"They've left this place way better than they found it. They left it with two national championships. They turned everything about this program around and they're the reason why I'm at [UVA]."
– Matthew Nunes on our fifth-year leaders pic.twitter.com/q5FdgLH11O
— Virginia Men's Lacrosse (@UVAMensLax) May 28, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PHILADELPHIA –– The list of players whose University of Virginia lacrosse careers ended Saturday evening is a long and distinguished one, and the departing fourth- and fifth-year seniors embraced teammates and shared heartfelt words as shadows fell on Lincoln Financial Field.
Virginia’s roster includes six fifth-year seniors who were freshmen on the team that won the NCAA title in that same NFL stadium in 2019: Jeff Conner, Grayson Sallade, Cade Saustad, Petey LaSalla, Xander Dickson and Payton Cormier (who’s expected to return next season). They helped the Wahoos win another NCAA title in 2021, and they were looking to secure a third national championship on this Memorial Day weekend.
ACC rival Notre Dame spoiled that dream, ending a six-game losing streak in a series that dates back to 1993. In the second NCAA semifinal Saturday, the third-seeded Fighting Irish stunned the second-seeded Wahoos by scoring the final three goals, including the game-winner 29 seconds into overtime, and walked away with a 13-12 victory.
Notre Dame (13-2), whose regular-season losses were to UVA, advances to meet another ACC power, top-seeded Duke (16-2), in the NCAA championship game Monday afternoon.
The Cavaliers, who finished 13-4, were left to ponder an abrupt and painful finish to a superb season.
“It hurts,” head coach Lars Tifany said. “It really hurts. But it hurts because, one, the absolute level of commitment this group has had … and how much they poured their hearts into it. Also it hurts because we have reached the pinnacle [in 2019 and 2021]. Though we leave with a loss, this group has really truly left the program better than what they found four or five years ago.”
Brian Tevlin’s unassisted goal out of a Notre Dame timeout ended the proceedings and set off a wild celebration among Irish players and fans. For the Hoos, “I think every guy, specifically the fifth-years, but every guy on this roster was sort of flooded and almost shocked when we realized it was over and our journey was finally done,” said Dickson, whose 61 goals are a single-season record at UVA.
Sophomore goalkeeper Matthew Nunes, one of the Cavaliers who’ll return next season, saluted those teammates whose careers ended Saturday. Virginia’s underclassmen have “talked about just how special those guys who are leaving us are,” Nunes said, “and we’ve got to continue their legacy and build upon their legacy that they’ve left. They’ve left this place way better than they found it.”
Dickson said: “Every guy on this team knows, we eat, sleep and breathe Virginia lacrosse. It starts with the coaches and then our leadership and all the way down. Everyone is so bought in, day in and day out, so committed, it is such a special thing to be a part of. We view ourselves as just cogs in the machine of the program … I’m just happy that we’re able to sort of be mentioned as the class that helped shape this program and helped to sort of lead it where it’s going in the future, and we know there’s great things coming. We’re definitely pretty distraught that we didn’t get to finish off with a national title this year, but just to be able to say I helped out a little bit and I guided this program to where it’s headed in the future is something really special.”
The Cavaliers posted convincing victories in the first two rounds of this NCAA tournament, defeating Richmond 17-8 and Georgetown 17-14. Nothing came easily for them, however, against Notre Dame.
By the time they took possession for the first time, the Hoos trailed 2-0. Notre Dame led 4-3 after one quarter. The score was 6-6 at halftime and 9-8, UVA, after three quarters.
Not until the 10:24 mark of the fourth quarter did the Hoos take their first two-goal lead: 10-8 on a goal by sophomore midfielder Griffin Schutz. Try as they might, the Cavaliers could never pull away.
Twice in the final four minutes Virginia had opportunities to extend its lead to three goals. The first time, All-America attackman Connor Shellenberger, who finished with three goals and three assists, slipped and turned the ball over. The second time, Notre Dame goalie Liam Entenmann stopped Schutz’s point-blank shot.
“I don’t think we lost faith for a second,” said All-ACC midfielder Eric Dobson, who led the Irish with four goals and an assist. “I think we just had trust in ourselves, trust in our defense especially.”
Two statistical categories in which the Cavaliers are accustomed to having superiority—faceoffs and ground balls—went Notre Dame’s way Saturday.
LaSalla, who starred in UVA’s championship runs in 2019 and 2021, came into the NCAA semifinals having won 56.2 percent of his faceoffs this season. Against Notre Dame’s Colin Hagstrom and Will Lynch, he won only 12 of 28 draws.
“When you get accustomed to the unfair advantage [LaSalla often provided], you do feel it when it’s not going your way,” Tiffany said.
Tevlin said Notre Dame “relied heavily on our wings and our faceoff guys, who did an unbelievable job against a guy who has proven himself year in and year out and has had a great career at UVA.”
The Irish controlled the game’s final three faceoffs, including the one that followed All-America midfielder Thomas McConvey’s lone goal, which put Virginia up 12-11 with 52 seconds left in regulation. Off the Irish’s faceoff win, Tevlin passed to Jake Taylor for a goal that made it 12-12 with 32 seconds to play.
“It means everything,” Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan, a former UVA player, said of his team’s success at the faceoff-X. “It’s possessions. In a game where you’re down, especially, possession is everything.”
The Irish picked up 42 ground balls, to 30 for the Cavaliers.
“Notre Dame earned a lot of extra possessions off the ground,” Tiffany said. But he was quick to note that the Hoos “would not have won the national championships in ’19 and ’21 without Petey Lasalla, and I bring that up because I know right now Petey [is] disappointed in himself that he couldn’t get those one or two more possessions late in the game to get us the ball, to get us the overtime faceoff and to get us a shot to win that game.”
Tiffany, who’s also the team’s defensive coordinator, shouldered responsibility for the Cavaliers’ inability to stop the Irish late.
“I didn’t do my job at the end as a defensive coach,” Tiffany said, “because when you’re giving up goals that quickly, it’s on me.”
UVA’s “team defense certainly got exposed at the end, but I don’t know if we played great team defense all game,” Tiffany said. “How many times did all of us see a Notre Dame shooter really close, and it looked like [the shot] was about to go in? Too close and, whoa, it didn’t go in. There’s Matt Nunes with another save.”
Nunes finished with 17 saves. That gave him 213 for the season, a UVA record.
“Their guy was terrific,” Corrigan said.
Nunes was “the reason we had that one- or two-goal lead later in the game, because he just wouldn’t let the ball in as the game went on,” Tiffany said. “A fantastic performance there.”
Junior midfielder Patrick McIntosh recorded two goals and an assist, and McConvey had two assists to go with his last-minute goal. The Cavaliers’ offensive leader, though, once again was Shellenberger, who totaled 11 goals and 11 assists in three NCAA tournament games this month.
“Just having a chance to play alongside him at attack this year was something I couldn’t have dreamed of,” Dickson said. “Probably the most special player I’ll ever play with.”
Injuries slowed Shellenberger for much of the regular season, but this month he showed the form that earned him Most Outstanding Players honors in the 2021 NCAA tournament.
“Today he really found that perfect balance, I thought, because you can’t have him just be a feeder,” Tiffany said Saturday. “We all know he’s not selfish. We want him to be more selfish, and he said, ‘I’m going to the goal.’ He had a great cover guy on him, and against a great goalie, but Connor found a way to get those three goals.
“I’m saying good-bye to a lot of incredible players. I’m thankful that he’s not one of them.”
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