Virginia Men's Lacrosse

Connor Shellenberger: Appreciating the Dream

(Photo – Virginia Men’s Lacrosse Twitter)

Growing up, Connor Shellenberger idolized star Virginia attackmen like Steele Stanwick and Danny Gladding. In fact, the Charlottesville native grew up attending every Virginia lacrosse game at Klöckner stadium, and some of his most vivid childhood memories include “going to Klöckner, having the UVA lacrosse jersey on and going to all the games, even those Tuesday nights when its twenty degrees, raining, and they’re playing VMI.”

UVA lacrosse is one of the most storied programs in college lacrosse history. The program has won six NCAA Championships, twenty-five regular season conference titles, along with seven ACC Tournament titles, and has made twenty-three Final Fours. It has fielded lacrosse greats including Steele Stanwick, Matt Ward, Doug Knight, Ryan Curtis, Trey Whitty, Jay Connor, Brett Hughes, Connor Gill, and so many more.

Nobody appreciates that history more than Shellenberger, and it’s had a profound effect on him, as he references the fact that “I saw some of the greats go through there,” adding that, “they inspired me to play lacrosse. I remember wanting to be like Steele [Stanwick], out in the backyard.”

He remembers some of the great moments of UVA lacrosse that have occurred over the last fifteen years. The 2006, 17-0, National Championship team’s Memorial Day win over UMASS, the 2009 seven-overtime-win over Maryland, and the wild 2011 National Championship run are all memories etched into Shellenberger’s brain.  

It’s apparent that those memories have fueled his own lacrosse career, and have provided the motivation and the ambition for him to experience similar successes.

For Shellenberger, that journey began in 6th grade, when he started at St. Anne’s Belfield (STAB), a private school in Charlottesville and alma mater to notable Virginia football alum Chris Long, and Virginia lacrosse alum Owen Van Arsdale. STAB’s lacrosse program has long boasted one of the premier teams in central Virginia, and, particularly in recent years, STAB lacrosse alumni have gone on to top-tier Division One schools such as Duke, Virginia, Penn, and Notre Dame.

Having played for the prestigious travel lacrosse club Madlax, Shellenberger entered his seventh-grade year already well versed in the game of lacrosse. Bypassing a junior-high career, Shellenberger played on the STAB junior varsity team in seventh grade, before being offered a spot on the varsity team as an eighth grader. Despite originally deciding to take the jump to the next level, Shellenberger reconsidered and “decided that, they were so good that year, I figured that they didn’t need me.” Need him they did not, as the 2015 STAB Varsity Boy’s lacrosse team won the VISAA Division One state championship.

Photo – William Stewart – William Stewart Photography
Shellenberger playing for Madlax while in middle school.

While the STAB varsity team excelled, so did Shellenberger, starring on the JV team, and in summer tournament play with Madlax. In fact, before heading into high school the next fall, Shellenberger, surprisingly, committed to Johns Hopkins, another school with a prestigious lacrosse program, but not his hometown team. Nevertheless, Shellenberger began his high school career already with a post-graduation plan in place.

With much of the core of that state championship team returning, playing time prospects, even for the heralded Shellenberger, would be slim. The starting attack from the previous year were all returning, including Penn commit Jack Schultz, Duke commit Joe Robertson, and Joe’s older brother Phil, a Princeton commit.

Looking back, Shellenberger notes that that experience “was kind of intimidating to be honest. I was super young, and a lot of those guys were older and pretty accomplished as they’d won it all the year before. They were all best friends. It was intimidating.” But while the competition was fierce, so was the camaraderie, as Shellenberger emphasizes that “it was probably the best leadership with Phil and Joe [Robertson] that year. The way they took me under their wing, they made me feel like I was a part of the team right away. That really helped.”

