By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — On the top floor of the McCue Center, the office where Sonia LaMonica and her assistants work is right down the hall from the one that serves as headquarters for University of Virginia men’s lacrosse.
Since being hired last summer to oversee the UVA women’s lacrosse program, LaMonica has leaned on head men’s coach Lars Tiffany and his staff as resources, and “they have just been amazing,” she said this week. “Coach Tiffany has shared a lot with us, as well as their entire staff. So they’ve been really, really helpful, and that’s huge for us as we step into this role here.”
A native of Australia who was an All-America player at Maryland, LaMonica came to UVA from Towson University, where she compiled a record of 139-91 in 14 seasons as head coach, with seven trips to the NCAA tournament. At UVA, she succeeded Julie Myers, whose teams went 349-181 and never missed the NCAAs in her 28 seasons as head coach at her alma mater.
LaMonica’s assistant coaches include her husband, Mike, who was a standout on the men’s team at Maryland.
“It’s been wonderful,” said Tiffany, who’s in his eighth season at Virginia. “I miss Julie Myers personally and she’s been amazing to me, and obviously this university, as a player, as a coach. But Sonia, Mike, their staff, they’ve got great energy. They want this thing so bad. They’ve been fabulous for us.
“There’s a renewed commitment and a juice around the women’s lacrosse program that’s fun to witness and see. and I’m really enjoying to get to know Mike and Sonia and the rest of the crew. What fabulous people. We’re really fortunate [director of athletics Carla Williams] hired them.”
Each team opens its season this weekend. At 5 p.m. Friday, the Virginia women take on Liberty in Lynchburg. At noon Saturday, the Cavalier men host Michigan at Klöckner Stadium.
In the latest U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association men’s poll, UVA is No. 3 and Michigan is No. 8. The Wolverines are coming off a season in which they advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals. In last year’s semifinals, Virginia fell in overtime to eventual NCAA champion Notre Dame.
The Wahoos opened last season against Michigan, too, and prevailed 17-13 at Klöckner. The rematch looks enticing.
“This is a big-boy game,” said Tiffany, who has guided Virginia to two NCAA titles (2019 and 2021). “Whoever wins this game on Saturday has earned a big-time victory, has a statement victory.”
Senior defenseman Cole Kastner sees the opener as “a great opportunity. I think any time you get to play a really strong opponent in the first game, second game, whatever it may be, it’s just a really great way to measure and set that standard of where you want to be.”
From a team that finished 13-4 last season, the Cavaliers lost 18 players, including such stalwarts as Xander Dickson, Jeff Conner, Petey LaSalla, Thomas McConvey, Grayson Sallade, Scott Bower, Quentin Matsui and Cade Saustad. No one in the lacrosse world, though, is feeling sorry for Tiffany.
Virginia’s returning players include Kastner, attackmen Connor Shellenberger and Payton Cormier, midfielder Griffin Schutz, short-stick defense middie Noah Chizmar, long-stick middie Mitchell Whalen and goalkeeper Matthew Nunes, among others. Freshman McCabe Million and graduate transfers Jack Boyden and Chase Yager are among the newcomers of note.
Shellenberger, a fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2020, is only the second player in program history to be named a first-team All-American three times. He’s on pace to leave UVA as its all-time leader in career points and career assists.
Injuries slowed Shellenberger in 2022 and ‘23, but “his brain and his intelligence still allowed him to score 80 points a season,” Tiffany said. “But he is healthy, as healthy as we’ve seen. So it’s really exciting. And he’s ready to take it to a different level this year.”
As always, the Cavaliers’ goal is to emerge from Memorial Day weekend with another trophy. This is a program that has won seven NCAA championships, and his current team stands “upon the shoulders of giants,” Tiffany said.
The 2024 Hoos, whose captains are Shellenberger, Kastner and Whalen, are eager to leave their own legacy.
“This is our time,” Tiffany said. “It’s our time to write this chapter and see if we can be the next step in that foundation and the next step of the building of this incredible program, incredible tradition that we get to be a part of.”
Kastner said: “It’s such a great opportunity to do something special with this group of guys, and it’ll never be the same after this year. So hopefully we get on the right track starting week one and keep building from there.”
