By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Fall practice ended a few days before Thanksgiving for the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team, which is coming off a remarkable season that ended with the program’s sixth NCAA title.
The Cavaliers were also crowned NCAA champions in 1972, 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011. The seasons that immediately followed those titles underlined how difficult it is for a team to repeat as national champion.
Virginia lost in the NCAA semifinals in 1973 and 2000. The Wahoos failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament in 2004. They fell in the first round in 2007 and were ousted in the quarterfinals in 2012.
In this century, only Syracuse (2008 and ’09) and Duke (2013 and ’14) have won back-to-back NCAA titles in men’s lacrosse.
UVA’s current players learned that this fall, head coach Lars Tiffany said, during an exercise in which they analyzed postseason results from not only their sport but football and men’s basketball. Once it became clear that repeat national champions are rare in those sports, Tiffany broke his team into small groups and asked them to examine why that’s the case.
“We came up with 10 different reasons,” Tiffany recalled in his McCue Center office, “and I think later we came up with a couple more. And then the very last piece of the exercise was: Which ones do we control, and which ones are out of our control?”
He cited Purdue guard Carsen Edwards, whose otherworldly shooting performance nearly toppled the UVA men’s basketball team in last season’s Elite Eight. (The Hoos, of course, survived Edwards’ tour de force and went on to win the NCAA title.)
“Sometimes you just run into a guy who’s a buzz saw, or you run into a hot team,” Tiffany said. “We don’t control that, but we found that of the 10 [reasons], seven of them we control. So there’s the coaching point: Let’s focus on what we control and let’s make sure we take care of that. Some things are out of your control, but most of it is in your control.”
Each year, Tiffany chooses a book for his players to read and discuss each week. The latest selection is The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, in which author Ryan Holiday highlights historical figures who “overcame the obstacles that were in their path,” Tiffany said. “The summary of the book to me, which I really like, is that which impedes us, empowers us.”
Virginia returns a talented core from the team that swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles. Gone are Ryan Conrad, Mikey Herring, Logan Greco, Matt Dziama, Cory Harris and Dave Smith, among others, but the Cavaliers have back such players as Dox Aitken, Matt Moore, Michael Kraus, Ian Laviano, Alex Rode, Jared Conners, Kyle Kology, Will Rock, John Fox, Petey LaSalla, Jeff Conner, Cade Saustad, Xander Dickson and Jack Peele.
Aitken, a midfielder, and Conners, a long-stick middie, were first-team All-Americans last season. Kraus was a third-team All-American, and another UVA attackman, Moore, received honorable mention.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Tiffany, who’s heading into his fourth season at UVA. “We have fantastic talent back. We have most of our offensive firepower back, and we have Sean Kirwan back.”
Kirwan, the Wahoos’ offensive coordinator, was a candidate for the head job at Harvard “and some other positions that were available,” Tiffany said. With Kirwan back, UVA’s “offense has not really skipped a beat,” Tiffany said.
The Cavaliers returns three of their top four scoring threats from last season: Moore (89 points), Kraus (75) and Aitken (52). Newcomers expected to contribute at that end of the field in 2020 include redshirt freshman Payton Cormier, a Canadian who missed last season with a knee injury, and true freshmen Michael Bienkowski, Peter Garno and Connor Shellenberger, a heralded recruit from nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School.
“We’re really deep on offense right now,” Tiffany said. “Defensively, we’ve got to get there. Somebody asked me recently, ‘OK, it’s taken three years, but are you finally where you want to be with your team defense? We saw how well it played on the Final Four weekend.’ “
In Philadelphia, UVA rallied to defeated Duke 13-12 in double overtime, ending an 11-game losing streak in the series, and then beat Yale 13-9 in the NCAA final on Memorial Day.
“I was [happy with the defense on] May 27th, but we lost a lot more than I think I really anticipated,” Tiffany said. “So the fall has felt like rebuilding instead of reloading on the defensive end.”
Rode, who was named the NCAA’s tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, is back in the cage. Most of the defensive midfield from last season is gone, however, and Saustad, a close defenseman, and long-stick middies Conners and Rock were sidelined for part of the fall with injuries.
The Cavaliers had three fall scrimmages. A week after facing Penn State, which reached the NCAA semifinals last season, UVA played the U.S. and Canadian national teams on the same day. For large segments of those scrimmages, defending with long sticks for UVA were Kology “and the three first-years,” Tiffany said, referring to Scott Bower, Quentin Matsui and Jake Giulieri.
“Talk about trial by fire,” Tiffany said. “Those three represent a very talented core of first-year defensemen. It’s the best crew of defensemen that our staff has recruited here. But it takes time.”
Another impressive newcomer is faceoff specialist Gavin Tygh, a 6-1, 190-pound freshman from the Philadelphia area.
“As he continues to improve his technique, he’s got some big-time potential,” Tiffany said. “Now, of course, he’s got a really good faceoff guy ahead of him” –– LaSalla –– “but the two of them are giving each other great battles.”
Rode, a junior, has looked noticeably more confident in goal than in previous seasons, Tiffany said. “He talks so much in practice. He didn’t use to say anything, whether in practice or off the field. Now he’s a chatterbox at practice, and he talks a little bit of junk, which for Alex we’re OK with. Plus, you want your goalie to be a barker. So we’ve been enjoying Alex breaking out of his mold and being more communicative.”
Smith, Dziama and Harris were stalwarts in the defensive midfield last season, and Conrad, a first-team All-American, was a sensational two-way middie.
Anchoring the defensive midfield on this team are Fox, Grayson Sallade and Chris Merle. An injury limited Sallade to seven games last season, and Merle missed the entire season with an injury.
Conrad picked up 95 ground balls last season, second on the team only to LaSalla. With Conrad gone, there are “more loose [ground balls],” Tiffany said, laughing. “They roll around a little longer.”
To think that one player will match Conrad’s myriad contributions is unrealistic, but Merle, a 6-1, 190-pound redshirt sophomore, is “the best version that we have,” Tiffany said. “He’s as close to fearless as we have on our team. He runs through bodies ––not to hit people, but because there’s a ball there –– and he’s oblivious to giving you a charley horse or getting slashed. So I love his doggedness in pursuit of ground balls.
“We’re going to miss Conrad, but if you said, ‘All right, who’s unknown that the lacrosse world is going to know about six months from now?’ Chris Merle could be that man, even though he’s only a D-middie and he’s not going to score 50 goals.”
UVA’s captains are Fox, who’s a junior, and seniors Aitken and Kraus. The example they’re setting delights Tiffany, who believes his team has the mindset necessary to make 2020 a special season.
“I am thrilled at how we’ve embraced our new position,” Tiffany said. “I can tell you that all summer I was fearful of coming back and then finding non-hungry, expectant, complacent men, and I feel I’ve witnessed just the opposite.
“There’s a professional approach to our training right now that I have not witnessed here in my time. The men have recognized not only what we achieved, but what it took to get there. And they’ve taken it to heart that we actually have to train with more intensity and more purpose, and we have to be better prepared, because we can’t rely on coming back from four goals [down] with four minutes left anymore.”
In one of the weekly meetings designed to strengthen the team’s culture, Tiffany said, he used an analogy to impress upon his players the challenge facing the Hoos in 2020.
“Let’s say you could measure our work units for the entire year and how much we lifted and ran and watched film and trained and practice,'” Tiffany said. “I came up with the number 42. If we do 42 again, it doesn’t look good for us. It’s not enough, so we’ve got to get to 50, or 52. It’s just the reality of why it’s so demanding to win consecutive championships, and I think they’ve embraced that, which has been fantastic.”