By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – He’s a legend in the sport, and Frank Urso knows greatness in lacrosse when he sees it. Urso, who was a four-time first-team All-American for the University of Maryland, recognized that potential in Matt Moore back in 2012.
Never mind that Moore was a rising eighth-grader at the time.
Urso, who helped Maryland win NCAA titles in 1973 and ’75, coaches the varsity boys’ team at Garnet Valley High School, about 25 miles southwest of Philadelphia. In 2012, he was putting together a squad to play in summer tournaments when he spoke with Moore’s parents at a social gathering.
“I mentioned to them that I wanted to bring Matt up for the summer,” Urso recalled. “His mom looked at me and said, ‘Do you think he’s ready for the JV team?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really care. He’s playing with the varsity.’ “
College coaches shared Urso’s assessment of Moore, who received multiple scholarship offers even before his first high school game. He committed to the University of Virginia in December 2013, midway through his freshman year at Garnet Valley.
“We thought he was a very special player,” recalled Dom Starsia, then UVA’s head coach.
Moore hasn’t buckled under the weight of expectations. At Garnet Valley, he totaled 156 goals and 273 assists and was selected to the all-state first team four times, and Inside Lacrosse ranked him as the No. 4 recruit in the Class of 2017.
His UVA career is unfolding in similar fashion. In 2018, when he started in the midfield, Moore was named ACC Freshman of the Year after helping the Wahoos reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
This season, as a starting attackman, Moore leads Virginia with 66 points. He’s first on the team in assists (31) and second in goals (35) and was one of four Cavaliers named All-ACC last month.
“He’s doing exactly what we thought he’d do,” Urso said. “He’s a special kid. He’s extremely talented. He does some things that you just can’t teach. His unselfishness and the way he sees the field, that’s just not as teachable as you would like it to be.
“He doesn’t mind who scores. He just minds if the team scores, and he likes to try to find ways to make that happen.”
Starsia said Moore’s “ability to change the field and feed off the dodge makes UVA different and more dangerous than the other schools in the conference.”
For the Hoos, the postseason began last weekend in Chapel Hill, N.C. In a comeback win over host North Carolina, the 6-2, 195-pound Moore had a career-high six assists and one goal to help UVA advance to the ACC championship game for the second straight year.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, in a game ESPNU will televise, top-seeded Virginia (12-3) meets third-seeded Notre Dame (8-5) at Klöckner Stadium. This is a rematch of their March 16 clash in Charlottesville, where the Wahoos rallied for a 13-11 victory.
In last year’s ACC championship game, however, the Fighting Irish romped 17-7 at Klöckner Stadium. Moore and his teammates haven’t forgotten that loss.
“We’ve got plenty of ammo with what happened to us last year,” said Sean Kirwan, the Hoos’ offensive coordinator.
In high school, Moore started most games in the midfield but also played attack. “He didn’t leave the field,” Urso said.
Starsia, whose tenure at Virginia ended after the 2016 season, always envisioned Moore as an attackman in college. Starsia’s successor as head coach, Lars Tiffany, came to UVA from Brown, along with his assistants — Kirwan and Kip Turner. The new staff gave Moore the option of playing attack last year, but he preferred to run in the midfield with Dox Aitken, another exceptional talent from the Philadelphia area.
“I felt like I’d be better helping the team there,” Moore said, and his new coaches did not try to dissuade him.
“I’m a big believer in trying to make a first-year guy as comfortable as possible,” Kirwan said. “He’s got so much going on that first year on campus, you’d hate to mess with that. Just talking with Matt, he was very comfortable being a midfielder, and that was fine.”
From a team that finished 12-6 last season, UVA returned two starting attackmen — Michael Kraus and Ian Laviano – and candidates for the third spot included Payton Cormier, a freshman from Canada. Midway through the fall, however, Cormier suffered a serious knee injury, and the coaches approached Moore about a position change.
“They were like, ‘Matt, do you want to try attack?’ ” Moore recalled, “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
Kirwan said: “We moved Matt out of need this year, and we didn’t necessarily have that need last year. We could let him be comfortable. But it’s always been in the back of our minds, and thankfully he had become more comfortable with everything around him, where now he was ready for a new challenge.”
Still, Moore said, he struggled in his new role at first.
“It’s a different position, 100 percent,” he said. “I wasn’t really comfortable playing from behind [the cage], but Kraus and Ian have helped me a lot. I had to put in a lot more extra work, because I grew up doing midfield drills. Middies are dodging down the alley, shooting on the run, but attack’s doing inside rolls and question mark [dodges], and I wasn’t really comfortable with that.”
Kirwan said: “When we moved him, he was a midfielder playing attack. There are some subtleties to the attack position that he still had to figure out. I think the biggest thing was, we just needed to slow him down. When you’re a middie, you can kind of go 100 miles an hour all the time, and good things will happen.”
Playing with Aitken and Ryan Conrad, Moore drew a short-stick defender, and “his job was pretty simple,” Kirwan said. “Whereas now at the attack position, he needed to learn how to be more of a facilitator.”
Moore, whose two brothers played soccer at Penn State Altoona, has been an apt pupil. His performance against UNC last week “proved that he’s continued to grow enough where he could be that type of feeding quarterback of our offense,” Kirwan said. “It’s been a fun process working with him, and every week he kind of picks up something new, a little tidbit here or there.”
The coaching change at UVA occurred near the end of Moore’s junior year at Garnet Valley. It came as a shock to him, but he never wavered in his commitment to Virginia. Moore connected immediately with Tiffany, Kirwan and Turner, the starting goalie on the UVA team that won the NCAA title in 2006.
“I think they called me right away,” Moore said. “They were just like, ‘Yeah, we tried recruiting you at Brown, but we knew we didn’t have a chance, so we’re glad you committed here.”
Moreover, Moore noted, there’s an adage to which recruits are wise to adhere, given the nature of college sports: Pick the school, don’t pick the coaching staff. “Perfect example here,” he said.
A foreign affairs major, Moore chose Virginia in large part because of its academic reputation. Urso, who played in the NCAA championship game in each of his four seasons at Maryland, admits he would have liked to have seen Moore in College Park.
“I tried,” Urso said, laughing. “I tried very hard. Gave him a lot of options.”
The Cavaliers will have multiple options at the offensive end in the fall, when Cormier returns and Connor Shellenberger, an acclaimed attackman who’s now a senior at nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, joins the program. With Conrad leaving after this season, Moore could move back to middie.
“Wherever they need me,” he said. “I think I’m best up top, but I like playing behind [the cage] now. It’s fun.”