales, Virginia limited Spencer to two assists Saturday.
“I thought it was a heroic effort by Tanner Scales,” Tiffany said.
Spencer is “one of the most dynamic players in our game,” Scales said. “So I think for me personally as a competitor going into that matchup, in your dreams you shut him out, but you have to be realistic and know you have to rely on everyone else to help you out, and I thought we had a great team effort today.
“I think overall for us defensively and as a whole team, this was a great step, but that’s all it is, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Scales is one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with Lukacovic and senior midfielder Will McNamara. Each has a different style of leadership.
“Tanner Scales is no nonsense,” Tiffany said. “He’s back for his fifth year, and he’s here to take Virginia to the next level, to get back to the NCAA tournament, to be a successful program. Nothing else matters … He is the enforcer.
“Ryan Lukacovic, he’s been great for me personally, because he’s intense, but he does it with a smile. He’s like, `We got it, Coach. Relax. We’re good.’ And then he goes out and proves he can do it. I’m not sure about that behind-the-back pass [that led to a turnover] with a minute and half left, but there’s a confidence there that you love as a coach.
“Then Will McNamara, he’s the guy behind the scenes. He’s the one grabbing the freshman who maybe just got yelled at, and he’s the emotional supporter for our men behind the scenes, on the sideline.
“I’m really, really lucky to have those three men as captains.”
He’s also fortunate to have Aitken, whom Inside Lacrosse ranked No. 2 among recruits starting college in 2016-17. Last summer, Aitken and Conrad helped the United States win the gold medal at the under-19 world championships.
In the fall, Aitken struggled at times, perhaps because he’d been playing so much lacrosse, Tiffany said. “Maybe he needed a little more time off. But he came back in January probably the most fit player on the team.”
Since then, Aitken has shown why he was so highly regarded coming out of high school.
“He is committed. There is absolutely no loss of focus when it comes to him,” Tiffany said. “[Aitken’s debut] is a product of all that hard work and all that commitment, and he’s certainly a talented lacrosse player.
“I’m very lucky. I’ve inherited some very talented and very focused athletes, because of Dom Starsia, Marc Van Arsdale and past staffs at the University of Virginia.”