The Virginia women finished 11-7 last season after losing to Albany in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The Hoos lost the top two goal-scorers from that team but return such veterans as attackers Morgan Schwab (20 goals, 49 assists) and Kate Miller (17 goals, 26 assists) and midfielder Mackenzie Hoeg (40 goals, four assists).
The Cavaliers’ captains are Hoeg, Schwab and middie Kiki Shaw. Seniors Devon Whitaker and Maggie Bostain are back to anchor the defense. Starting in the cage Friday, in her UVA debut, will be sophomore Mel Josephson.
“We’ve got five goalies on roster,” LaMonica said. “We knew coming that that was an area that we really need to develop. We want to be strong in our goalkeeping skills and our defensive unit. So I’ve been really pleased to sort of see, first and foremost, Mel Josephson has really stepped up. She didn’t play any minutes last year, but she has been working hard … I’d say it was competitive for a while, but Mel’s been the most consistent and I’m really excited to see how she handles the pressures that come with being a starting goalie, and we’ll kind of go from there.”
LaMonica is counting on her upperclassmen to mentor the Cavaliers’ freshmen. “We’ve got quite a combination of experience and inexperience,” she said, “so we’re really working to bring that together, and that takes some time. But our youngsters are talented. They’re a great group. They’re absorbing a lot. So the future is bright. The question is: How quickly can we get that chemistry going?”
Virginia scrimmaged Johns Hopkins last weekend, and “that was a really good kind of preseason measure for both teams before we hit the ground running,” LaMonica said.
Her takeaways from the scrimmage? “We got to sharpen up on our stick work,” LaMonica said Tuesday. “The good news is that’s a pretty easy thing to fix. I really think it just comes down to focus and holding that expectation even higher this week in practice, but we’ve got an energized group. They’re hungry. And I think we’re fast and I think we’re playing well as a team.”
The UVA men scrimmaged Navy and Penn during the preseason.
“You always want more time as a coach [to prepare for a season-opener],” Tiffany said, “but I felt better after scrimmage two. It’s just like in football: from week one to week two is the greatest room for improvement. You’ve got to improve from week one to week two … That first scrimmage, we must have gone offsides three times, too many men on the field a couple of times, made some uncharacteristic mistakes mentally. But then you sit back as a coach and remind yourself: We lost 18 men. We lost a lot of institutional knowledge from this organization last year. And so from week one to week two, from the Navy scrimmage to the Penn scrimmage, we grew and learned a lot.”
Since the end of last season, Tiffany has added a new associate head coach, Kevin Cassese, who’s also the offensive coordinator. Cassese’s philosophy does not differ dramatically from that of his predecessor at UVA, Sean Kirwan, who’s now head coach at Dartmouth.
The changes in the women’s program have been more significant, but Hoeg said the transition to a new coaching staff has gone smoothly.
“I think the biggest challenge at the beginning of the fall was just getting used to different drills, different terminology, but that came together pretty quickly,” Hoeg said.
LaMonica said her system at UVA looks “a little bit different” from the one she ran at Towson. “But I think at the end of the day, we’re expecting our [defensive] unit and essentially everybody across the field, attackers included, to play tough, to play hard, to play gritty, to fight for the ground balls,” she said. “That’s going to be our identity. And that takes players that are fit and fast. They want to grind, they want to compete, they want to win, and they’re willing to do it together and to do it hard. So I think we’ve got a great group, and it’ll be telling to see how we progress as we get tested right out of the gates here.”
The No. 16 Hoos’ home opener is Sunday at 1 p.m. against Stanford at Klöckner Stadium.
“We want to be the best, so we want to compete for championships,” LaMonica said. “But I’m big on foundation and I’m big on culture. So those are the pieces that we’re really focusing on, and I’ve always been a believer that the winning comes when you’ve got foundation in place, when you’ve got a team that is cohesive. You’ve obviously got to have talent, but culture at the end of the day is what wins, so we’re heavily focused on that. And so we expect to really build upon that, hold the standard and the values high, and that’s what we’re focused on every day. And the wins will come.”
To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.