With so much talent returning, expectations were high for the 2016 STAB lacrosse team. “Those first fall practices, it was like ‘dang, our offense is good’, it was fun,” comments Shellenberger. But the result of all that returning talent was that Shellenberger was forced to start the season at midfield, rather than his preferred position of attack. Early on in his freshman season, Shellenberger struggled to find the field, playing on the second line midfield.

But a midseason switch with Phil Robertson put Shellenberger down at attack, and left the more versatile senior to play through the substitution box. The shift to attack turned things around for Shellenberger, and he finished the season with forty-four points. Unfortunately for the Saints, they’d go on lose to a loaded St. Stevens & St. Agnes team in the VISAA Division One State Championship, 12-7.

Despite the disappointing defeat, eight days later, Shellenberger found himself watching the college lacrosse national semifinal between Brown and Maryland. That season, Brown burst onto the college lacrosse scene, boasting a stud attack line in Dylan Molloy, Kylor Bellistri, and Henry Blynn, along with the best goalie in the country in Jack Kelly, and one of the best faceoff men in Will Gural. Led by head coach Lars Tiffany, a Brown lacrosse alum who had played under Virginia coach Dom Starsia, the Bears utilized a fast tempo system that emphasized attacking at every possible opportunity. Unfortunately for Tiffany, Brown lost 15-14 in an overtime thriller.

But, watching the game, Shellenberger was in awe of Tiffany’s system and the type of game Brown was playing. Shellenberger notes that “I remember looking at my mom and saying ‘I wish I could play in that system’.” But, academically, Brown was a bit of a reach for the rising sophomore. “Yeah, I wasn’t going to Brown,” Shellenberger remarks with a chuckle.

That game was on May 28th. Less than a month later, on June 21st, it was announced that Tiffany would be replacing his former coach, Starsia, as the head coach of the Virginia men’s lacrosse team. When that happened, Shellenberger realized that “wow, this could be a huge opportunity.”

In the months that followed, the Virginia staff reached out to Shellenberger through back channels, asking about Shellenberger and wondering “Hasn’t he always wanted to go to UVA?” That he did, as Shellenberger remarks that “the more questions they asked, the more I realized, ‘what am I doing [not going to Virginia]?’”

That September, Shellenberger was ranked as the #1 player in the class of 2019 by Inside Lacrosse. A month later, news emerged that he had decommitted from Johns Hopkins and was looking elsewhere. Namely, he was looking at ACC schools, and one ACC school in particular.

“Having that opportunity [to commit to Virginia], especially as I was getting older and I started to understand what I wanted for my future, I realized I don’t want to be far from home,” says Shellenberger, “I value the relationship with my parents, and I want them to be able come to games.”

Along with his relationship with his parents and his excitement about the Tiffany system, Shellenberger emphasizes that playing at Virginia, in Charlottesville, on the field he grew up watching his childhood idols “was a lifelong dream that I didn’t fully appreciate in eighth grade [when I committed to Johns Hopkins].”

So, on October 19th, 2016, Shellenberger set out to fulfill that childhood dream and verbally committed to the University of Virginia.

Five or so months later and with his future intact, Shellenberger was gearing up for his second year playing varsity lacrosse. Along with Shellenberger, STAB returned two seniors, Schultz (Penn) and Joe Robertson (Duke), at attack, and the three set off to avenge their state championship loss from the year before.

That season, the three of them each scored over 100 points, Shellenberger finishing with 121, as they established an incredible bond. At the time, Schultz commented that “This is the closest team I’ve ever been on.”

Those three carried the team all the way to the state semifinals, where they’d lose to Norfolk Academy, 10-9, in heartbreaking fashion. In fact, Robertson had a shot on goal, and a chance for his seventh goal of the day, in the closing seconds. But a point blank save from the Norfolk goalkeeper ended the Saints’ state championship dreams.

With Robertson and Schultz heading off to Duke and Penn, respectively, Shellenberger was left uncertain about what the final two years of his high school career would be like. “I was so close with Joe, Jack, that class that was graduating, that I didn’t really know how to take it,” adding that, “I didn’t know what my future was at STAB.”

