Big Guns Return, but Rebuilt Defense Key to Virginia's 2020 Hopes


Junior Kyle Kology, a one-time walk-on, quickly turned into a starter for the Cavaliers. He will be a key part of Virginia's defense in 2020.

With a roster featuring four returning All-Americans, the MVP goalie of championship weekend and the faceoff man that triggered a late game national championship rally, it’s going to be really hard for Virginia to play the underdog card in 2020.

But fourth-year head coach Lars Tiffany might have pulled off the impossible in putting together a fall schedule in which his Cavaliers could have been perceived as the underdog three times.

After playing Penn State and its vaunted offense two weekends ago, Virginia matched up against the national teams from Canada and the United States in the Fall Classic at US Lacrosse this past weekend.

“We probably played three teams that were better than us and the scoreboard showed that,” Tiffany said. “We proved there are still some really big challenges out there in the world. Maybe that’s the best thing.”

There were plenty of positives for Tiffany to take away. All three games were very competitive through three quarters when the substitutions began to flow more freely. Less than an hour after playing the U.S., his team got fired up quickly for another game and led Canada 8-5 at the half in the Canadians first game of the day.

And a crazy-young defense played with the attitude he wanted to see.

“We were aggressive on our slides and on the opportunities when there were double teams to be had,” Tiffany said. “We got burned several times by both the U.S. and Canada, but I was happy to see that aggression.”

Due in part to an injury to sophomore Cade Saustad, Virginia had three freshmen — Scott Bower, Jake Giulieri and Quentin Matsui — playing significant roles on defense this fall.

And as the saying goes, defense wins championships.

Brown’s offense drew the headlines when Tiffany led the Bears to the NCAA semifinals before taking the Virginia job, but it was the defense that made that offense go.

Virginia’s defense last year was one of the biggest reasons to the Cavaliers turning the corner and returning to May glory.

Tiffany noticed the difference in of all places, the library.

On Tuesdays, classes begin at 9:30 a.m. in Charlottesville, so Tiffany and his staff decided to meet their players where they were for 8 a.m. sessions. The split into offensive and defensive meeting rooms and then the players head to class after talking lacrosse.

The talking began in earnest last year.

“I wanted it to be collaborative, but in year one and two it wasn’t,” Tiffany said. “It was like I was asking rhetorical questions and there were no responses. It took a couple of years. Watching that emerge and develop on Tuesday mornings in Clemons Library was amazing and very rewarding.”

With the graduation losses of All-American Logan Greco and three regulars on the defensive midfield unit, the Cavaliers will have to do some rebuilding on that side of the ball.

Greco, now coaching at Richmond, and Dave Smith, were two of the vocal leaders during the early morning library sessions.

“We miss their voice,” Tiffany said. “We’re taking a mini step back, but we’ll get there.”

Part of his optimism is because of longstick midfielder Jared Conners, one of three first team All-Americans a year ago. Tiffany has toyed with the idea of moving Conners to close defense at times, but says he’s just too valuable in the LSM role.

Part of his optimism is the return of Alex Rode in goal. The junior has 29 career starts under his belt and was at his best down the stretch, making 31 saves on championship weekend.

And a key part of his optimism is the emergence of junior Kyle Kology, a one-time walk-on who quickly became a starter in his first two seasons in Charlottesville.

It’s not often that one of Tiffany’s players is making a final decision between UVa and Cal-Berkeley, but that was the case with Kology.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder originally committed to Amherst, but then decided he wanted to go to a bigger school. He visited Virginia in April of his senior year of high school and all Tiffany could offer him was a chance to try out. Tiffany did little to encourage him to come to Virginia.

“I told him, ‘It’s up to you. If it feels right, go to Berkeley’.”

Instead, Kology came to Virginia and his development has been a revelation to Tiffany, who was a defenseman during his playing days at Brown.

“It’s a little rattling for me to be so wrong,” Tiffany said. “It shakes the foundation of my own belief system and makes me second guess my approach the recruitment of defensemen.

“It’s blown me away. Here’s a young man taking a negative response from a head coach and coming in with an attitude of I’m going to prove you wrong.”

From the very first practice, Kology started proving his understanding of how to play defense, and he followed up with the work in the weight room. He’s improved his strength and his footwork is now of the best on the defensive unit.

It’s led to a huge role for Kology.

“He’s the leader for the next two years,” Tiffany said. “He has such an ownership and comprehension of our team defense that I completely trust him. Cade will be back in the spring and we’ve got the three pups. It’s up to him to develop them.”

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