By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Kevin Cassese and Nick Russo were best friends and lacrosse teammates at Comsewogue High School, where they were a year apart. And so when Russo signed to play at the University of Virginia, Cassese figured he’d follow suit a year later.
“UVA was actually the first school I fell in love with, and I got recruited by Dom Starsia back in the day,” Cassese recalled. “So I always thought going into the recruiting process that I would go with Nicky and I would go to UVA. It didn’t end up working out. My top three choices were Duke, Virginia and Princeton, and Duke ended up being the right fit for me, but I did fall in love with Virginia.”
A quarter-century later, Cassese is finally a Wahoo. He joined Lars Tiffany’s staff last month as associate head coach and offensive coordinator, filling the spot vacated when Sean Kirwan left UVA to become head coach at Dartmouth.
Since succeeding Starsia as Virginia’s head coach after the 2016 season, Tiffany has landed such heralded recruits as Connor Shellenberger, Griffin Schutz and McCabe Millon, and his signees at Brown included Dylan Molloy and Jack Kelly.
The immense talent of those players notwithstanding, “Kevin Cassese is my best recruit ever,” Tiffany said.
Not only does Cassese bring considerable coaching acumen, Tiffany said, he “really understands the value of truly meaningful relationships. He’s an incredible human being. He’s someone who’s proven that he can create team dynamics that can raise the level of a program to the point where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Cassese came to UVA from Lehigh University, where he won 136 games in 16 seasons as head coach.
“I poured my heart and soul into that program and felt like I was leaving it in a better place than I found it,” Cassese said. “I just felt like it was time for a new challenge. I got the job at Lehigh when I was 26 years old. I feel like I’ve been coaching a long time and I’m a seasoned veteran, but I’m still only 42 years old. It just felt like for so many reasons that it was the right time to go for it. And so I did.”
UVA has “always been a place I’ve held in high regard,” Cassese said, “and now you add Lars Tiffany into the mix. Lars is a great friend and a mentor. He gave me my first job in coaching, which I will be forever be grateful for, at Stony Brook University, and we’ve just had an unbelievable relationship for 20 years. So the opportunity to reunite with Lars was a huge key to making the move in general.”
Tiffany has been head coach at three schools: Stony Brook, Brown and UVA. After taking the job at Stony Brook in the summer of 2004, he began assembling a staff, and Cassese’s name came up. A 2003 graduate of Duke, Cassese is from Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., about five miles from the Stony Brook campus.
Their first conversation won over Tiffany. “You’re instantly impressed with a maturity, a humility, and there’s a fun energy about Kevin.”
Space was limited for the Stony Brook lacrosse staff, and Cassese was stuck “in a broom closet,” Tiffany said. “You hear about these offices where you can’t sit at your seat and open and close the door; he had one of those. I think it was about 40 square feet. It was laughable what we squished him into. But I learned how much he knows about the game, even as a young coach at that point, and had a wonderful year with him.”
After the 2005 season, Cassese returned to Duke, where he served as an assistant coach for two seasons (and as interim head coach for part of 2006). Lehigh hired him in July 2007 to run its program, and Cassese quickly established himself as one of the sport’s brightest young coaches.
“He brings a wealth of knowledge in so many different areas,” Tiffany said. “One of Kevin’s incredible strengths is his eye for talent. He played this game at the highest of levels. He’s coached it for a brief window at the very highest of levels, whether that’s referencing his time with Duke or the times he took his Lehigh teams to the NCAA tournament and played in the Patriot League championship games. He understands the talent and the skill that are needed to be at the top, and his assessment abilities, his evaluation skills, are impeccable.”
At Duke, where he played for head coach Mike Pressler, Cassese was a versatile midfielder who was a three-time All-American and a two-time finalist for the Tewaaraton Award.
“I really wanted Kevin [during the recruiting process],” said Starsia, who won four NCAA titles at Virginia. “He was a great player and great athlete and you knew he was going to be a great college player. If you looked in the dictionary—maybe an encyclopedia would be better—and you were looking up ‘ACC middie,’ there would be a picture of Kevin Cassese there.
“In the days when I was out recruiting, some time you would just write down in your notes: ACC middie. That was just a strong, rough, tough, kind of old-school player. That’s what Kevin was. He could score. He could play offense, but he did everything well. He just did everything well, and you could tell he was a great leader, also, that people just gravitated to. He made plays when plays needed to be made.”