That uncertainty was only heightened in the summer months, as, in tournament play with Madlax, a number of Shellenberger’s teammates jokingly encouraged him to come play with them at the lacrosse powerhouse Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.

“It was kind of a joke at first,” Shellenberger comments, “and then the more I thought about it, having played with those [Bullis guys] my whole life up at Madlax, I was like ‘Maybe I should think about this a little harder.’’

After a month or so of deliberation and consultation with those close to him, Shellenberger had made his decision.

And so, Shellenberger moved to Maryland to continue his high school career at Bullis.

While STAB’s lacrosse program is great in its own right, Bullis was a step up for the rising junior. With 540 students attending the co-ed high school that year, a whopping 60 young men tried out for the varsity lacrosse team. For Shellenberger, that was quite the shift.

Photo – Matt Cain – Inside Lacrosse Magazine
From left to right, Connor Shellenberger (Virginia), Robert Schain (Penn), Kyle Fairbanks (Navy), and Bryson Shaw (Ohio State football).

“It was a lot different from what I’d seen the past two years at STAB, where we have a limited number of kids that come out,” Shellenberger recalls, “[At STAB], we’re pushing probably thirty guys on the varsity roster and then we’re lucky to field a junior varsity team some years.”

Fortunately for Shellenberger, the transition was made easier due to his prior relationships with those on the team who had played Madlax. “It wasn’t all that intimidating just because we’d had those winter and fall practices,” notes Shellenberger, “and I was pretty comfortable with the kids I’d played with in the past.”

Photo – @gomadlax – Instagram
Bullis and Madlax teammates (from right to left) Matt Kelly (Michigan), Jonathan Bender (Towson), Brian Williams (Colgate), Robert Schain (Penn), and Connor Shellenberger (Virginia).

One of those teammates was Robert Schain, a Penn commit who Shellenberger lived with while attending Bullis. The two had built phenomenal chemistry over the years, something they took advantage of throughout their junior year. Jeff Bellistri, the Bullis head coach, remarks that “They had this little sense to know where each other was on the field.”

With that increase in turnout came an increase in the level of competition for the junior, and with the Bullis defense loaded with Division One commits, Shellenberger found himself outside of his comfort zone. “Facing those guys day in and day out made me stretch a little bit more,” Shellenberger says, “I had to develop more moves, improve my left hand, and my dodges, and become a better feeder.”

Along with the in-team competition at Bullis, Shellenberger got the opportunity to play on the national scene in the Interstate Athletic Conference, one of the premier lacrosse conferences in the country, facing off against teams like Landon and Georgetown Prep, along with national programs like the Hill Academy.

Photo – Mary Ponomarenko
Shellenberger carries against The Hill Academy.

“That was really the biggest eye opener for me, playing Hill Academy, and playing some of these national schools, like Landon,” says Shellenberger, “then also the preparation that these schools have. Landon prepares like a college team. They knew everything that we were going to do, everything about each player.”

Countering other teams’ preparation was the Bullis head coach, Jeff Bellistri. Bellistri, a Naval Academy alum and Gulf War veteran, is anything but the strict disciplinarian his biography would suggest. According to Shellenberger, “He’s probably the most laid-back, relaxed guy. A great coach, and he disciplined us when he had to, but the opposite of what you’d expect.”

Bellistri also happens to be the father of former Brown attackman, Kylor, who starred for Tiffany from 2013-2016. So, Bellistri had an established relationship with Tiffany that Shellenberger appreciated. “Obviously Coach Tiffany couldn’t push me one way or another, with NCAA rules,” Shellenberger comments, “but he had great things to say about Coach Bellistri, and Coach Bellistri had great things to say about Coach Tiffany. He knew the way [Tiffany] coached, had the style. It definitely helped that Kylor played under Coach Tiffany for four years.”

