By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — He’s not the first lacrosse player to be called “a coach on the field,” and he won’t be the last. In University of Virginia goalkeeper Matthew Nunes’ case, though, that description is especially apt.

Nunes, a UVA junior from the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, Texas, played for the West Coast Starz when he was growing up, and he’s still active with the club. In the offseason, Nunes and former Notre Dame goalie Alex Cade coach the Starz team made up of players who’ll graduate from high school in 2029, and in late December the 2029s won their age group at the national club championships in Orlando, Fla.

“It’s these little seventh-grade kids, like little bobbleheads, but they fly around and make tons of plays,” Nunes said, smiling. “And, honestly, it lets me see the game from a different perspective. As a goalie, I think I’m pretty tough on myself, but I’ll see my younger goalies get really frustrated with themselves after they let in a doorstep goal, and they’re super down. From a coach’s perspective, that’s not a shot we expect you to save. That’s OK. Don’t let that feed into any anything else.”

Nunes (back row, left) with West Coast Starz’s 2029s

Of course, that’s easier said than done for a goalie. Nunes can be a harsh self-critic, UVA defenseman Cole Kastner said, and “I just crack up when I see him be a little hard on himself, because he’s such an incredible player. He has no reason to ever be hard on himself, but that’s just the standard he holds himself to, and he’s evolved so much: his confidence and composure in the cage and then clearing the ball and being in the open field, especially. You don’t see the whole lot in goalies.”

Nunes rarely has had occasion to get down on himself in his three years as the Wahoos’ starting goalie. He made 213 saves in 2023, a single-season record at UVA, and he’s allowed only 27 goals in three games this year.

In second-ranked Virginia’s most recent game, a 14-8 win over then-No. 20 Ohio State at Klöckner Stadium, Nunes stopped 17 shots, two shy of his career high, and allowed only seven goals before giving way to Kyle Morris with 3:32 remaining Sunday afternoon.

“Playing at Klöckner, it’s just an awesome spot to see the ball,” Nunes said, “and the fans give you a bunch of energy, so it’s a super special place to play. And shout-out to the defense. Those guys really kind of let me see the shots I want to see.”

Matthew Nunes (41)

With players like Connor Shellenberger, Payton Cormier, McCabe Millon, Jack Boyden and Griffin Schutz on offense, the Hoos dazzle with the ball so regularly that it can be easy to overlook Nunes’ work in the cage. But not only does No. 41 stop shots, he throws precise outlet passes that fuel Virginia’s transition game. UVA leads the ACC and ranks second among Division I teams in clearing percentage (97.3).

“Matt Nunes is the best goalie that no one is saying is an All-American,” UVA head coach Lars Tiffany said. “There are other goalies who get more hype and more attention, and that’s maybe because [their teams] need that goalie to play really well to win those lacrosse games. Could we win without Matt Nunes making 18 saves? Maybe. But he’s outstanding. That second half was Ohio State’s. Without him making those saves, the momentum could have started building.”

Assistant coach Kip Turner works with the Cavaliers’ goalies, and his résumé speaks for itself. As a junior in 2006, Turner was the starting goalie on the UVA team that went 17-0 and won the program’s fourth NCAA championship, and he had a long professional career after graduating.

Alex Rode started in goal on the Virginia teams that won NCAA titles in 2019 and 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic gave Rode a fifth year of eligibility, but he chose not to return to college in 2022, and Nunes won the starting job that season. He was named ACC Freshman of the Year and helped the Hoos advance to the NCAA quarterfinals, “and he keeps getting better,” Turner said.

“He’s just mature beyond his years. He’s like another coach on the field, and he wants to get better every day. He takes care of his craft. He’s one of those guys who’s a true student of the game and he loves the game. He spent his summer coaching a youth team on the club circuit, and you can just tell he can see things that he needs to work on in his game, and he has.”

Tiffany said Nunes “loves all the film. He loves strategy. He loves running the clear. He’s like, ‘OK, they’re doing this in the ride.’ He thinks like a quarterback. He loves all of this. It’s really cool.”

Nunes, a government major, cares more about team accomplishments than individual honors. He made his first appearance in a Final Four last season and is determined to get back there this spring.

In last year’s NCAA semifinals, Virginia faced ACC foe Notre Dame at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Fighting Irish came in having lost six in a row to UVA, but they scored the final three goals, including the game-winner 29 seconds into overtime, to secure a 13-12 victory.

Nunes finished with 17 saves that day, and Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan praised him afterward. That was little consolation for Nunes, who couldn’t help thinking that if he’d stopped one more shot, the Hoos might have advanced to the NCAA championship.

“But at the end of the day, you can’t go back on anything,” Nunes said. “That’s a super special place to play at, Lincoln Financial Field, in front of that crowd. So that’s always the ultimate goal, to get back there. Every day, you’re working to get back to that spot.”

He looked around him at Klöckner. “And then you’re working every day so you have moments like this on this field in front of these great fans.”

Nunes “was great towards the end of last year,” Turner said, “and I think he’s just carried it over with confidence. He’s one of those guys who’s so fundamentally good that I think he’s just gonna continue to get better with time. He’s aging well, which is nice.”

Kyle Morris

That Morris, a redshirt freshman from Baltimore, pushes Nunes at every practice has accelerated the development of both goalies.

“One hundred percent,” Nunes said. “Kyle Morris, he’ll have practices where I think he might be the best goalie in the country sometimes. I think we have two of the best goalies in the country on our roster, and I think it also helps our team.”

Rounding out the Cavaliers’ goalie group are walk-ons Colin Hook and Bennett Yue, and “those guys have been great,” Nunes said. “They’ve been awesome for us.”

Turner said working with Nunes and Morris has been a joy. They’re immensely talented and “they’re such great people too,” Turner said. “They push each other, but they have fun doing it. So every day at practice, we’re able to have fun and joke around, because they play so hard and practice and work so hard. The goalie position isn’t for the faint of heart, so making it fun, making it competitive, is the right thing to do.”

The win over Ohio State kicked off a three-game homestand for the Cavaliers (3-0), who host No. 7 Johns Hopkins (4-1) at Klöckner on Saturday afternoon and then meet Robert Morris there on March 5.

Through three games—all against ranked opponents—Virginia has scored 47 goals while giving up only 29. Faceoff specialists Anthony Ghobriel, Thomas Colucci and Matthew DeSouza have combined to win 59.5 percent of the draws for UVA.

“I think we’re happy, but we’re not gonna be complacent on it,” Nunes said. “There’s obviously things that we can improve on. All three games, we’ve talked about right away after each game … things that we can improve upon, and there’s always a long list. We have guys who are the ultimate competitors and they never want to just be average. We always want to be great. So as Coach Tiffany always says, it’s a race to improve. The goal for this year is to keep on improving, and we’re gonna have our best product when the tournament starts coming around.”

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