We Needed That: An NCAA Men's Championship Game for the Ages

Before Lars Tiffany cut down the nets, he returned to the sideline to retrieve his stick. Lined up next to the glinting composite shafts and plastic heads on the Kentucky blue grass of Rentschler Field was a six-foot solid hickory wood d-pole crafted by Onondaga stick maker Alf Jacques.  The Virginia men’s lacrosse coach plays catch with the stick in warmups. He cradles it in post-game press conferences. It was a gift from his father, Brad, a U.S. Marine and Korean War veteran who ran the family-owned steakhouse Scotch ‘N Sirloin in DeWitt, New York. 

Brad Tiffany never got to deliver the stick to his son. Instead, Lars Tiffany’s close friend and former Lafayette High School teammate Joe Solomon, who played goalie at Cornell and later for the Iroquois Nationals, presented it to him outside the Boulevard United Methodist Church in Binghamton after his father’s funeral in 2019.

The stick has stayed close by Tiffany’s side ever since and has become enmeshed within the Cavaliers lacrosse program. 

“The game of lacrosse is a preparation for life,” Tiffany said after Virginia’s 17-16 win over Maryland in the NCAA championship game May 31. “We learned that from the Native Americans. How symbolic it is with it being Memorial Day weekend where we get to honor those who’ve given their lives for us.” 

Tiffany’s eyes welled during the national anthem sung by U.S. Army Sgt. Major Frank May. For the next two hours — including 60 minutes of riveting game play in one of the most entertaining NCAA finals in lacrosse history — his team displayed a joy and exuberance that could only spring out of a knowledge of what it’s like to lose something.

The fourth-seeded Cavaliers played confident and loose, sometimes overly so, on their way to defeating third-seeded and previously undefeated Maryland. A last-second save by senior goalie Alex Rode sealed UVA’s seventh NCAA title and the first back-to-back championships in team history.

It was anything but a regular repeat.

“The game of lacrosse is a preparation for life.”

— Lars Tiffany

When Tiffany wasn’t on Zoom calls or chopping wood outside his home in Charlottesville after last season’s cancellation during the COVID-19 pandemic, he spent more time in the kitchen, often pulling recipes from his father’s copy of “The Joy of Cooking.”

While it’s now clear that the Cavaliers had all the ingredients for another championship run, they didn’t receive as much attention as their ACC counterparts early on. UVA did not have a bevy of graduate transfers and fifth-year seniors. “We were so quick to be written off,” senior attackman Ian Laviano said.

On a team that heralds its culture like few others, Tiffany brought in just one grad transfer, Charlie Bertrand. The two-time USILA Division II National Player of the Year who won back-to-back titles at Merrimack shifted from his natural position of attack to midfield. The way Bertrand adopted the new role without complaint was indicative of the Cavaliers’ willingness to buy in and a harbinger for their success.

On the first play of championship weekend, the Virginia bench rushed out all the way into the offensive box after Jeff Conner scored the opening goal in the 12-11 semifinal win over top-seeded North Carolina.

A warning from an official curbed further on-field charges, but didn’t dampen Virginia’s spirit on a rain-soaked afternoon with wind chills in the 40s. The exuberance carried over into the title game two days later.

After Connor Shellenberger scored in the second quarter on a near-pipe step back, he leaped into a circle of his teammates on the sideline. And after Laviano was hit in the head by a Dox Aitken shot in the fourth quarter, he threw his arms in the air toward the Virginia cheering section.

The throng of family, friends and fans — many of whom wore orange shirts with “2021 Final Four, Together, We Believe” printed on the back — remained standing the entire game. UVA supporters spilled across aisles and into the concourse among the crowd of 14,816. “I had to part the orange sea to get back down on the field,” said John Fox, the senior short-stick defensive midfielder and captain.

The turnout was a far cry from the restricted crowd of 250 on hand Feb. 6 for Virginia’s season-opening 20-11 win over Towson at Klöckner Stadium. 

“I hadn’t seen that many people packed into a tight space in forever,” said fifth-year long-stick midfielder and captain Jared Conners, the USILA Midfielder of the Year. “They were a big reason we were able to bring so much energy. You’re just feeding off the crowd. You can really feel the difference.” 

The crowd was so loud that Conners, assigned to mark Tewaaraton Award winner Jared Bernhardt on the faceoff with 11 seconds to play, initially lined up on the wrong wing. He adjusted, but after Maryland faceoff specialist Luke Wierman won the draw clean to himself, it was out of Conners’ hands.

