By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a program that has NCAA tournament aspirations but continues to struggle against ACC foes, every non-conference game is precious. That made its performance against venerable rival Johns Hopkins particularly painful for the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team Saturday.
With an opportunity to pick up a marquee non-conference victory, No. 10 UVA collapsed in the second half at Klöckner Stadium. The ninth-ranked Blue Jays, who trailed 9-2 at the break, stormed back to stun the Cavaliers 15-13 before a crowd of 2,710.
The Wahoos (7-3) are seeking their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2015.
“The calendar’s moved to spring, and we’ve got to start winning more ball games,” said Lars Tiffany, who’s in his second season as Virginia’s head coach.
Five regular-season games remain for the `Hoos: three against non-conference foes and two against ACC opponents.
“There’s plenty of season left,” said sophomore midfielder Dox Aitken, who led UVA with a career-best six goals against Hopkins (6-2).
Aitken knows, however, that the Cavaliers have work to do if they’re going to advance to postseason.
Virginia hosts Richmond (5-4) at Klöckner Stadium next Saturday afternoon. UVA visits No. 19 UNC on April 7 and then hosts third-ranked Duke on April 14. The Cavaliers will meet Vermont in New Canaan, Connecticut, on April 21. They close the regular season at home against VMI on May 1.
Since defeating Syracuse on March 1, 2014, the Cavaliers have lost 18 consecutive regular-season ACC games. The ACC tournament will be held April 27-29 at Klöckner Stadium, and only four of the league’s five teams will qualify.
ACC play was not the Cavaliers’ concern Saturday in the annual battle for the Doyle Smith Cup. It’s always a big game when Hopkins comes to town, and the `Hoos were out to avenge the overtime loss they suffered at Homewood Field in Baltimore last season. Moreover, many former players were on hand for a halftime ceremony honoring Jim “Ace” Adams, Virginia’s head coach from 1978 to 1992.
For 30 minutes, as Adams looked on happily from the press box, Virginia appeared headed to a blowout victory in the 93rd game in a series that dates back to 1904. Sophomore attackman Michael Kraus had two goals and three assists, Aitken had three goals, and freshman goalkeeper Alex Rode made seven saves, several of them spectacular, as the Cavaliers built what appeared to be a commanding halftime lead.
But the Blue Jays weren’t fazed. They scored the first six goals of the second half. Back-to-back goals by Aitken pushed UVA’s lead to 11-8, but Hopkins responded with another monumental run, this one consisting of seven unanswered goals over a span of about 12 minutes.
“That might be the largest point swing I’ve ever [been] a part of,” Aitken said.
“It’s obviously super frustrating,” said senior Scott Hooper, the Cavaliers’ top defenseman. “Lacrosse is a game of runs, and you’ve got to be able to counter those, and you’ve got to be able to go on some runs yourself. We had that in the first half, and we just weren’t able to accomplish that in the second half, unfortunately.
“It starts with ground balls and those loose balls that we just weren’t able to pick up in the second half.”
Sophomore Justin Schwenk won 10 of 13 faceoffs in the first half for Virginia. He won 8 of 18 the rest of the way.
“I needed to do a lot better for our team,” said Schwenk, a transfer from Monmouth.
The Cavaliers had other problems in the second half. Hopkins dominated ground balls after intermission, picking up 21 of 33, and committed only five turnovers in the second half, to Virginia’s 10. The Blue Jays outshot UVA 28-12 in the final 30 minutes.
“In the second half we were playing with the lead, and I think we might have expected them to roll over,” Aitken said, “and they didn’t do that, obviously. They’re a great team, and no great team is going to do that.”
The game matched “two really potent offensive teams,” Tiffany said, “and when there’s that much firepower, it’s really about possession, isn’t it?”
Hopkins’ shooting improved in the second half, and UVA’s defense wore down, leaving Rode more vulnerable in the cage.
“We can’t lean on a goalie to play unbelievable lacrosse for four quarters,” Tiffany said.
“I think Alex made seven saves in each half. He just came down to earth a little bit, and we just didn’t step up around that … What we have to learn from this is, you give up a few goals and just say, `Next play, next one,’ and [learn] not to tighten up, but to keep playing loose.”
Kraus finished with two goals and five assists, and freshman attack Ian Laviano scored three goals for the Cavaliers.
Aitken and Kraus in particular “stepped up in a big-time situation and a pressure-filled situation, and we look to them to do that,” Tiffany said. “We need others, and that’s maybe where the youthfulness of this team is [apparent], because we couldn’t quite make some of those other plays.”
The Blue Jays have no shortage of playmakers, among them senior attackman Shack Stanwick, whose brother Steele starred at UVA and holds the program record for career points (269).
In four previous games against the Cavaliers, Shack Stanwick totaled seven goals and nine assists. He had only one of each Saturday, thanks in large part to Hooper’s work on defense, but three other Hopkins players scored at least three goals apiece.
In the second half, Hooper said, “I think [the Blue Jays] were just flowing a little bit better. They certainly had a lot more possessions, which helped, and they spent a lot more time with the ball. You start playing a lot of D and you start getting tired. It just lets them play a little bit more freely when they have that many possessions.”
At halftime, Tiffany challenged his players to compete as if the score were 0-0. “Don’t worry about the result,” he told them. “Worry about the next play. Try to make that next play.”
Instead, the Cavaliers “watched Hopkins make a lot of those next plays,” Tiffany said afterward. The result was a humbling loss for the `Hoos, who now must focus on correcting their mistakes, starting at practice on Monday.
“It’s definitely a stinger,” Hooper said. “At the end of the day, though, a loss is a loss, and we’re going to learn from it. We’re going to go look at the film and look where we broke down and look where we could improve. We’re going to try to improve from this. I think we played some great lacrosse throughout the day. We’ve just got to keep that up, learn from it, and move on to Richmond next week.”