In turn, Bellistri appreciated Shellenberger’s work ethic, emphasizing that “I knew he was talented, but he’s also one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever met.” On top of that, Bellistri comments on the fact that Shellenberger acted as an example for his teammates, saying “He wants to play so badly, and he’s a leader, but not a rah-rah guy.”

That season, Shellenberger scored 80 points and led Bullis to the IAC (Interstate Athletic Conference) Championship, as Bullis beat Landon 9-8 in the championship game. In that game, Shellenberger contributed one goal and four assists and was consistently asked to initiate the offense, to the point when Landon began double-teaming him.

With the season complete, Shellenberger once again began contemplating his future. “Halfway through the year at Bullis, I was thinking I’d graduate there,” he remembers, “but then after we won [the IAC Championship], I guess I was satisfied. I had met the people I wanted to meet, and I had learned what I wanted to learn.” That satisfaction from his experiences at Bullis, and understandable sentiments of home sickness contributed to his next big decision.

While Shellenberger was returning home, that wasn’t a knock on his time at Bullis. “It was a great experience,” he emphasizes, “and it got me out of my comfort zone.” But at the end of the day, it was time to return to Charlottesville. Says Shellenberger, “I didn’t feel the need to make that two-hour drive on Friday nights and Sunday nights to see my parents. It didn’t seem worth it.”

In late August of 2018, Shellenberger returned to STAB for his final year of high school, poised for another big year. He didn’t disappoint. That spring, he scored 100 points and led the Saints to the VISAA state semifinals, before, once more, losing to St. Stevens & St. Agnes. While the team came up just short, individually, Shellenberger certainly did not. In fact, he was named the Virginia Prep League Player of the year, and, along with teammates Emmett Barger (Notre Dame) and Trent Moran (Fairfield), was named to the VISAA Division One first team.

To close out his high school career, Shellenberger was selected for the Under Armour All-American lacrosse game. Former Madlax and STAB teammate Barger was selected as well, and the two were fortunate enough to be picked onto the same team to share the field as teammates one last time.

Photo – Zach Babo – Inside Lacrosse
Shellenberger dodges down the alley in the Under Armour All American game.

While that was the last time Shellenberger shared the field as a teammate of Barger’s, it was the first time he shared it with fellow UVA commits Gavin Tygh, Peter Garno, Quentin Matsui, and Scott Bower.

Photo – Stephanie Shellenberger – Twitter
Virginia signees (from left to right) Gavin Tygh, Peter Garno, Quentin Matsui, Connor Shellenberger, and Scott Bower after the 2019 Under Armour All American Game.

That experience would signal a transition for Shellenberger, as nearly four months later, he would once again share the field with those four, as they took part in a number of fall scrimmages as members of the Virginia lacrosse team.

In fall ball play, UVA faced a ridiculously difficult slate of opponents. First off, they would face off against preseason #1 Penn State. After that, they’d play the U.S. national team and team Canada on the same day in the Fall Classic.

For Shellenberger, that was quite the introduction to the college game. “It was eye opening,” he comments, “but it was exciting too, because I look up to all those guys, and that’s where I want to be one day, so I got a feel for how good they are.” Virginia lost all three scrimmages, but they provided invaluable experience for the team’s first years, and a worthy challenge for the accomplished upper class-men.

But, fall play had also opened Shallenberger’s eyes to the talent of Virginia’s roster as well. So, as fall turned to winter, he was, once again, faced with a difficult decision. “Even going in in the summer I never thought about redshirting,” says Shellenberger, “but the odds were definitely stacked against me to play attack.” That they were, as, returning from the 2019 National Champion attack line were Ian Laviano, Matt Moore, and Michael Kraus, three upperclassmen who had been extremely successful at UVA.

The similarities between his situation as a freshman in college, and that of his freshman year of high school aren’t lost on Shellenberger. He remarks that his situation as a freshman in high school, when he was the fourth attackman behind Schultz and the two Robertsons was “really similar to when I came into UVA,” and was stuck behind the prolific attack line of Kraus, Moore, and Laviano.

