By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The goal that clinched a berth for Virginia in this weekend’s NCAA men’s lacrosse Final Four came out of the stick of sophomore Matt Moore. Another UVA attackman, junior Michael Kraus, collected the assist on Moore’s game-winner in Hempstead, N.Y.
Moore and Kraus are two of the college game’s brightest stars, and each sparkled Saturday in Virginia’s overtime victory over Maryland at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium. But the Cavaliers’ MVP, they said this week, was one of their less heralded teammates: freshman Petey LaSalla.
A sturdy freshman from Rocky Point, N.Y., about 55 miles from Hempstead on Long Island, the 5-7, 195-pound LaSalla won 16 of 24 faceoffs in the Wahoos’ comeback win over the Terrapins. In the fourth quarter alone, LaSalla won 7 of 8 draws, and he controlled the only faceoff in overtime, starting a possession that ended 45 seconds into the extra period.
“He’s the reason why we won that game,” Moore said of LaSalla. “Without those late possessions … we wouldn’t be here today.”
Kraus said: “He probably won us that game on Saturday.”
With 9:30 left in the fourth quarter, the Wahoos trailed 12-7, and six minutes later their deficit – four goals – was still substantial. But the Hoos, thanks to LaSalla’s superiority at the faceoff-X, forced Maryland to play defense for most of the final 10 minutes, and eventually their offense found its rhythm.
LaSalla came away with the ball on most of his faceoffs, but on the draws he didn’t win cleanly, his wings, senior Ryan Conrad and junior Jared Conners, were there to secure possession for the Cavaliers.
Had the Terps won any of those faceoffs late in regulation, or the one in overtime, “they probably would have won that game,” Kraus said.
As the start of overtime approached, LaSalla walked to the center of the field, with Conrad and Conners on opposite wings.
“That was probably the most important faceoff of my life, but I just went into it thinking it was like any other one,” LaSalla said. “I was just confident in myself that I was going to win it.”
His confidence proved well-founded. LaSalla came away with the ball in his stick, and his teammates did the rest.
“What a heroic effort,” head coach Lars Tiffany said of LaSalla’s performance against Maryland, which was looking to advance to the Final Four for the eighth time in nine seasons.
LaSalla had played on Hofstra’s field before last weekend, but never in front of a crowd that large. He had plenty of support in the stands.
“I had a bunch of friends and family there, probably like over 50 people there to see me,” LaSalla said. “So it was nice to be able to perform in front of them all.”
At this time last year, LaSalla was finishing up his senior year at Rocky Point High School, where he also starred in football. His next game, Saturday in Philadelphia, will be at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL’s Eagles.
At noon, third-seeded Virginia (15-3) meets second-seeded Duke (13-4), and top-seeded Penn State (16-1) and defending NCAA champion Yale (14-3), the No. 5 seed, will follow. ESPN2 is televising both semifinals.
To be playing on this stage in his first year “is a pretty surreal experience,” LaSalla said.
Coming out of Rocky Point, he wasn’t considered a can’t-miss recruit, but LaSalla has been a revelation for the Cavaliers. He’s won 194 of 321 faceoffs (60.4 percent) during a season in which Virginia has erased fourth-quarter deficits and forced overtime four times. The Hoos have won each of those games.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Tiffany said. “In the fourth quarter of some of these comebacks, there’s no option. We need the ball. He doesn’t violate. He just does his thing, follows the whistle, bang, picks it up.
“What’s really developed for him is his exits. On the faceoffs, the first [thing] is, on the whistle, the clamp. He’s always had good hands. What he’s developed as the season has gone on is how to put the ball where he can get it or Ryan Conrad can go pick it up. We’re starting to see Petey fake exit one way and then go the other way. First-years aren’t supposed to do that. That’s older-guy stuff.”
