Run and gun: The revitalization of men’s lacrosse

Coach Lars Tiffany’s electric style has ignited the resurgence of men’s lacrosse program

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Inspired by his roots in upstate New York — close to the Native American origins of the sport — Virginia men’s lacrosse Coach Lars Tiffany has a steadfast belief in the authenticity of his style. He grew up playing free-flowing, all-out attack lacrosse, and has stayed true to this approach as a coach.

“We’re not trying to win games 6-5 — we’re trying to win games 16-15,” Tiffany said of his team’s playing style.

Tiffany has always espoused a run-and-gun brand of lacrosse, making every game a competition of offensive firepower. At Brown, he preached this high pace style of lacrosse, and he has brought the same system to Virginia.

In Tiffany’s final year at Brown in 2016, his Final Four team led the nation with 16.3 goals per game. Throughout his first year as coach at Virginia, he established a similar level of offensive dominance, with his team finishing with the No. 3 offense in the nation.

Tiffany was hired at Virginia for his run-and-gun system and mentality. His style doesn’t only apply to the way his team plays lacrosse. In fact, Tiffany does everything at a frenetic pace, from running up and down the sideline during games as if he were actually playing to speaking to reporters. It is this style — this contagious energy — that has begun to reignite a storied Virginia lacrosse program.

Although Tiffany’s style may be the antithesis of Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett’s packline defense, they share a youthful energy and vision of the way the sport should be played that has the potential to establish a great program. Also like Bennett, Tiffany has an unorthodox recruiting style, valuing principles over starpower. Instead of recruiting freshmen, which many of the nation’s top programs are doing, Tiffany waits until players have matured, doing most of his recruiting during players’ junior and senior years.

“We need more time to get to know them — what kind of student they are, what kind of player they are, and what kind of young man they are,” Tiffany said.

Recruiting of both good students and good athletes — also valued by Bennett and other Virginia athletics programs — entails sacrifice, but ultimately more buy-in and unity. Just like Virginia’s No. 1 men’s basketball team this year, Virginia’s men’s lacrosse team has a unique identity — built on the run-and-gun — that has unified its players tremendously.

Junior defenseman Zach Ambrosino spoke to the importance of experience in Tiffany’s system in solidifying the team’s sense of identity and collective motivation.

“We’re all moving towards the same goal, and that’s something he’s really emphasized,” Ambrosino said. “We’re all on the same page, our chemistry is fantastic this year … it’s our second year in his system, so everyone’s that much more bought into his style of run-and-gun play.”

The way this identity is cemented — and ultimately the way it will lead to wins and a return to greatness for Virginia lacrosse — is through developing a culture.

This has been a major focus of Tiffany in his second year. Every Tuesday, the team has culture meetings that focus on unity, commitment and accountability.

“We are going through a book about the [famous New Zealand rugby team] All Blacks called “Legacy” by James Kerr … Essentially what it is about is the men recognizing what others have been through and sharing their ideas with each other,” Tiffany said.

Critically, these talks have not only led to unity, but also accountability — which Tiffany views as essential for any successful group of individuals.

“It’s empowering the men of our program to have more ownership,” Tiffany said. “We want the last guy on our bench of the 41 we have rostered to know that he can hold anyone else accountable for his actions or behaviors.”

All these factors — unity, commitment and accountability — are marks of greatness in a team’s culture. And while Virginia isn’t there yet, the Cavaliers are showing signs of excellence.

Virginia’s thrilling, double-overtime home opener victory against the Loyola Maryland Greyhounds certainly demonstrated the resilience of a unified team, as the Cavaliers roared back from five goals down. Saturday’s game and Thursday’s practice showed a team with a different kind of mentality from last year’s team.

“I’ve been here for three years, and this is across the board the first time everyone has looked at each other in the locker room and said, ‘We really have something intangible going on this year,” Ambrosino said of the team’s potential.

While it’s not certain that the cultural energy that Tiffany has injected into this program will translate to greatness this year, he has undeniably breathed new life into Virginia lacrosse.

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