By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a frigid day in early January, before the start of the spring semester at the University of Virginia, men’s lacrosse coach Lars Tiffany was outside on a practice field, running what he calls “old-man sprints,” when he looked up and spotted a familiar figure engaged in a solitary workout.
Dox Aitken has been blessed with size and speed, but it’s his unwavering work ethic that separates him from many other talented players in college lacrosse.
“He’s out there with the boom box from the locker room,” recalled Tiffany, shaking his head. “It’s 25 degrees, the wind is blowing, and he’s out there working on his off hand. To me, that just epitomizes who Dox is.”
A 6-2, 210-pound midfielder, Aitken is right-handed, but his work on his left hand has paid handsome dividends, most memorably in the Cavaliers’ opener this season. From the faceoff that started the second overtime at Klöckner Stadium, Aitken picked up the ground ball, split two defenders and then scored with his left hand to give Virginia a 13-12 victory over Loyola (Md.).
Such heroics have marked the athletic career of Mark Doxrud Aitken. (Doxrud was his maternal grandmother’s maiden name.) In lacrosse circles, he’s long been a big deal.
In September 2013, early in Aitken’s sophomore year at the Haverford School outside Philadelphia, Inside Lacrosse named him the No. 1 college prospect in the Class of 2016, and he twice earned All-America honors before graduating.
With his lofty ranking came pressure, and other players saw matchups with Aitken as opportunities to enhance their reputations. He became a marked man every time he took the field.
“You would definitely hear extra chirps coming your way,” Aitken recalled. “It definitely motivated me.”
Another Cavalier, junior midfielder Ryan Conrad, received similar accolades from Inside Lacrosse as a schoolboy star at Loyola Blakefield outside Baltimore.
“What’s refreshingly pleasant to realize is that they both came out of this as really great human beings: humble and modest and level-headed,” Tiffany said.
“They’re exceptional young people who are doing all the right things. Off the field, with academics, they’re taking care of their responsibilities there, and then on the field, they’re just fierce competitors who want the ball in the pressure moments.”
At UVA, where he’s in his second year, Aitken reached the 50-goal mark for his career faster than any other middie in program history. He needed only 25 games to record 50 goals, eclipsing the mark held by former Virginia star Pete Eldredge (30 games).
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Tiffany said of Aitken. “The humbleness, the modesty that he carries on his shoulders, and his willingness to work on things that he’s not talented at are why he’s making such a big impact and why he will go down as one of the very best midfielders in the great history of Virginia lacrosse.”
Aitken, who grew up in Villanova, Pennsylvania, comes from one of the sport’s foremost families. His parents played college lacrosse — his mother at Penn State, his father at Lafayette — as did numerous cousins, uncles and aunts, and his sisters also can handle a stick.
“I was going to games of my sisters and my cousins from the time I can remember,” Aitken said, “and I was playing catch with my cousins and my sisters and my parents at like 4 or 5.”
Before his freshman year of high school, he transferred from Episcopal Academy to Haverford, where his cousins Chris Aitken and Steve Aitken had starred in lacrosse before playing at Villanova and Penn State, respectively.
In one of the nation’s storied high school programs, Aitken stood out, and any college with a lacrosse team would have welcomed him. He chose UVA, committing in August 2013 after establishing bonds with head coach Dom Starsia and associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale.
“I’d visited some other schools, and obviously Virginia stuck out the most,” Aitken said. “I always grew up watching and loving Virginia lacrosse, and when I met Coach Starsia and Coach Van, they made it a pretty easy sell, just the campus and the atmosphere and the tradition.”
Starsia, who left UVA after the 2016 season as the winningest lacrosse coach in Division I history, remembers the first time he saw Aitken play in person. Starsia knew immediately that Aitken could be special.
“You could just see,” Starsia said Wednesday. “He was a big, strong kid. He could play attack, he could play midfield. He had those kind of skills, and he had a certain presence about him. He reminds me of [former UVA great Jay] Jalbert.
