April 28, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the Atlantic Coast Conference announced last May that its 2018 men’s lacrosse tournament would be held at Klöckner Stadium, this weekend took on special significance for the Virginia Cavaliers. It’s not every year that a team has an opportunity to compete for a championship on its home field.

“I think it was the goal for everybody,” sophomore attackman Michael Kraus said, “and it’s coming true now. So everybody’s feeling good.”

At noon Sunday, UVA (11-4) will meet Notre Dame (7-5) for the ACC title at Klöckner Stadium. Each advanced with a win Friday night over a higher-seeded team.

First, the third-seeded Fighting Irish upset No. 2 seed Duke 14-11. Then, in the second semifinal, fourth-seeded Virginia led for the final 33 minutes and 12 seconds in an 11-10 victory over No. 1 seed Syracuse.

His team played with “more poise than we’ve probably shown all year,” said Lars Tiffany, who’s in his second season as the Wahoos’ head coach.

Virginia had lost its previous four games with the Orange, which won 12-11 in Charlottesville on March 4.

“It’s a big step in terms of beating a team that we hadn’t beaten in a long time, and beating a team that’s comfortable in pressure situations,” Tiffany said. “Syracuse is the king of winning these one-goal games.”

Virginia came into this season not having defeated an ACC opponent since 2014. That streak ended April 7, when UVA defeated North Carolina 15-12 in Chapel Hill.

Not since 2013 had the `Hoos qualified for the four-team ACC tournament, but that stretch of futility ended this year, too. And now, with their win over Syracuse (7-6), the Cavaliers have reason to feel good about their prospects for advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.

“It seems like we’re checking boxes, but like we’ve been harping on all year, it’s just about having that next-game mentality, and that’s really paying off for us,” said Kraus, who had two goals and a game-high three assists Friday night.

“We all know that we’re one of the best teams in the country when we’re playing on all cylinders offensively and defensively. We saw it tonight.”

In its March game against Syracuse, Virginia suffered a crushing blow when junior midfielder Ryan Conrad, a third-team All-American in 2017, went down with a season-ending knee injury late in the first quarter.

Conrad’s absence put more pressure on the rest of the midfield, including Matt Moore, a heralded freshman from Garnett Valley, Pennsylvania. Moore has been solid this season — he came into the ACC tournament with 13 goals and 10 assists — but the Cavaliers knew he was capable of more, and he delivered Friday night.

Moore, who had never scored more than two goals in a college game, had four against Syracuse and added an assist.

“This is a dream,” Moore said. “I didn’t know it was going to come [Friday night], but I knew I was working hard in practice.”

At Garnet Valley High School, the 6-2, 195-pound Moore played for the legendary Frank Urso, who was a four-time first-team All-American for Maryland in the 1970s.

“He’s one of those players who comes by once in a lifetime for you in your coaching career,” Urso has said of Moore, and those skills were evident Friday night.

“I’m just happy to see it come to fruition,” UVA offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan said, “because Matt’s been working so hard, and it’s there, and he knows it. He hasn’t gotten frustrated, and he’s just stuck with it.

“He’s gotten through some growing pains and he’s listened and learned and improved. So to have a game like this is really just a culmination of everything.”

Moore, who wears jersey No. 5, has “a smile on his face all the time,” Tiffany said.

“For someone who was so highly recruited, he didn’t develop an ego,” Tiffany said. “He just loves coming to practice, and if you see Matt Moore practice, you see he’s really happy to be there. Well, if you’re happy doing whatever it is, you have a passion for something and you have a smile on your face, you work harder at it and you’re more committed to it and you’re going to get better. And that’s what we saw: Matt Moore making big-time plays in the moment.”

Moore wasn’t the only standout for UVA, of course. His classmate Alex Rode, in his ninth start in the goal, finished with 10 saves. The most important might have been the stop Rode made early in the second quarter when Syracuse had a two-man advantage.

Sophomore midfielder Dox Aitken, who like Kraus was named to the All-ACC team this week, contributed two goals and two assists, and senior attackman Mike D’Amario scored two goals, the second of which made it 11-9 with 1:36 left. Close defensemen Logan Greco, Scott Hooper and Zach Ambrosino helped keep Syracuse’s offense below its scoring average.

And then there was sophomore faceoff specialist Justin Schwenk. In Virginia’s regular-season loss to Syracuse, Schwenk won only 8 of 21 draws. He won 16 of 23 in the rematch, thanks in part to the strong play of his wings: Moore and long-stick middies Will Rock and Jared Conner.

“I think we were just more locked in and ready to go and were on the whistle [this time],” said Schwenk, a transfer from Monmouth whose 216 faceoffs are a single-season record at UVA. “With our wing play, we had much better communication.”

Several times this season, Tiffany noted, Schwenk has started well against elite faceoff specialists, only to fade in the fourth quarter.

“That didn’t happen tonight,” Tiffany said. “He continued to analyze what the opponent was doing and continued to not just go with one move, but to counter. That’s a big thing with faceoff men. They’re some of the most stubborn people on the planet, and the fact that he was open-minded enough to understand, `I can’t just be a one-trick pony,’ [paid big dividends]. His ground ball play was tremendous.”

ESPNU will televise Sunday’s championship game. For the Cavaliers, seeking their first ACC title since 2011, it’s also an opportunity to avenge another regular-season defeat.

On March 17, Virginia led Notre Dame 7-6 after three quarters but ended up losing 9-7 in South Bend, Indiana. Six of the Cavaliers’ 15 turnovers came in the fourth quarter.

The Fighting Irish “played really well, but I think it came down to us kind of giving it away to them,” Kraus said. “We kind of tightened up in the fourth quarter.”

That game was only Virginia’s third without Conrad, who was on the sideline Friday night in street clothes. The `Hoos have grown markedly since then, and they’ll look to reach another milestone Sunday afternoon.

“Let’s go win a championship, boys!” senior midfielder Cory Harris shouted.