2022 NCAA Lacrosse Preview: No. 1 Virginia (Men)

PHOTO BY LARRY FRENCH / LOYOLA ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

Matt Moore had had 33 goals and 34 assists in 2021 and capped his season with an eight-point outburst in the national title game.


The 2022 college lacrosse season is nearly upon us. As is our annual tradition, we’re featuring every team ranked in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Preseason Top 20.

Check back to USALaxMagazine.com each weekday this month for new previews, scouting reports and rival analysis.

NO. 1 VIRGINIA

2021 Record: 14-4 (2-4 ACC)
Final Ranking (2021): No. 1
Coach: Lars Tiffany (6th year)

It’s a tale as old as organized athletic competition. What is the best way to handle a championship while moving on to attempt to win another?

Constantly reflecting on past triumphs doesn’t guarantee future success, no matter how much of a blueprint they provide. But there is no way to completely ignore reaching the summit of a sport. Even the most disciplined people will have others reminding them of it.

Two seasons ago, Virginia coach Lars Tiffany was very much in the latter camp. His Cavaliers took a victory lap on Memorial Day in 2019, but by the time the fall arrived, he didn’t want to talk about. He didn’t want to think about.

“I truly treated the first championship trophy like a toxic goblet, as if Indiana Jones grabbed whatever the treasure he was searching for and all the sudden the room starts collapsing all this danger is thrust upon him,” Tiffany said.

Time, experience and yet another championship have altered Tiffany’s approach. A global pandemic has made a lot of folks try to find as much joy as they can. A second title has a way of reinforcing the first.

And after citing one of Harrison Ford’s iconic characters, Tiffany is channeling another 1980s icon — Gordon Gecko — on the eve of the 2022 season.

“We have so much, but a word that we’re not supposed to embrace in much of our lives — we want more, the greed,” Tiffany said. “This is one of those areas. Are you content with what you have, or are you driven to want more? We’re trying to get a better balance there than two years ago. I’m enjoying the process.”

NIKE/USAL PRESEASON TOP 20
TEAM PREVIEWS

1. Virginia

2. Maryland

3. Duke

4. Georgetown

5. Notre Dame

6. North Carolina

7. Loyola

8. Yale

9. Penn

10. Rutgers

11. Lehigh

12. Denver

13. Army

14. Syracuse

15. Johns Hopkins

16. Delaware

17. Drexel

18. Cornell

19. Vermont

20. Bryant

As well he should. There is an abundance of talent in Charlottesville, a group that on paper is more than capable of hauling another title back from East Hartford this May. At minimum, it would be a greater surprise if the Cavaliers aren’t playing on the final weekend of the season than if they are.

Re-establishing that tradition, like Virginia had when it reached the NCAA semifinals 13 times in 18 tries between 1994 and 2011, was Tiffany’s primary task when he arrived from Brown. Having effectively done so in just five years further illustrates the desire to try to do even more.

“We have so much, but then look at the first years [freshmen],” Tiffany said. “They don’t have one, and I know they want it. The have versus want. We’re in a good place. I don’t think we’re complacent with what’s happened in the past. If anything, I remember talking about this with Jared Conners before the second title. Once you’ve been to a final four, the season just does not feel like a success unless you return to the championship weekend.”

To get back there, Virginia will need to rely on a partially changed cast. Moreso than after 2019, when midfielder Ryan Conrad and defenseman Logan Greco were the notable graduation losses, this Virginia team feels like it’s made a bigger break from its most recent title.

Offensive mainstays like midfielder Dox Aitken and attackman Ian Laviano have moved on. Alex Rode, the only Virginia goalie to start on two NCAA champions, decided against using a fifth season. Graduate student Charlie Bertrand, Tiffany’s only spin of the transfer carousel heading into last year, exhausted his eligibility.

Then there’s Conners, who was so exceptional last season he became the first long pole since Duke’s C.J. Costabile in 2012 to win the McLaughlin Award as the nation’s top midfielder.

“Jared Conners took 85 percent of the long-stick middie shifts. Both Scott Bower and Ben Wayer are playing the LSM position for us, and each individually has come up to me ‘I have no idea how Jared did it,’” Tiffany said.

Yet as easy as it is to pick on what’s lost, Virginia still has Matt Moore and Connor Shellenberger, Petey LaSalla and Grayson Sallade, Cade Saustad and Cole Kastner. The Cavaliers aren’t lacking for answers, and that’s without factoring in another lauded recruiting class.

There also isn’t contentment, which could ensure the Cavaliers are very much a team after Gordon Gecko’s heart in 2022.

“The transition we’ve made in our five and a half years as a staff with this team has really been focused on providing our men the insight and education to be really sound decision makers,” Tiffany said. “Along with that has been the associated success, which is more tangible and easier to see. Combining those two big factors, yes, some faces have changed but this program, this machine moves forward.”






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TOP RETURNERS

Petey LaSalla, FO, Sr.

For a team that plays at a quick pace and has oodles of offensive options, the durable LaSalla might be as valuable as anyone. He won 62.4 percent of his draws last season and set a school record with 277 faceoff wins.

Matt Moore, A, Gr.

The returning third-team All-America pick had 33 goals and 34 assists, capping his season with an eight-point outburst in the national title game. He’ll team with Connor Shellenberger to form the best 1-2 punch on attack in Division I.

Connor Shellenberger, A, R-So.

The postseason hero may very well be the best player in the country. He had 37 goals and 42 assists in his first season with the Cavaliers, and that may only be the start of what could be the latest Tewaaraton-worthy career in Charlottesville.

KEY ADDITION

Matthew Nunes, G, Fr.

With proven postseason hero Alex Rode’s graduation, the Cavaliers need a new goalie. It’s almost certain to be Nunes, a lauded recruit out of Texas. “It is not happening by default,” Tiffany said. “He is as driven and motivated a lacrosse player as we’ve seen around here.”

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE

Griffin Schutz, A/M

There’s nothing under-the-radar about the freshman, who could function as a fourth attackman (like Ian Laviano last season), a midfielder (like Shellenberger as a redshirt freshman) or both in his first season with the Cavaliers. “He is the next guy,” Tiffany said. “He is the next impact offensive player for us. The question is do we keep him exclusively at midfield, which is what he primarily played at Deerfield, or do we rotate him in as well in attack.”

ENEMY LINES

What rival coaches say about the Cavaliers:

“I know they’ve won two national championships in a row, but the best team they’ve had on paper is this group here. Across the board, they’re just deep.”

“Defensively, I think they figured out what they were at the end of the year. They want to dictate tempo all over the field, and they still have one of the best players in the country at the faceoff X. The kid is unbelievable.”

BEYOND THE BASICS
POWERED BY LACROSSE REFERENCE

14th

Virginia ended 2021 with a second consecutive national title and the most ground balls per game (41.9) in the country. The ground ball totals title feels like a birthright for the Hoos at this point. But you aren’t the best ground ball unit by winning the most ground balls. You win that title by winning the highest percentage of the ground balls. And on that measure, Virginia was No. 14 nationally (52.3 percent); good, but not great. Rate stats are greater than counting stats. — Zack Capozzi

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