By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A tug of war of sorts plays out whenever the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team practices, with Jeff Conner in the middle. Lars Tiffany, who oversees the Cavaliers’ defense, wants Conner’s time, and so does offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan.
In an age in which specialization has become the norm in lacrosse, like so many other sports, Conner is something of a rarity: a genuine two-way midfielder. He defends, he scoops up ground balls, he shoots, he passes.
“We have full confidence in him at both ends of the field,” said Tiffany, who’s also Virginia’s head coach.
A 6-0, 195-pound graduate student from the Philadelphia suburb of Wallingford, Pa., Conner plays a leading role for UVA, which heads into the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed.
“He’s doing something that is really, really difficult: to understand a sophisticated offense and defense at the same time, and then execute with a high level of comprehension,” Tiffany said. “Jeff truly understands our clear, our ride, our 6v6 offense, our 6v6 defense. I don’t want to call him a coach on the field, because he’s quiet, so he’s not doing a lot of directing of traffic, but he really understands what we’re doing and he’s a very quick study.”
Conner’s classmates include short-stick defensive midfielder Grayson Sallade, who’s one of the Cavaliers’ captains. “It’s been amazing just to see how good he can be on both sides of the field,” Sallade said. “Just the cerebral part of it, the mental part of things, is the hardest thing.
At Strath Haven High School, Conner scored 237 career goals, and he came to UVA as an offensive midfielder. He started 10 games as a freshman in 2019, when the Wahoos won their sixth NCAA title, and he started four games in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of that season.
Conner’s role started to expand in 2021, a season that ended for the Hoos with the program’s seventh NCAA championship. Short-stick defensive middies aren’t always able to sub in immediately for offensive middies, and so Conner periodically would find himself back in the Hoos’ defensive half. He held up so well in those situations, Conner said,that Tiffany would “joke around with me and say, ‘Stop playing such good defense, or you’re going to turn into a D-middie.’ ”
Tiffany remembers a pivotal moment in Conner’s career. It occurred at Klöckner Stadium on March 11, 2021, against ACC rival North Carolina.
After a UVA goal in the fourth quarter, Conner was heading toward the sideline when Tiffany motioned for him to stay on the field for the ensuing faceoff.
“I pointed at him,” Tiffany recalled, “and I said, ‘You get that far wing. You’re hot and you’re playing well right now. Plus, if we lose the ball, you can play some defense, you can pressure the ball and try to get the ball back.’ There might have been other moments that were more clear in his development, but to me, he was ready to make plays at both ends of the field, and I wanted him on that faceoff wing so he could go both ways.”
Conner said: “I’d run back and play defense, and then we’d come back and score, and Lars just kept telling me to go out and take the wing again.”
Thus was born a two-way midfielder.
“Since then, he’s proven that he understands our defense better than a lot of the other men who are in every defensive meeting,” Tiffany said, “and Jeff’s only in half of them, because he splits his time between the offensive and defensive meetings.
“Somebody from the outside would say, ‘Maybe you should restructure this so he’s not missing [meetings], maybe you should have offense meet before practice and the defense meet after.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, that’s probably a good point, but it doesn’t seem to show that he’s missing anything by being in only half the meetings, because he just seems to know where to be and he’s in the right place, whereas other men, it takes them longer to understand and comprehend.’ ”
Conner said the Cavaliers’ offense “is very intricate, but if you understand the base of it, you can kind of comprehend everything. So I started sitting in on more D sessions, and then [the coaches] finally just kind of gave me that green light and said they thought I was a better player when I kind of had my own agenda and I was able to run up and down the field and kind of do whatever I wanted.”
UVA (11-3) opens the NCAA tournament Saturday at noon against Richmond (11-4). For several Cavaliers—Conner, Sallade, Cade Saustad, Xander Dickson and Petey LaSalla among them—this will be the final time they play at Klöckner Stadium.
The Virginia-Richmond winner will meet No. 7 Georgetown (12-3) or Yale (9-5) in the NCAA quarterfinals May 20 in Albany, N.Y. The NCAA semifinals and championship game will be played at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
“Definitely that last game at Klöckner is going to be a little bit emotional,” Conner said. “I think everyone in our fifth-year class is taking our practices day by day and really just soaking it all in.”
Tiffany, who’s in his seventh year at UVA, said this will “be a hard class to say good-bye to, because, one, they’re great. Two, I got to know all these guys in the recruiting process my first year here … Even though they’ve only been here five years, I’ve been talking to them and communicating with them for seven. And when they leave this year, this one’s going to feel different. I know emotionally this one is going to be tricky.”
Asked to describe the bond that unites members of the fifth-year class, Sallade said, “I think if you really saw us off the field in our apartments, you’d see we’re like siblings. We’ll get in fights about the stupidest things, then five minutes later we’ll be joking around.
“We’ve been through a lot as a class: winning some championships on the field, and some struggles off the field, too.”
Conner originally planned to attend Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He was committed to Saint Joe’s when Kirwan, in the Philly area to scout future UVA All-American Matt Moore, saw Conner play.
That was near the end of Conner’s junior season at Strath Haven. Not long after, he switched his commitment from Saint Joe’s to UVA.
“I’m extremely happy with the decision I made,” Conner said. “UVA has been the best five years of my life. Winning two national championships as an undergrad, I don’t think you can complain about that very much. I love all the relationships I’ve built with all my teammates, coaches, administration, people outside of out of lacrosse. I’ve loved every second of it.”
Conner, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English last year, will receive a master’s this spring from UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, where he focused on college athletic administration.
“I loved my grad program, and learning more about college athletics was something that I was always interested in,” he said.
Eventually, Conner said, he might like to work in college athletics. But he’s likely to work first for a professional team. He’s talked to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils about entry-level positions.
“I would I have to climb the ladder in those organizations,” Conner said, “but I’m very passionate about sports, so it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.”
During his UVA career, Conner has totaled 41 goals and 60 assists. In the 2021 NCAA championship game, he had three goals and an assist in Virginia’s win over Maryland. This season he’s scored eight goals and is fifth on the team with 16 assists.
“We certainly could have put more offense on his plate, and Coach Kirwan would be ecstatic,” Tiffany said. “But there’s a give and take between the defensive coordinator, me, and Coach Kirwan. I need Jeff. Grayson Sallade, Evan Zinn and Noah Chizmar are solid, but we know we need four short-stick D-middies, especially as aggressively as we play. Having Jeff Conner on the faceoff wings, with his versatility, it’s priceless for us. So we’re really lucky to have him.
“What he’s doing is really unique. You just don’t see this [much in today’s game]. When people sometimes talk about a two-way middie, I find myself saying, ‘Jack of all trades, master of nothing,’ but here we’re like, ‘OK, which end of the field do we put him in?’ ”
In another program, Conner might well be putting up big numbers on offense, but he’s embraced his role at UVA.
“I’m always willing just to do whatever the team needs me to do to win on game days and just really help in all aspects,” Conner said. “I enjoy being able to be on the field as much as I can possibly be. So when they gave me that idea of transitioning and playing both ways, I was all for it.”
The Hoos lead the nation in goals per game (17.6), so they can afford to use No. 4 in a limited role on offense. Anyway, Conner said, he sometimes gets “more satisfaction from making a good defensive play than scoring a goal or getting an assist. It’s a little thing, and I think a lot of our defensive players don’t really get a lot of hype or appreciation for what they do, making those tiny little plays that are really impactful. When a team can have really good short-stick D-middies, that kind of allows them to come to the next level within the defense.”
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