“Jalbert might have been a hair quicker. I think Dox is a little stronger at the same age.”
In recruiting, Starsia, who won four NCAA titles at Virginia, always favored multi-sport athletes. Aitken fit that description. He also starred in football at Haverford, where he played wide receiver and safety and punted. Among the schools that expressed interest in Aitken for football were Boston College, Syracuse, Army, Notre Dame and, as signing day for lacrosse approached in the fall of 2015, Penn State.
“So I was holding my breath a little bit,” Starsia said.
Not to worry. Aitken, as planned, signed a lacrosse letter of intent with Virginia. It wasn’t easy for him to give up football, Aitken said, but he loves lacrosse and has thrived at UVA.
“Just the combination of everything here makes it a university you can’t really beat,” said Aitken, a foreign affairs major who lives with teammate Wade Maloney.
The coaching change at UVA after the 2016 season shocked Aitken. But he stays in touch with Starsia, who still lives in Charlottesville, and “obviously with Coach Tiffany coming in, I never lost an ounce of trust, and I knew this was the still the place I wanted to play lacrosse.”
Tiffany, who played for Starsia at Brown, came to Virginia from that Ivy League school. That the Cavaliers’ incoming recruits in 2016-17 included Aitken delighted Tiffany and assistant coaches Sean Kirwan and Kip Turner.
“What a gift to be given as a coach and a staff,” Tiffany said.
In July 2016, Aitken helped the United States, whose other players included Conrad, win the gold medal at the under-19 world championships in British Columbia. Then he enrolled at UVA, where he struggled on the field that fall.
“I came in and things weren’t clicking for me,” Aitken said. “My first fall. I wasn’t playing that well. I think things were just going pretty fast in my life: socially and meeting new people and getting used to classes here, the rigorous course work, and also lacrosse. It’s demanding.”
Tiffany said: “Looking back on it, there’s always a transition from the speed of the high school game to the college game, and not just the foot speed, but the decision-making, the quickness of getting the ball out of your stick. Even one of the best recruits in the nation will struggle with that.
“In addition, maybe he was a little burned out from the U19 games. Maybe there’s some value in taking some time off. He really didn’t have much of a summer.”
By the start of the 2017 season, Aitken had settled in. In the Wahoos’ first game under Tiffany, a 16-15 win over Loyola in Baltimore, Aitken scored four goals. He finished the season with 29 goals and 40 points, both records for a freshman midfielder at UVA.
This season, Aitken has 27 goals and seven assists for No. 11 UVA (8-3 overall, 0-2 ACC), which plays No. 20 North Carolina (6-5, 0-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
Only attackman Michael Kraus (29 goals, 23 assists), last season’s ACC freshman of the year, has more points for the `Hoos.
“What Dox and Kraus have done has been fantastic for any young player of any sport to admire,” Tiffany said. “They had a great first year. Now there’s a target on their backs, but no sophomore slump, because they’ve added to the repertoire of their moves, they’ve added to their games.”
Early last month, the `Hoos lost Conrad, a third-team All-American in 2017, to a season-ending knee injury. That was a major blow for a team looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
“He was just the bridge between our defense and our offense,” Aitken said. “He obviously provides some scoring for us and great defense, and so many ground balls. You can see it on the field now. It takes a whole team effort to make up what we lost in him, and hopefully we’ll have him back full-go next year. You can see there are still some growing pains, but we’re getting used to it. In the long run, it might be good for us to have guys who improve in those areas that he was so good at.”
The importance of the Cavaliers’ game this weekend can’t be overstated. Since defeating Syracuse on March 1, 2014, Virginia has lost 18 consecutive regular-season ACC games. The ACC tournament will be held late this month at Klöckner Stadium, and only four of the league’s five teams will qualify.
“I’d be lying to tell you that we don’t feel it at all,” Aitken said of the streak.
Many of the current Cavaliers, he noted, were not part of the conference losses in 2014, ’15 and ’16. Even so, Aitken said, “it’s just up to us to make a play when it matters.”