By Jeff White (

PHILADELPHIA — He enrolled at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2019, not long after graduating from nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, and joined a men’s lacrosse team coming off the program’s sixth NCAA title.

Much was expected of attackman Connor Shellenberger, who was ranked No. 1 nationally in his recruiting class, and he had his moments that fall. But in conversations with Lars Tiffany, the possibility of redshirting in 2020 came up.

“Literally, I said, ‘Connor, you could play in 2020 and probably accumulate 30, 35 points. But think about 2024. If you had an extra year, you’re an 80-, 90-point scorer,’ ” UVA’s head coach recalled Friday.

Tiffany smiled. “Here we are. It’s 2024. It goes by like that, and here he is. And that was the plan, [even before] COVID. We didn’t even need that. This was the plan.”

Shellenberger, the first four-time first-team All-American in program history, has totaled a team-high 82 points this season, on 31 goals and 51 assists, to help the Cavaliers reach the NCAA semifinals for the third time in his legendary career.

“To be back with this group is pretty special,” Shellenberger said Friday afternoon after the Cavaliers’ practice at Lincoln Financial Field.

The seats at the Linc were empty Friday. That won’t be the case Saturday. In the first semifinal, No. 5 seed Denver (13-3) faces top-seeded Notre Dame (14-1) at noon, and sixth-seeded Virginia (12-5) and seventh-seeded Maryland (10-5) follow at approximately 2:30 p.m.

The championship game is Monday at 1 p.m.

For UVA to be the last team standing on this Memorial Day weekend would “be amazing,” Shellenberger said. “I think that’s the only way you can go out with no regrets and feel satisfied with what you’ve done, if you go out with that championship. So that’s definitely on the forefront of not only my mind, but all the guys that are leaving this year.”

As a redshirt freshman in 2021, Shellenberger led the Wahoos to the program’s seventh NCAA championship and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

In 2022, the Hoos fell in the NCAA quarterfinals to eventual champion Maryland. Virginia made it back to the NCAA semifinals last year and put itself in position to advance to the championship game, but Notre Dame rallied late and won 13-12 in overtime in Philadelphia.

The Cavaliers’ departing class includes their captains—Shellenberger, Cole Kastner and Mitchell Whalen—as well as Payton Cormier, a sixth-year senior who’s the all-time leading scorer in Division I men’s lacrosse.

“There’s so many of our men who have tasted that success,” Tiffany said, “and once you taste it, you’re desperate for more. You crave it. It’s a bit selfish and greedy, but once you’ve had it, you want that nectar again. And for Connor Shellenberger, who’s committed so much of his life to being the best teammate possible, this would be the exclamation point of being the greatest teammate possibly ever in Virginia lacrosse history.”

Connor Shellenberger

Shellenberger holds the program records for career points (321) and career assists (191), and he’d rather set up teammates than score goals himself. He’s not afraid to shoot in pressure situations, however, and his goal in the second overtime last weekend lifted UVA to a heart-stopping 11-10 victory over No. 3 seed Johns Hopkins in the NCAA quarterfinals.

“He continues to earn that moniker Mr. May, doesn’t he?” Tiffany said after the game at Towson University’s Johnny Unitas Stadium.

At the same postgame press conference, Shellenberger said he’d tried not to dwell on the fact that any game in the NCAA tournament could be his last as a Cavalier. In Philly, though, reality has set in.

To be back in the Final Four is exciting, Shellenberger said Friday, “because you feel like you’re maximizing your time with your team. This group has gotten just about as much time together as you can get, and hopefully we’ll win tomorrow and truly maximize that. But it’s hard to ignore. This thing’s over on Monday, whether you like it or not, and whether you’re OK with the outcome or not, it’s all done. So I’m just soaking up these last days.”

At his first Final Four, in East Hartford, Conn., Shellenberger said, he looked “around with bug eyes at everything” and marveled at the scene.

