By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– It’s an unsettling sight for University of Virginia opponents: Jared Conners in transition, racing toward the goal with the lacrosse ball in his stick.
Never mind that he’s a long stick midfielder, a position whose primary requirement is an ability to play stifling defense. Conners, a 6-5, 210-pound senior from Pittsford, N.Y., has formidable skills on the offensive end, too.
A first-team All-American in 2019, Conners had two goals and an assist Tuesday night to help No. 8 Virginia hold off High Point 18-15 at Klöckner Stadium.
“It’s incredible to have such a versatile player,” UVA head coach Lars Tiffany said. “He is our best one-on-one defender, but then the offense Jared creates is so wonderful to have.
“He actually might be our best transition player right now overall. Our efficiency rating in transition is lower than it should be, yet when Jared is involved, it’s fairly high. The heat that he brings with his shot, the goalies don’t have much time to react.”
This marked the third time Conners has scored two goals in a game for UVA. His first two goals, including the game-winner, came against Richmond in 2017. For his career, he has 16 goals and nine assists, which in all likelihood makes him the highest-scoring long stick midfielder in program history.
“We have never had one like him as a scorer,” said Dom Starsia, who coached at Virginia for 24 years before Tiffany succeeded him after the 2016 season.
Before coming to UVA, where his teams won four NCAA titles, Starsia coached at his alma mater, Brown. His close defensemen at the Ivy League school included Tiffany.
With the ball in his stick, Tiffany was no Conners. Asked Tuesday night how many goals he scored in college, Tiffany smiled.
“One,” he said.
During his final two years at Pittsford High School, Conners said, he became a threat to score, “and I knew with Coach Tiffany that that was going to be a big part of our game [at UVA]. I’m lucky enough to play under him and be able to push it in transition like that.”
Conners was one of five Cavaliers with at least two goals apiece against High Point (1-4). Senior attackman Michael Kraus led Virginia (3-1) with five, redshirt freshman midfield Payton Cormier scored four, and Conners, junior attackman Matt Moore and senior middie Dox Aitken contributed two each.
Moore also had five assists for the Wahoos, who scored the game’s final three goals to avenge a 2019 loss to the Panthers. Virginia was 19 for 19 on clears and won 25 of 35 faceoffs Tuesday night. Sophomore Petey LaSalla was 18 for 27 on draws, and senior Justin Schwenk was 7 for 8.
“That was really important,” Tiffany said, “because this High Point team can score goals, and they can score goals quickly. Their transition game is so dynamic. So we were fortunate that our clearing was 100 percent today. We were gaining more possessions at the faceoff, and I felt like we needed every one of those against a high-powered offense.”
In 2019, when the Hoos won the program’s sixth NCAA title, their starters on close defense included Cade Saustad, a freshman from Dallas. Saustad is recovering from ankle surgery, and it’s not clear when he’ll be cleared to play this year, which leaves junior Kyle Kology as UVA’s only veteran on close defense.
Joining Kology in the rotation at that position are Scott Bower, Quentin Matsui and Jake Giulieri, freshmen who not surprisingly have struggled at times so far. Virginia lost 16-12 to Princeton on Saturday.
“It’s definitely been a little shaky at times, but we’re just working to get those younger guys comfortable, and I think that’s a big piece of this,” Conners said. “I remember my freshman year, it was tough to learn on the fly like that, but they’re doing a great job, and the more time we can get them out here on the field, the better.”
Kology said: “It’ll happen. Usually it takes a while, because the jump from high school to college is so big, but I have confidence they’re going to get there.”
In the meantime, Kology said, it’s “kind of baptism by fire. Obviously, we’re missing Cade, but the young guys are coming along. It’s good to play these opponents that are going to show them what the speed is like, how small the windows are that they’re going to fit balls into. Everything’s just quicker. They’re coming along. They’re going to get there, and we’re going to keep working with them.”
Tiffany said: “We’re really grateful to have [all three freshmen], and we’re going to grow with them. We almost don’t have a choice at this point.”
Early in the third quarter, UVA led 12-8 and seemed to be in control. But High Point rallied behind attackmen Devon Buckshot (five goals, one assist) and Asher Nolting (one goal, five assist). Against Princeton, the Cavaliers’ inexperienced defense had to contend with senior attackman Michael Sowers, who finished with four goals and four assists.
“When you face some of these elite attackmen, like we have with Sowers and Nolting, decision-making with when to slide, with how to deal with picks, and how far we hedge off our man can get exposed, and that’s what we’ve seen the last two games.”
Buckshot’s fifth goal tied the game at 15-15 with 9:32 to play, but the Cavaliers didn’t panic. With 6:45 left, after a save by UVA goalkeeper Alex Rode, Matsui knocked the ball away from a Panther attackman, and Bower scooped up the ground ball.
“When they’re out there, they make plays,” Kology said of the freshmen. “I love having them by my side.”
With 2:57 to play, sophomore middie Jeff Conner fed junior attackman Ian Laviano for the goal that put Virginia ahead to stay. Nineteen seconds later, Kraus scored his fourth goal, on an assist from Conners in transition.
Such highlights from Conners have become almost commonplace.
“It’s just an energy boost for all of us, having a guy who can really neutralize the other team’s best midfielder,” Kology said. “Especially when we get later in the spring, he’s going to go toe to toe with some of the best in the ACC and going to absolutely shut ’em out. And he’s going to clear the ball for us, he’s going to get up and out and get us easy goals in transition.”