The starting job wasn’t handed to LaSalla. From a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament last season, UVA returned Justin Schwenk, its top faceoff specialist. Schwenk won 242 draws in 2018, a single-season record at UVA, and led the ACC with a 59.8 winning percentage.
A junior from Royersford, Pa, Schwenk has won 78 of 144 faceoffs (54.2 percent) this season, and he played a leading role in Virginia’s 19-10 win over Robert Morris at Klöckner Stadium in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
LaSalla, who’d been ill leading up to the game, started but couldn’t continue, and Schwenk took over. He finished with 22 faceoff wins, the most ever by a Cavalier in an NCAA tournament game.
“As we all know, to make a run, to pursue a championship, there’s gotta be other men who step up,” Tiffany said. “Having that is huge, and we had that at Brown.”
Tiffany came to UVA from that Ivy League school after the 2016 season. Brown’s standouts that year include faceoff specialist Will Gural. Tiffany sees similarities between Gural, a second-team All-American in 2016, and LaSalla, who has five goals and an assist this season.
“Both have sophisticated offensive skills, much better than most faceoff specialists have,” Tiffany said. “Will Gural was an offensive middie who became a faceoff man at Haverford later in his high school career. Petey LaSalla at Rocky Point was relied on to win faceoffs and then score goals and play some defense, pretty much do everything.
“By necessity, Petey has been on the field doing a lot. He comes to Virginia, and Petey is comfortable taking the ball behind the goal and dodging. He’s comfortable playing fast, playing in transition. He can use his off-hand. Most faceoff men would never, ever dare put the stick in their off-hand to pass the ball or catch the ball. For Petey, it’s natural to him.”
LaSalla’s fans include Michael Kraus’ father, Steve, the most dominant faceoff specialist in UVA history. In his four seasons with the Cavaliers, Kraus (1978-81) won 68 percent of his draws. Second on Virginia’s all-time list is his brother, Andy Kraus, who, starting in 1987, won 62.9 percent of his faceoffs.
The Kraus brothers attended the game at Hostra last weekend and loved what they saw from LaSalla.
“He’s an ideal faceoff guy,” Steve Kraus said.
The Krauses also grew up on Long Island, and they excelled in football as well as lacrosse at Garden City High School. Like LaSalla, who scored a school-record 20 touchdowns for Rocky Point in 2017, Steve and Andy Kraus played running back on offense.
“It helps so much, doing at least one other sport,” Steve Kraus said. “That kind of creates muscle memory, and it just builds your frame of reference. Your attitude is that you’re not going to take anything from anybody, and you like getting out on the stage one-on-one and being embarrassed or winning. It’s just a completely different animal than most other things.”
Elite faceoff specialists “don’t have just one faceoff move,” Steve Kraus said. “The best faceoff guys evolve and keep adding to what they can do,” and LaSalla, who works with assistant coach Kip Turner, has followed that path.
“I think Kip will tell you this that Petey in his first year has evolved a lot from the fall. He can read people, and his tool kit is a lot more developed. The way I look at him, he’s the perfect size. Stocky as hell. So when he’s down there you can’t knock him over, even if you weigh 220 pounds, because he can get under you and you can’t get leverage. And then he’s got a great first, second, third step, just like a football player would.”
On April 13, in Durham, N.C., LaSalla won 15 of 22 faceoffs, but UVA fell 12-7 to ACC rival Duke. For the Blue Devils, the victory was their 11th straight over the Cavaliers and 19th in their past 20 meetings.
In the rematch, UVA will have Michael Kraus, who missed the regular-season game at Duke with an ankle injury. If the Cavaliers are to capture the program’s sixth NCAA title on this Memorial Day weekend, they know, they’ll have to figure out how to finally beat their longtime nemesis.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” Tiffany said. “Duke’s a tremendous team and a good obstacle in the path of our mission. We know them, they know us. We were certainly disappointed when we drove back from Durham six weeks ago with a loss and felt like we hadn’t put our best foot forward, so we’re really grateful for another opportunity.”