“It still feels that way,” he said, “but not getting here in 2022 and then feeling the loss last year definitely gives you a different perspective. It makes you want to get here, for one thing, but also win it that much more.”

Saturday will bring the 98th chapter in one of the sport’s most storied rivalries. UVA and Maryland clashed for the first time on April 24, 1926, with the Terrapins winning 10-1 in College Park. Their 97th meeting also was in College Park, where Virginia won 14-10 on March 16.

Like UVA, Maryland has struggled at times this year, but each team is peaking in the postseason. The Terps won 16-8 over Princeton, a fashionable upset pick, in the NCAA tournament’s first round and then stunned No. 2 seed Duke 14-11 last weekend.

“Maryland is playing at a much higher level [than in March],” Tiffany said.

A week after falling to the Hoos, the Terps dropped their Big Ten opener, losing 12-11 at Michigan. But “since then, it’s a team that keeps getting better and better,” Tiffany said, “especially offensively.”

Kyle Morris came off the bench to provide stellar play in goal last weekend for the Hoos, whose defense also shined against Hopkins. For most of the season, though, the Cavaliers’ offense has been their biggest strength, thanks to the contributions of players like Shellenberger, Cormier, freshman McCabe Millon, graduate student Jack Boyden, junior Griffin Schutz and redshirt freshman Ryan Colsey.

Maryland figures to assign the job of covering Shellenberger to another first-team All-American, Ajax Zappitello. Each received a coveted award this week from the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. Shellenberger is the Lt. Col. JI Turnbull Outstanding Attackman, and Zappitello was named the Lt. Raymond J. Enners Outstanding Player of the Year.

 “The beautiful thing about Connor is, he’s not out there to get his own,” Tiffany said. “Yes, he won the game against Hopkins by winning his matchup, but that’s not his primary choice. So Ajax can be on him and Connor doesn’t beat him but Connor is still able to do what he wants to do with his feeding.”

Lars Tiffany (center) with team at practice Friday

No Cavalier has benefited more from Shellenberger’s passing than Cormier, his roommate. Cormier leads Virginia with 64 goals this season, 25 more than Millon, who’s second on the team.

Cormier has scored at least three goals in a game 12 times this season, and he finished with a career-high eight against Saint Joseph’s in the NCAA tournament’s first round. Against Hopkins last weekend, however, Cormier’s 11 shots produced only one goal.

“It was just a weird day for Payton,” Tiffany said. “After the game, I said, ‘Boy, Shellenberger bailed you out there.’ We live to fight another day, because Shellenberger doesn’t want to be the scorer. He wants to feed that ball to Payton, but he knew in these circumstances he had to just go win it himself.”

The Cavaliers fully expect Cormier to return to form Saturday. He isn’t sure how Maryland will choose to defend No. 24, Tiffany said, but “if Payton gets his chances. he’s not going one for 11 again.”

Shellenberger agreed. “I don’t think that’s happening again. He’s just too good, and he’s scored more goals than anyone in the history of the game for a reason. So I’m hoping he gets his 11 [shots] tomorrow, so I’m sure six or seven will go in.”

The Hoos arrived at the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium around 12:30 p.m. Friday. Before the team took the field for its practice, selected players took part in photo and video sessions with ESPN, Westwood One and the NCAA. Then came a spirited practice during which the Cavaliers looked anything but nervous.

“The years we’ve had success at the Final Four, we’ve been looser than almost seems appropriate,” Tiffany said. “I can remember being in this venue in 2019, and the locker room atmosphere before the national championship game. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, fellas, we got to focus.’ And yet it resulted in an emphatic win.

“In 2021, I experienced the same thing. I walked into the Memorial Day Monday locker room and I’m like, ‘I don’t feel this typically on the day of a game, so relaxed.’ And then we go out and play great. So since then, I’ve been encouraging the men: ‘Be physically loose now, mentally sharp later. Enjoy the moment, squeeze it, and just create a relaxed, fun attitude. Be that little boy who was dreaming about this, and embrace it.’ ”

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