Why UVA Lacrosse is Set to Defend Its Title
With the disappointment of the canceled 2020 spring season behind them, the 'Hoos are in prime position to return to the top of college lacrosse. Led by a bevy of returning scorers and a few new arrivals, the 2021 UVA lacrosse team exudes talent and boasts the potential to make a run at defending its 2019 National Championship.
UVA's loaded roster
Even with star-attackman Matt Moore out for unspecified reasons and all time great midfielder Dox Aitken limited due to an ankle injury, this roster is as complete as any in college lacrosse. Whereas, in the early years of Lars Tiffany’s tenure in Charlottesville, the ‘Hoos solely hoped to survive defensively while putting up big numbers on the other end, this is a stacked team from endline to endline.
With goalie and 2019 NCAA Tournament MVP Alex Rode as the anchor, the UVA defense is littered with experience. Returning from that 2019 squad are starting close defenders Kyle Kology and Cade Saustad. Kology is a former walk-on who earned the staff’s trust early in his career and now acts as the defense’s most experienced voice as a fourth year. While Saustad missed the six games in the 2020 season due to injury, the 6’5” third year is back after a stellar first year season where he matched up with and shut down some of the best attackmen in the country. The third piece of the puzzle comes in the form of 6’0” second year Quentin Matsui. After getting his feet wet last season, the former top-15 prospect is set for a breakout sophomore season.
In the defensive midfield, fifth year long stick middie Jared Connors returns. A mainstay of Tiffany’s defense throughout his tenure as the UVA lacrosse coach, Connors is the premier LSM in the country as a lockdown defender up top, a vacuum on the ground and off the wing of faceoffs, and an offensive threat in transition. Among short-stick defenders, veteran John Fox will lead the bunch as another returning starter from the National Championship team. That said, third year guys like Chris Merle and Grayson Sallade will need to take the next step to shore up that seventh and final position in the defense.
At the faceoof X, the ‘Hoos are in a great position. With third year Petey LaSalla, they’ve got their number one guy who is more than accustomed to taking — and winning — big time draws. In fact, LaSalla was the catalyst for a number of critical runs in the 2019 squad’s championship season. But, now, UVA has depth at the X as second year Gavin Tygh has bulked up in the offseason and will form an effective 1-2 punch as a perfect complement to the smaller LaSalla.
Offensively, the loss of the highest points-per-game in UVA lacrosse history in Michael Kraus stings. But, with the return of Aitken, Moore, high volume goal scorer Ian Laviano, big lefty Payton Cormier, along with the arrival of Merrimack graduate transfer Charlie Bertrand and redshirt first year Connor Shellenberger, there’s crazy offensive talent in this group.
With those six penciled in as the offensive starters, the actual positioning on the field will be interesting. Only Aitken — at offensive midfield — and Moore — at attack — have their positions locked down. Bertrand and Cormier are interchangeable as the lefty attackman and as a middie coming out of the box as they’ll be playing off each other constantly this season on the lefty side of the offense. That leaves Shellenberger — who is potentially the most versatile offensive player outside of Moore — and Laviano — who is the inside finisher of the bunch. Fortunately, Offensive Coordinator Sean Kirwan’s offense allows players to play outside of positional conformities which can help to take advantage of the offensive versatility this team has.
In Aitken, Moore, Cormier, Shellenberger, and Bertrand, the ‘Hoos have five legitimate threats as initiators of the offense. Shellenberger and Moore will likely be the primary distributors on the team, but Bertrand has nice vision as well and has experience as the leader of an offense as the two-time Division II Player of the Year.
All this goes to say that there are few if any notable holes in this roster. There’s experience all over the place alongside young talent that should prove critical down the stretch.
The next generation of UVA lacrosse has arrived
Speaking of young talent, the next generation of UVA lacrosse has officially arrived in Charlottesville. While veteran guys like Aitken, Connors, Moore, and Laviano are all still in town, the emergence of Shellenberger, Cormier, and Matsui points to what the next wave will be for this program.
After tearing his ACL in 2019, Cormier is actually in his third year in Charlottesville but still only in his first season that counts towards eligibility.in His likely partner in crime, Shellenberger, was the #1 prospect in the class of 2019, but redshirted last season as a result of UVA's stacked roster and his necessary adjustment to the college game.
Of course, the cancellation of last season muddies the waters in the transition from one group to the next. It will likely take another season for the young guns to be out-and-out go-to guys. Nonetheless, unlike other top teams nationally who have brought in numerous transfers along with seemingly dozens of fifth year seniors, the ‘Hoos will look to their less experienced talent to push them over the top. Then, after this and perhaps next season, it’s clear that this program is in good hands as UVA transitions away from the first wave of Tiffany-coached players.
The best lacrosse team in the country?
All this begs the question: is Virginia the best team in the country?
The ‘Hoos’ 20-11 shellacking of Towson on Saturday without Moore on the field and with a limited Aitken certainly indicates they’re on the right track. That said, the top of college lacrosse is ridiculously good this season as a result of the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted following last season’s cancellation. As of now, there appears to be a distinct top-six of North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse, Maryland, Virginia, and Penn State. The Orange, the Terrapins, and the Nittany Lions are yet to play, while UNC, Duke, and UVA each opened their season with wins this past weekend.
Each of these teams is plenty experienced with mighty offensive power. Duke is led by Princeton transfer and the presumptuous #1 pick in the Premier Lacrosse League draft Michael Sowers and star freshman Brennan O’Neill. Alongside a heavy reliance on a strong fifth year class, attackman Chris Gray is the man to watch for North Carolina. Additionally, Maryland boasts their own star attackman in fifth year Jared Bernhardt. Meanwhile, Syracuse, the team who sat at #1 in the country when last season came to an abrupt close, returns all six offensive starters from last season including star attackmen Chase Scanlan and Stephen Rehfuss and offensive midfielder Brendan Curry. While they lost all time great attackman Grant Ament to the PLL, Penn State does return his partner in crime Mack O'Keefe who is just 20 goals away from the NCAA record.
So, in a stacked ACC and a top-heavy national landscape, the Wahoos will undoubtedly face incredibly difficult competition. Nonetheless, that perfect blend of youthful and veteran experience coupled with a complete roster put this UVA lacrosse squad in the perfect position to defend its 2019 title.
(Image - UVA Athletics)