Cassese, who was Team USA’s captain at the World Lacrosse Championships in 2010, played professionally for seven years after graduating from Duke. He was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2018.
UVA’s standout midfielders in recent years have included Ryan Conrad, who helped the United States win the gold medal at the recent world championships in San Diego, Calif. Cassese was “a bigger, stronger Ryan Conrad,” Starsia said.
Starsia said he recently called Cassese “just to congratulate him and offer to help if he needs anything while he’s getting acclimated, getting his family down here. So we had a chance to catch up, and we’ve remained friendly over the years.”
Successful head coaches rarely leave Division I programs to become assistants elsewhere, but Cassese said he and Tiffany had talked periodically over the years about the possibility of working together again. After the 2022 season, when Kirwan was a finalist for the head job at Providence, those conversations grew more serious.
“He was like, ‘Kevin, it’s probably time to talk to your wife a little bit and see what she thinks about this,’ ” Cassese recalled.
Kirwan didn’t land the Providence job, but after he left for Dartmouth last month, Cassese and Tiffany renewed their discussion. “So then we were able to work quickly and talk about the scenarios and how we might be able to make it work,” Cassese said. “As we talked over the course of about five or six days, it became more and more of a reality that we would be able to make this work and it was something that would make sense for me and my family.”
Cassese and his wife, the former Katie Granson, who played tennis at Duke, have three children: son Drew and daughters Anna and Claire. His wife is from Bethlehem, Pa., where Lehigh is located, so “there were some things on the personal side we really needed to work through,” Cassese said, “but at the end of the day, this was something that we just couldn’t pass up, and I felt really passionate about being able to come to UVA and to be an offensive coordinator at the highest level at a place where you can compete for the national championship every single year.”
His son is a “huge, huge Connor Shellenberger fan,” Cassese said. “He’s watched all of his highlights, and he’s like, ‘Dad, I get to come to practice every day and I get to watch Connor Shellenberger?’ I’m, ‘Yeah, buddy, you can come any time you want.’ ”
In seven seasons under Tiffany, UVA has advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four three times. (With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, the tournament wasn’t held in 2020.) The Hoos won NCAA titles in 2019 and 2021 and lost in this year’s semifinals to eventual champion Notre Dame.
The ACC is unsurpassed in men’s lacrosse, and “so that was part of it as well: to get back to that stage,” Cassese. “Obviously, I played at that level and then I coached there. The last game I coached in the ACC was the national championship game in 2007, and, man, did I miss that over the last 16 years. I want to coach on that stage again and I want to do that here at UVA and I want to do that starting next year.”
Shellenberger, who led the Hoos with 84 points and was a Tewaaraton finalist this spring, is among the offensive players back from a team that averaged 17.2 goals per game. Others include attackman Payton Cormier (64 points), Schutz (40 points) and midfielder Patrick McIntosh (26 points). Incoming recruits include Millon, the top-ranked recruit in the Class of ’23.
“First and foremost, I’ve talked to these guys and they’re great men,” Cassese said, “so the character of the men that I’m going to be able to coach is something that just jumps off the page. That matters to me more than anything. Now, the quality of players, that’s pretty darn good too. So it’ll be a lot of fun.
“Schematically, the way that I’m looking to coach the offense is honestly not that much different than the way Sean did. I think the players will feel right at home. Certainly, we’ll have a few differences in the way we operate and the way we coach and some of our schemes. But the general mindset and the general concepts are very similar, and I think that will be very helpful for the players so that we’re not coming in here and completely re-inventing the wheel for guys that have done things a certain way for several years in a row. I think one of my strengths as a coach is my ability to be flexible and to work with the players to help them to be comfortable and play free, and I know that’s where our guys at UVA will thrive.”
He’s been on the road recruiting since joining Tiffany’s staff, and he’s traded Lehigh’s brown and white for UVA’s blue and orange in his wardrobe.
Donning Cavalier gear was a little strange for him initially, Cassese acknowledged with a laugh, “but very much so for everybody else. I’ve seen some of my Duke buddies on the recruiting trail and they’re like, ‘Man, this is going to take some getting used to.’ ”
Blue Devils weren’t the only ones who reacted to his move that way. “The whole Russo family, I think at first they were a little shocked and surprised, like everybody else,” Cassese said. “But they were thrilled for me, obviously. They have so many fond memories of their time at UVA, and they’re very happy for me and my family.”
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