— Virginia Men's Lacrosse (@UVAMensLax) May 24, 2023
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
PHILADELPHIA — Nearly four years from the day that the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team won the program’s sixth NCAA title, Lars Tiffany ran out of a tunnel at the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium and onto the pristine grass field Friday afternoon. The moment stuck with the Cavaliers’ head coach.
“I was startled, and we’ve been here before,” Tiffany told a handful of reporters after UVA’s practice at Lincoln Financial Field. “We were here four years ago, and obviously we were at the Final Four two years ago in Hartford. It still takes your breath away, though, when you run onto an NFL stadium surface and see 70, 75,000 seats. Even though they’re empty. It still took my breath away and, I can feel, the men’s as well, even the fifth-years. It’s still this really, really special gift that we’re allowed to be here.”
At 2:30 p.m. Saturday, second-seeded Virginia (13-3) takes on No. 3 seed Notre Dame (12-2) in the NCAA semifinals at Lincoln Financial Field. That’s where UVA defeated Yale for the NCAA championship in 2019.
“It’s really cool to be back,” Virginia defenseman Cade Saustad said Friday.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports before the lacrosse postseason started in 2020, but the Wahoos repeated as NCAA champions in 2021, defeating Maryland for the title in East Hartford, Conn. And now the Hoos, who lost to eventual champion Maryland in last year’s quarterfinals, are two wins from the program’s eighth NCAA crown.
“This is kind of why I chose UVA last year: for moments like this, the big stage,” said midfielder Thomas McConvey, who like Saustad was named a first-team All-American on Thursday.
For McConvey, a graduate transfer from Vermont, this is his fifth year of college, but his first at Virginia. So this is new to him, but several of his teammates were on the UVA team that won the NCAA title in 2019, including Saustad, faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla, midfielders Jeff Conner and Grayson Sallade, and attackmen Xander Dickson and Payton Cormier.
“It’s incredibly fortunate to have all that experience, to have these fifth-year men who were here [at the end of] their first year,” Tiffany said.
At the end of practice Thursday in Charlottesville, Tiffany asked those veterans to share some of their Final Four wisdom with the team’s less experienced players.
Saustad said he and his classmates “just tried to lay out the foundation of what to expect and what to think about when you’re getting those nerves and you’re at the highest stage of college lacrosse.”
The message from Saustad, Tiffany said Friday, “was, ‘Hey, look, you’re gonna be nervous, but we got each other. We’re together. Guys have been here before. Lean on each other. Be a great team.’ “
The Hoos won four NCAA titles under Dom Starsia, Tiffany’s predecessor as head coach, including one at Lincoln Financial Field in 2006.
Countless times this season, Tiffany has repeated a simple phrase: Pressure is a privilege. Everything the Cavaliers do during the preseason and regular season is designed to prepare them for championship weekend and allow them to “cut it loose, be free,” Tiffany said. “We worked hard to be here. So did the other team. Let’s be the pressure. We are the pressure, and the pressure is a privilege.”
The UVA-Notre Dame winner will face No. 1 seed Duke or No. 5 seed Penn State for the NCAA title Monday afternoon. To reach the championship game, the Cavaliers will have to defeat the Fighting Irish for the third time this season (and seventh straight time overall).
“It really hasn’t been brought up much yet [internally],” Sallade said Tuesday when asked about Virginia’s dominance in the series. “I think we’ve had their number over the last few years, and they know that and we know that, but I think when it comes to the Final Four, all that’s thrown out the window and what you’ve done throughout the regular season doesn’t matter, your wins, your losses. I think the heightened stage kind of gets rid of all that, and I think it’s a pretty even playing field. It just matters how you show up on that day.”
Duke and Penn State meet in the noon semifinal Saturday, but the Hoos won’t be watching, Saustad said. “It’s only our game against Notre Dame and just making sure that we’re staying in the moment. And once you win one game, then you’re in the championship, and then just leave it all out there. Just don’t hold anything back. “
The Hoos played a grueling regular-season schedule that included eight games against teams that made the NCAA tournament: two against Duke, two against Notre Dame, one against No. 4 seed Maryland, one against No. 6 seed Johns Hopkins and one each against Michigan and Richmond.
That’s part of the reason “you come to Virginia, to play in those games,” said Dickson, whose 60 goals are a single-season program record. “You want to play the best.”
Moreover, Dickson said, when “you’re playing Dukes and Notre Dames and Marylands consistently, I think teams like that are able to sort of highlight some of the weaknesses that other teams like Lafayette maybe can’t and maybe can’t really emphasize what you really need to work on. The best of the best out there can sort of show that maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were at a certain thing … So I think teams like that sort of allow us to just realize that we’re not where we need to be, and then come May we hopefully put it all together.”
The Cavaliers’ offense, potent all season, has looked unstoppable in the NCAA tournament, in large part because of attackman Connor Shellenberger, a redshirt junior who was named a first-team All-American on Thursday.
Shellenberger, who was slowed by injuries during the regular season, had two goals and four assists in UVA’s 17-8 win over Richmond in the NCAA tournament’s first round. Against No. 7 seed Georgetown in the quarterfinals last week, Shellenberger recorded six goals and four assists in Virginia’s 17-14 victory. His 10 points tied the program record for an NCAA tournament game.
With Shellenberger at full strength, the Cavaliers’ offense is “different,” Dickson said, “and I think it should be pretty scary for opponents to see what happened last game.”
The Cavaliers led the nation in goals per game during the regular season, and that was without a fully functional Shellenberger, the most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament in 2021. Now that Shellenberger “is healthy, it should be absolutely terrifying for defensive coordinators,” Dickson said.
“It means you have to slide more, and when you slide more, you have to recover more,” Dickson said, “and if you have to recover more, you have to find where Cormier and I are inside, and I think that’s where we’re at our best, when defenses have to slide because Connor Shellenberger is coming around the corner … I think last game you saw everyone sort of playing at their peak, and if that happens, it’s just a really, really tough offense to stop, I think.”
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