By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In late June, the email arrived from Justin Schwenk. He’d been granted his release from the Monmouth University men’s lacrosse team, Schwenk wrote, and wanted to see if Virginia might be interested in adding a faceoff specialist.
That piqued the interest of the Cavaliers’ coaches. From a team that finished 8-7 in 2017, Virginia had lost its top faceoff man, Jason Murphy.
“We reviewed [Schwenk’s] film and said, ‘This is going to be a good option for us,’ ” UVA head coach Lars Tiffany recalled.
On a wet Saturday afternoon at Klöckner Stadium, Schwenk made his debut for the Wahoos, and it was a day he won’t soon forget. The 6-0, 185-pound sophomore won 16 of 26 faceoffs against No. 13 Loyola, the last of which came at the start of the second overtime.
Sophomore midfielder Dox Aitken, who played against Schwenk in club lacrosse, collected the groundball off the faceoff, dodged to the cage, splitting two defenders along the way, and scored to give Virginia a 13-12 victory in the season opener for both teams.
“It was just a lot of fun to be out here,” Schwenk said. “It was high energy, going against a team like Loyola, with the fans cheering and screaming. It’s awesome.”
Schwenk is from Royersford, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia. He was the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s rookie of the year as a Monmouth freshman last season. He wanted to test himself at a higher level, though, and decided to transfer.
He researched Division I teams that were losing their top faceoff specialists to graduated “and emailed all of them,” Schwenk recalled. “This was my No. 1 school, and once they hit me back, within a week I visited.”
That was in late June. Schwenk drove down to Charlottesville a few days later “and committed on the second day of the visit,” he said. “So it was real quick. I knew this place was going to be my home and loved the coaching staff and the team atmosphere.”
Aitken said he heard talk that Schwenk might end up at UVA, “and it’s awesome to have him here now.”
In 2017, Tiffany’s first season at Virginia, Murphy won 144 of 264 faceoffs (54.5 percent). Luke Brugel, then a freshman, won 89 of 169 draws (52.7 percent). Brugel won 2 of 3 against Loyola, and he remains a viable option for the Cavaliers.
“It’s still a battle,” Tiffany said. “No one’s been anointed the faceoff man for Virginia this season.”
Assistant coach Kip Turner works with the Wahoos’ goalies and faceoff specialists. Like Tiffany, Turner stressed that the competition between Schwenk and Brugel is ongoing.
“But today it was Justin’s day,” Turner said. “He’s a good kid, and he’s pretty unflappable. Not much bothers him, and he showed that today.”
Heading into the season, faceoffs ranked among the coaches’ major concerns, and UVA’s scrimmages last weekend against defending NCAA champion Maryland and Division III power Lynchburg did not give them cause for optimism.
“Honestly, we had a poor showing at the faceoff-X in the scrimmage last week, and I told [Schwenk and Brugel] it was a work week, that we’re going to grind and we’re going to get after some things,” Turner said.
“Justin responded. He did just that, and he did exactly what I asked, and he was ready for today’s game. We still have stuff to work on. It’s early in the season, no doubt, but he got confident, and that’s a big part of the game.”
It would be premature to call faceoffs are an area of strength for UVA, said Tiffany, who noted that Loyola’s Mike Orefice scored three goals Saturday after winning draws cleanly. “It’s a work in progress,” Tiffany said.
Still, there were encouraging signs for the ‘Hoos, who play at Drexel next weekend.
“We believe in our faceoff wings, that we have athletes there. We’re just asking our faceoff men to at least make it 50/50.”
In last year’s season opener, Aitken scored four goals to help the Cavaliers edge the Greyhounds 16-15 in Baltimore. In that game, Loyola erased a five-goal deficit and twice pulled even in the fourth quarter before Virginia prevailed.
The roles were reversed Saturday. The Greyhounds led 8-3 early in the third quarter. The Cavaliers rallied to go ahead 12-9, only to see Loyola respond with three straight goals, the last coming with 2:14 left in the fourth quarter.
Orefice won the faceoff to start the first overtime, but neither team could score in the first four-minute extra period. Fifteen seconds into the second OT, Aitken ended the drama.
Aitken finished with one goal and two assists. Freshman attackman Ian Laviano, in his college debut, scored a game-high five goals and added an assist.
His six points are the most of a UVA freshman in a season opener since Drew McKnight had two goals and four assists against Syracuse in 1997.
“I came in here with a lot of confidence,” said Laviano, a graduate of Cold Spring Harbor High on Long Island, New York. “My coaches and my teammates have trust in me, and I just came in to have fun, and it turned well.”