The Virginia defense held tight as Wierman raced toward the cage and unleashed a shot from 10 yards on the run. Rode stood his ground and blocked the shot with his chest. Defenseman Cole Kastner collected the rebound and launched the ball high into the air as time expired. Looking around on the 10-hour bus ride back from East Hartford, the first time the Cavaliers all rode on the same bus since 2020, Conners said most of his teammates’ faces were aglow watching the replay on their iPhones.

“That final play represents our season in a way,” Laviano said. Well, besides the faceoff loss by Petey LaSalla, who grinded through quad and hamstring injuries to win 21 of 37 draws in the title game and added a goal and an assist. 

In those final moments, the Cavaliers demonstrated a balance of intensity and intelligence. They trusted their experience, but didn’t shy away from embracing their young talent too. Rode, the 2019 NCAA championship MVP, made 53 saves over four games this May. Kastner, a 6-foot-7 two-sport star from California, made his first career start against Bryant in the first round and buoyed a rangy close defense that drew comparisons to “velociraptors” from Georgetown coach Kevin Warne after Virginia blew out the Hoyas 14-3 in the quarterfinals. Redshirt sophomore Cade Saustad held Bernhardt to two goals and three assists, a relatively modest outing by his standards.  Matt Moore and Shellenberger, a redshirt freshman and Rode’s successor as NCAA championship MVP, each tallied four goals and two assists in the title game. It was a fitting display of the two-quarterback system that will remain intact when Moore returns for a fifth year in 2022.

In the wake of the 2020 season lost to a pandemic and a year where many coaches, including Tiffany, referred to COVID-19 as a “second opponent,” the focus over Memorial Day weekend seemed to finally, thankfully, return to what took place on the field.

While 2020 was defined by loss and what Tiffany’s predecessor Dom Starsia described as a “year of misery,” it also offered a second chance for Virginia to defend its title. Last year, the words “repeat” or “defend” were verboten in Charlottesville. Tiffany reframed his perspective after a Zoom meeting orchestrated by Starsia with the Georgetown men’s soccer coaches. Rather than focus on how few teams repeat as champs, Hoyas head coach Brian Wiese highlighted those that pulled off the feat. “I like his method much better than my negative one,” Tiffany said. “Let’s embrace our history. Let’s have some fun with it.” 

That attitude carried over when the Cavaliers faced a three-week layoff before the NCAA tournament. Tiffany sought advice from Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall. College football teams routinely deal with long stretches between conference and bowl games.


During the first week, the upperclassmen played the “young guys” in softball at UVA’s new Palmer Park, right next to Klöckner. The “old guys” came out on top and credited the success to the fact that they spent more time outside as kids than their younger peers. There were water balloon tosses, Oreo challenges and small-sided games with the women’s lacrosse team. 

“The focus there was getting stronger, getting faster and getting tighter as a group,” Conners said. 

The Cavaliers also got back to fundamentals after the 13-11 setback against Syracuse in the regular season finale. They started every practice with overhand shooting into the net at the south end of Klöckner. UVA went on to score 56 goals in the NCAA tournament, opposing goalies saving just 36.3 percent of shots on goal. 

If the first-round win over Bryant in which they overcame a 10-8 deficit late in the third quarter was the wake-up call, the quarterfinal win against Georgetown was a lesson in not letting the noise get to them.

“Don’t eat the cheese,” Fox told his teammates.

“Earmuffs and blinders,” offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan frequently reminded them. 

When they won, however, they let it all in. The team that was split up before and after practices by odd and even numbers because of COVID-19 protocols danced all together in the locker room at Renstchler Field. Laviano laid on the grass, his arms clasped over his head in a picture of relief. Tiffany sprinted the length of the field to give the championship trophy to his team. It was about them. 

After relinquishing their arm pads, gloves and other equipment to their supporters in the stands, many players started tossing their sticks into the crowd. While some fans asked strangers to take pictures of themselves with the scoreboard in the background, others walked the concourse staring in awe at their prized souvenirs. A tall, freckled teenager twirled Rode’s Eclipse II. A UVA defenseman tried to lob his pole into the front row, but it fell short. 

Not Tiffany. He grabbed his stick then lifted it above his head. The Virginia faithful let out a final roar as the skies cleared and the sun finally broke through.

When Tiffany turned on his iPhone the next morning after the team arrived back in Charlottesville around 4 a.m., he had 509 unread text messages.

One in particular stood out to Tiffany. It came from Niskayuna (N.Y.) High School coach Mike Vorgang, the tone of the text capturing the cathartic sense shared by many in the community that lacrosse was really back on Memorial Day.

“What a great game,” Vorgang wrote. “We all needed that.”

This article appears in the Championship Edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Join our momentum.