As Clutch as it Gets: How UVA Rode its Goalie to Another Championship

PHOTO COURTESY OF NCAA PHOTOS


As the throng of Virginia lacrosse parents and fans exited the stands after the confetti had settled onto the grass at Rentschler Field in celebration of the Cavaliers’ second consecutive NCAA championship Monday, many stopped once they spotted Joe Rode standing at the top of the concourse. The greetings varied. 

“How you hanging in there, Joe?”

“Unbelievable!”

“My heart is beating so fast.”

“Never had a doubt.”

“The beers are on me.”

The wave of congratulations stemmed from Alex Rode’s stop on Maryland faceoff specialist Luke Wierman with five seconds to play. Rode’s fifth save of the fourth quarter and 12th of the game clinched a 17-16 win and Virginia’s first back-to-back championships in program history. 

“Alex Rode is about as clutch a lacrosse player as it gets,” said redshirt freshman Connor Shellenberger, named most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament. “He’s a winner.” 

Rode earned the MOP distinction as a sophomore in 2019, when he made a combined 31 saves in the semifinal and final for a .608 save percentage. This year, the senior lefty out of St. Paul’s (Md.) tallied 53 saves in four NCAA tournament games. He allowed only 41 goals. 

Rode’s habit for late-season heroics to some extent has overshadowed his reliability and progress in Charlottesville. The No. 1 goalie recruit in the class 2017 according to Inside Lacrosse, Rode started 12 of 15 games his freshman season and stopped just over 49 percent of the shots he faced.

Under the continued tutelage of Virginia assistant Kip Turner, who led the Cavaliers in between the pipes to a national championship and perfect season in 2006, Rode’s save percentage climbed steadily the next two years. In the shortened 2020 campaign, he made double-digit saves in five of six games and finished with a .552 save percentage.

Along the way, the soft-spoken, quirky keeper grew more comfortable helping command the unit with Virginia’s “Dean of Defense” Kyle Kology.

“I don’t think he gets as much press as he deserves for his play,” Kology said last week during Virginia’s media availability. “He is one of most consistent goalies out there, and I wouldn’t want anyone else behind me regardless of if we’re in May or early in February.”







After starting in Virginia’s season-opening 20-11 win at home over Towson on Feb. 6, Rode missed the next two games because of COVID-19 protocols that also kept him out of practice. Freshman Bobby Gavin filled in and helped the Cavaliers to wins over Army and Loyola.

Still, there was no debate in Charlottesville about who would be the starter the rest of the way. Rode’s return to the starting lineup coincided with a 20-10 loss to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The final score would have been much more lopsided if not for his 18 saves. He made 17 saves and allowed only 11 goals in the Cavaliers’ midweek one-goal win over High Point, one of 10 games in which he registered 13 or more saves.

Rode’s eight saves in the NCAA quarterfinals against Georgetown were his fewest all year, but for good reason. He allowed only three goals as Virginia’s “velociraptor” defense smothered the Hoyas to earn a spot in the final four. Rode made 15 saves on Saturday to help the Cavaliers hang on and upend top-seeded North Carolina 12-11 in the semifinals.

“When everyone’s watching, he steps up even bigger, doesn’t he?” Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany said after the game. “On the biggest stage, this is Alex Rode’s platform.”

The lofty expectations Rode sets for himself were clearest in the moments after freshman defenseman Cole Kastner heaved the ball into the air and the final whistle sounded at Rentschler.

“We just won a national championship and I sucked,” Rode told Tiffany after unearthing himself from the dogpile.

“No, no,” Tiffany replied. “You were solid.”

With the title game tied at 11 in the second half, Virginia raced out to a 16-11 lead on the back of a Peter Garno goal and two goals apiece from Shellenberger and Matt Moore.

Maryland, which entered the game undefeated, refused to go away. The Terrapins mustered a four-goal run in a little more than two minutes. After Moore scored on a fast break, Anthony DeMaio answered on a high bouncer in tight to cut Virginia’s lead to 17-16 with 11 seconds remaining.

It set the stage for Rode’s spectacular game-saving play.

After Wierman won the faceoff clean and popped the ball forward to himself, he ran into the Virginia defensive zone untouched. Rode stood his ground and saved the bounce shot with his chest.

Joe Rode, Alex’s father, decked out in orange with circular glasses and tuft of white hair, watched it all unfold standing on the cement walkway behind the Virginia fan section. His position was by design.

“I stay away from people,” he said. “Goalies are an odd position. It’s like the quarterback of a football team. If you win everyone loves you. If you lose it’s your fault. My son’s been consistent all year. It’s just a hard spot.”

“I had a rough day,” Alex Rode said about 15 minutes later in the post-game press conference. “It wasn’t my best day in goal. Our defense actually played great. The FOGO took a shot, and I was a little nervous. I thought I owed my team a couple, and luckily it hit me in the body.”

The NCAA championship trophy was set down on the table right next to Rode as he finished his answer. 

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