With such a backlog at attack, the logical next option for Shellenberger was to play offensive midfield. In fact, in the fall, Lars Tiffany commended Shellenberger’s versatility, wondering “Where do you put a first-year player who can make an impact at both attack and midfield?” and adding that “Connor’s versatility was seen daily this fall as we asked him to play both positions.”

Photo – CBS19 News
Shellenberger practicing this past fall.

While Tiffany was obviously confident in Shellenberger’s versatility, Connor felt that the transition from attack to midfield was a bit more challenging than Tiffany lets on. “Making the transition to college lacrosse, and then also making the transition to midfield, I never really ran the field or came out of the box [in high school], so I think that additional learning curve was difficult,” even going as far to say that “That was kind of a stumble to be honest.”

Some of those struggles, along with the obvious offensive talent on the roster, and long-term considerations about his career at Virginia led Shellenberger to make the decision to redshirt his first season at UVA.

“I felt like I had the option to come through the box” Shellenberger underlines, “but then going into winter break I was talking to Coach Tiffany, I was like ‘Why not? Just take a year to step back and kind of let some of these expectations and pressure go away, and give myself an opportunity to play more attack at UVA, have my minutes be more meaningful.’” He adds that “I felt comfortable enough with where we were depth wise. I felt like we had good enough players that I wasn’t needed to be honest. That didn’t hurt my ego,” he comments, “I just had that much confidence in this team.”

So, while he still practiced with the team, Shellenberger remained on the sidelines when UVA faced off in their first six games of the season.

As he got more comfortable in practice, Shellenberger was much more confident in his midfield play. “Even this spring, I could go out there and run out of the box, and I was a lot more comfortable then than in the fall,” emphasizing the impact of that double transition that hindered him in fall play.

While Shellenberger excelled in practice, Virginia struggled a bit out of the gate. Starting 4-2, they had quality wins over Loyola and Lehigh, but had also lost at home to Princeton, and on the road versus an unranked Brown team.

But from Shellenberger’s perspective, those first six games weren’t indicative of the team’s potential. “We definitely took stock in those first six games,” he says, “we reviewed them and we wanted to get better, but I don’t think anybody was panicking that we had two losses. Everyone was comfortable with where we were, especially with the talent and experience we had.”

With that mindset, the Cavaliers were gearing up for a critical matchup with Maryland on March 14th. “Maryland was a huge game for us,” says Shellenberger, “we really wanted to make a statement and turn things around following the Brown loss.”

But, the week leading up to that game saw a number of major cancellations in the professional sports world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the NCAA appeared set to cancel the remaining winter and spring sport seasons.

With only hours remaining in their season, the 2020 UVA lacrosse team gathered for one last practice. “We were in the locker room and hadn’t heard anything,” recalls Shellenberger, “and Coach [Tiffany] came in the locker room and said we’re not cancelled yet, but everyone knew we were going to be.”

That didn’t stop the team for having one last hurrah. “[Coach Tiffany] just said, let’s go out and practice before they do [cancel the season],’” Shellenberger remembers, “so everyone sprinted down to the field and we had this scrum. It was probably the most energy we’ve had all year and the most fun we’ve had all year. That’s why you’re at UVA to play lacrosse; just have fun.”

While it was a fun experience, “it was also emotional in a weird way,” Shellenberger says, “because you’re looking around and had this feeling that that would be the last time for a lot of guys.”

Later that day, the expected announcement came: all NCAA winter and spring sports were cancelled for the remining 2020 season. “It stinks talking about it,” Shellenberger remarks, “You never really got to see our team play at the level we thought we could. Especially, to end on the Brown note, that was tough.”

