Fall Ball Focus: Lars Tiffany 'Awestruck' by Virginia Performance Against U.S.

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Payton Cormier was the only Virginia player who notched a goal in the title game and a goal against the U.S. on Saturday.


SPARKS, Md. — The Virginia men’s lacrosse team’s performance against the U.S. Saturday night left Lars Tiffany searching for the right words. 

“The way those men competed…” he said before his voice trailed off and he collected his thoughts for several seconds. “I’ll admit, I’m a bit awestruck.”

It will take more than few moments to fully process the thrilling comeback effort that fell just short in an 8-7 loss Saturday at Tierney Field in the USA Lacrosse Fall Classic. Trailing 7-2 three minutes into the third quarter, the Cavaliers outscored the nation’s best 5-1 the rest of the way and had a chance to tie the game with 30 seconds remaining.

The late surge was even more surprising because many of Virginia’s returning stars that helped clinch the team’s second consecutive national championship this past May in Hartford watched it all unfold from the sidelines. The players who accounted for all the Cavaliers’ scoring in the second half — Xander Dickson (2G), Will Cory (2G) and Jack Simmons (1G) — combined for 15 goals all of last season. Junior attackman Payton Cormier, Virginia’s leading goal scorer in 2021, was the only player that notched a goal against the U.S. and in the 2021 NCAA championship game in which the Cavaliers outlasted previously undefeated Maryland 17-16.

Unlike Virginia’s first game Saturday against Canada for which Tiffany and staff divided the squad into two balanced teams that rotated quarters, they played their starters for two and a half quarters then slowly started making substitutions against the U.S.

When they used the same strategy against Lehigh and Penn State the previous weekend during the American Boy Fall Brawl in Clifton, Virginia, Tiffany noted there was less of a dropoff between the starters and substitutes than any team he’s ever coached. Against the world-class talent of the U.S., however, he assumed they’d become more exposed.

Tiffany sounded pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

“You can take confidence away from these games, absolutely, but you can’t take cockiness,” he said. “We’re fortunate to see our second-stringers step up in an electrifying moment and put their best foot forward courageously.”

You only needed to look at the near wing on several faceoffs to know this fall is in some ways the start of a new chapter for Virginia. At 6-foot-5, Jared Conners was hard to miss. A three-time first-team All-American and UVA’s all-time leading scorer among long poles with 33 points, Conners, who wore No. 28 for the Cavaliers, also holds the distinction as the only player that was a part of all of Tiffany’s first five years in Charlottesville.

 On Saturday night, however, Conners suited up for the U.S. and wore No. 20.

“It’s hard not to have him down there,” said Tiffany, who talked with Conners for several minutes after the game. “I certainly miss him a lot.”

After last weekend’s scrimmages, long poles Ben Wayer and Scott Bower gained a new appreciation for Conners’ motor. “I don’t know how Jared would take 90 percent of the runs last year,” they told the coaching staff, according to Tiffany. “We need a break.”

Conners, who was selected in the first round of the Premier Lacrosse League draft by the Archers, is one of four All-Americans that Virginia lost to graduation. There’s Dox Aitken, who set Virginia’s career goals and points records for a midfielder, dean of defense Kyle Kology and goalie Alex Rode, the 2019 most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament who also came up clutch in the final seconds of this year’s title game.







Early on Saturday, it was hard not to do a double-take at first seeing freshman midfielder Will Inderlied wearing Aitken’s No. 6 or first-year goalie Matthew Nunes sporting Charlie Bertrand’s No. 41.

Nunes, the No. 1 goalie recruit in the country according to Inside Lacrosse, played the first half Saturday night. He made four saves, but also committed a clearing error that resulted in an own goal. Tiffany described the goalie competition as a “heck of a battle” between Nunes and sophomore Bobby Gavin, who impressed in two starts last spring filling in for Rode due to COVID-19 protocols. Nunes and Gavin each played 45 minutes between the two Fall Classic games. Both were tested early.

Just as they did against the U.S., Virginia fell behind 5-0 to start the game against Canada. The 18-7 loss provided a wake-up call.

“As much as it’s the fall and you don’t want to look at the results, there is a scoreboard,” Tiffany said. “But you didn’t even need the scoreboard to know we got our doors blown in by Canada.”

For nearly two hours after that loss, the Virginia coaching staff dissected the film in exacting detail inside the Crum Education and Family Training conference room and that overlooks Tierney Field. Tiffany rested his six-foot solid hickory wood d-pole, a gift from his late father, on the white wall next to the projection screen.  

Their team responded a couple hours after the first game, but with contributions from less likely sources. First-year attackman Griffin Shutz scored the Cavaliers’ opening goal of the second quarter with a diving effort. Fellow highly touted freshman Thomas Mencke registered two assists. Will Cory, a junior attackman from Charlottesville, scored consecutive backhanded goals that cut the U.S. lead to two. The second tally, which started with a swim dodge over Jesse Bernhardt and ended with a somersault, elicited the loudest reaction from the Cavaliers bench all night.

The goal also bore a close resemblance to the backhand wraparound Xander Dickson scored against Canada. The only multi-goal scorer for the Cavaliers in the first game, Dickson continued to stand out against the U.S. with another pair of goals and an assist.

A redshirt junior from Connecticut who had 10 goals and 10 assists in 2021, Dickson’s lean frame (he’s listed at 6-foot-1and 160 pounds) looks more like that of a marathon runner. His size belies his toughness. Dickson showed off his versatility along with his creativity on Saturday, scoring his first goal against Canada with an outside rising shot on an extra-man opportunity. He started the game against Canada at attack, but began the U.S. game at midfield.

“For someone who's not the biggest guy, he is playing with an attitude [of], ‘I'm throwing my body out there and to the wolves,’” Tiffany said. “It’s really exciting. As we're rolling home tonight on the bus and I sit back and reflect about what the spring will bring, what are the knowns and who's emerging, Xander Dickson is at the top of that list.”

VIRGINIA AT A GLANCE

Connor Shellenberger and Matt Moore each scored one goal against Canada. … Cade Saustad, Cole Kastner and Quentin Matsui started at close defense against the U.S. … Shutz does not look like a freshman. The third-ranked attackman in this year’s class according to Inside Lacrosse, he is listed a 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and seems to dodge through defenders more than around them. … Petey LaSalla had an off day by his All-American standards, winning just four of 13 faceoffs against Justin Inacio of Canada and going 2-for-8 against the U.S. … While there will be a new starter in the cage for the Cavaliers this spring, assistant coach Kip Turner has kept the routine he had with Rode — taking shots on the sideline during timeouts. “I’m biased, but nobody’s a better goalie coach than Kip Turner,” Tiffany said. “He’s seen that position from behind that facemask and he’s so patient. I’m not a patient coach.”...  A year after their interactions were largely limited until Memorial Day weekend because of the pandemic, the Virginia tailgate looked like it was in full force this weekend. A phalanx of orange and blue tents occupied the corner of the parking lot behind Tierney Field.

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