TOBIN: A peculiar yet promising year for men’s lacrosse
The start of the 2016 offseason could not have been more bizarre for the Virginia men’s lacrosse team.
According to an Inside Lacrosse report 17 days after a 19-11 loss to Brown ended the Cavaliers’ season, Athletics Director Craig Littlepage decided not to renew then-coach Dom Starsia’s contract. After 200 alumni contacted the University in defense of Starsia — the winningest coach in Division I history — it was reported Starsia was offered a three-year contract renewal. Ultimately, after a week of speculation without comment from Littlepage, Starsia was officially released May 23.
All this zaniness preceded the arrival of current head coach Lars Tiffany, who was head coach at Brown leading up to his Virginia hiring. Tiffany did not wait to make a splash — committing the Cavaliers to a more up-tempo style of play.
“We are absolutely committed to that style,” Tiffany said at his introductory press conference. “It’s a style that has been employed successfully at Tufts, at Brown and — for those old enough — this is how the game used to be played. It’s the style of play I grew up with. This is how I saw the game played.”
This strategy paid its dividends at the start of the season. Ranked No. 14 at the time, Virginia upset then-No. 6 Loyola in Baltimore, 16-15. Not only was this victory a crucial start for Virginia, but it also set the tone for the beginning of the season — the Cavaliers averaged 18 points per game over the first three games.
Particularly notable for Virginia was its third game of the season, when the Cavaliers defeated Siena, 20-13. Tiffany’s up-tempo mantra was in full swing against the Saints, as the Cavaliers put up 13 points in the first half alone.
“They’ve accepted [the up-tempo offense],” Tiffany said following the game. “We’re pouring gas on the fire at this point. They love to play this fast, frenzied style and we wanted to step on the gas even more-so tonight … We don’t want to settle, we don’t want to sub. We want to make the opposing defensive coach uncomfortable the entire 60 minutes.”
Things were never quite the same for the Cavaliers after that match. Starting off 3-0, the team went 5-6 for the rest of the season. In Virginia’s first loss of the season to Pennsylvania, the Quakers held the Cavaliers to 10 points and exposed a flaw in the team — a slowed-down tempo.
"We wanted to play faster," Tiffany said following the loss. "Penn — to their credit and to that of their coaching staff — often just raced back into a zone defense to try and slow down our transition and our early offense.”
The Cavaliers recovered in an 18-12 game against High Point the following match, but the team had lost its edge for the rest of the season. Compared to averaging 18 points per game in the first three games of the season, Virginia only averaged 13.7 in the remaining 11 — including a meek 12 points per game over the last three games.
Additionally, the Cavaliers failed to break their winless streak against ACC opponents in regular-season matchups dating back to 2012. Whether it was a heartbreaking 10-11 overtime loss to Notre Dame in March or an 11-20 shellacking by Duke Saturday, Virginia could not find its footing against conference foes.
Given how promising the first three games of the season were for the Cavaliers, the rest of the regular season was a bit of a disappointment. However, the year has been nonetheless promising. Considering Brown’s greatness under Tiffany — he led the team to Championship Weekend in 2016 behind a program-best 16 wins and nation’s best 16.3 points per game — it is encouraging that he bumped up Virginia’s regular-season record from last year. Additionally, while the team is graduating 10 seniors, it also has 10 freshmen and a bevy of young talent to grow in the coming years.
With the nature of this offseason, it is fitting that the Virginia men’s lacrosse team has had a peculiar season. Yet, the future is bright for this program. The Cavalier faithful should have a lot to look forward to in the future, including Virginia's last match of the season against Pennsylvania April 29 at ACC Championship weekend.
Ben Tobin is an Assistant Managing Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.
Correction: The column previously misstated the Cavaliers qualified for the ACC tournament. Virginia's has one game left against Pennsylvania.