Fortunately, a week or so later, the NCAA announced that it’d be granting all spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility. That decision doesn’t affect Shellenberger directly, as he wasn’t going to be using a year of eligibility this season anyways, but he appreciates the complex impact it’s going to have on college lacrosse. “The positives are that it gives those guys an opportunity to come back and finish what they started,” he comments “the negatives would be that it’s a mess, it’s just the honest truth. There’s going to be a lot of transfers, classes are going to be split up. There’s more questions than answers right now.”

He also understands the more critical issues that will arise due to this decision. “It’s not a time of great financial success right now either,” adds Shellenberger, “so it impacts a lot of families, unfortunately, as it will affect the money each player could be getting.”

With the cancellation of on campus class at Virginia, and the university’s direction for all students to return home, Shellenberger is in quarantine with his parents in Charlottesville. For him, quarantine consists of “a pretty set routine,” including “a lot of lifting, a lot of class, and then a lot of golf.”

Moving forward, assuming and hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic will subside to the point that social distancing is relaxed, Shellenberger is excited for the potential of next year’s team. Despite fourth year attackman Michael Kraus’ recent announcement that he wouldn’t be returning, Shellenberger feels that “we still have the opportunity to [win a National Championship],” adding that “depending on what some of these [fourth years] end up doing, and we hope they all come back, I still feel comfortable, even if they don’t, with where our talent level is that we can go out and compete for another championship.”

For Shellenberger, individually, the coaching staff is hoping to see improvements in his level of assertiveness. Specifically, Tiffany predicts that “As he throws caution to the wind and becomes less concerned with turnovers, Connor’s game will rise to the next level.”

Shellenberger comments that “That’s been his thing with me. He’s always encouraged me to take more risks,” remembering that “One day in the fall, he walked over, pulled me aside and said ‘We need you to have more turnovers’ and I just looked back at him like ‘What are you talking about?’” For Shellenberger, “It’s a weird thing to talk about, because I’ve never heard that before,” adding that “that’s kind of the playing style at UVA, and that was kind of a shock to me. They don’t really care about turnovers, they’re comfortable with the players they have taking the risk, and they’re okay with the outcome. They just expect us to ride [and get the ball back].”

Part of that emphasis on risk taking has come from Virginia’s offensive coordinator, Sean Kirwan. On Kirwan, Shellenberger says that “He’s awesome. He’s probably one of the best in the business,” elaborating that “his schemes, while they’re super simple, they’re so effective because, it’s just putting guys in the right spots to dodge, to do what they’ve been doing their whole lives.” Shellenberger appreciates Kirwan’s style, especially because “he gives us so many options, and trusts us so much. We have so many options and as an individual, it lets us play so much freer.”

With building anticipation for Shellenberger’s debut in that system next season, there remains one nagging question: What position will Shellenberger be playing when he debuts on Klöckner in 2021? “Ideally, the dream is, I grew up in Charlottesville, I played attack my whole life, and I want to play attack at UVA,” Shellenberger says, before quickly adding that “I’ll talk to the coaches, we’ll see where the best fit is. If I have the opportunity to compete for that spot at attack, I’m definitely going to give it my all there. But if I’m coming out of the box [to play midfield], and that’s best for the team, that’s what it is and I’m not going to be upset about it.” With Kraus gone, that does leave a spot down at attack for Shellenberger. But, there will be number of others gunning for that starting job.

No matter where Shellenberger plays on the field next season, it’s obvious that he’ll have a great impact on the team’s success, especially if fourth years like Dox Aitken decide to leave school.

That, in and of itself, is a phenomenal accomplishment for the Charlottesville native. When he steps on the field at Klöckner, wearing a Virginia uniform, and set to play in his first college lacrosse game, Shellenberger will be accomplishing the dream that he failed to appreciate until just a few years ago.

While doing so, perhaps without even knowing it, Shellenberger will be picking up where Kraus, Stanwick, Gladding, Ward, and so many others left off. He’ll be the one who is idolized by the kids in the stands. He’ll be the one inspiring kids to pick up the lacrosse stick, and head out to the backyard. He’ll be the one they’re all imitating.

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