Virginia men’s lacrosse begins play Saturday at Klöckner Stadium, as the Cavaliers seek to continue the revival of a once nationally renowned lacrosse program that has since slipped into mediocrity.
The Cavaliers have historically been known to dominate the college lacrosse world, with five national championships and 22 Final Four appearances overall. Former Coach Dom Starsia built Virginia into a powerhouse, winning four national championships during his tenure — from 1993-2016. The Cavaliers, however, had two poor seasons at the end of Starsia’s career, forcing the legendary coach to .
In his place is another former Brown coach, who looks to be a new hope for Virginia lacrosse — just as his predecessor had been. Coach Lars Tiffany, known for his potent offensive coaching, has started the revival, bringing Virginia a winning season last year (8-7) after a losing season the year before. However, the expectations were high, and Tiffany failed to deliver any ACC wins and a postseason berth for the third-consecutive year. Thus, the pressure to deliver this year is enormous, as Tiffany brings in some of his own recruits.
Tiffany believes one of the elements that will lead to his team’s drastic improvement this year is a culture change, which must be bought into by every player.
"This group is really, really united," Tiffany said. "I think a lot of coaches say that when you're 0-0, and the season is ahead of us and we're all excited, but there's a big, big difference here between last year and this year. How much we communicate. How much we're sharing of ourselves. How much we're sacrificing for each other."
The players back their coach’s vision of a culture change, recognizing that it is essential in restoring the program’s greatness. Junior midfielder and co-captain Ryan Conrad, who propelled the Cavaliers offensively with his athleticism last year, emphasized the importance of a change in culture.
"We're not the same Virginia as we used to be, and we need to get back to where we were," Conrad said. "I think that comes down to the culture meetings we've been having. Coach Tiffany has been stressing that a lot to us. We've moving in the right direction, and we have to make sure that we live up to the standards that we have for ourselves."
Conrad makes up a part of Virginia’s formidable offense, which was ranked third in the nation last year in scoring. Joining the junior co-captain is the young sophomore duo of midfielder Dox Aitken and attacker Michael Kraus, who led the Cavaliers in scoring last year. Senior attacker Mike D’Amario is another 40-point scorer returning for Virginia, whose leadership will be instrumental in guiding this team back to the postseason. The Cavaliers already-prolific attack will only be bolstered by the addition of freshman midfielder Matt Moore, viewed as one of the nation’s top high school players.
Offense has not been an issue under Tiffany-coached teams. When he took Brown to the NCAA semifinals in 2016, the team averaged 16.3 goals per game — the nation’s best. The Cavaliers had a similarly strong offense last year, finishing third in scoring with 14.4 goals per game.
Defense, however, posed problems for Virginia last year, and it is a weakness that must be addressed to complete this program’s turnaround. While having the nation’s third-best offense, the Cavaliers were ranked 65th nationally in defense, and lost arguably their best defender in All-American Tanner Scales. Scales’ void will need to be filled for this Virginia team to succeed, and the defense will need to buy into Tiffany’s message of culture change.
Loyola stands in the Cavaliers’ way Saturday, who have a strong lacrosse program of their own. The Greyhounds were voted to finish first in the Patriot League for the fifth-consecutive season, and boast a strong defense that will certainly be put to the test by Virginia’s high-powered attack.
Loyola’s defense ranked tenth nationally last year, allowing only 8.4 goals per game. This stout defense returns six of seven starters, including the veteran core of seniors Foster Huggins and Ryder Harkins and junior goalie Jacob Stover.
The Greyhounds, however, might struggle to keep up with the Cavaliers offensively — the team touts inexperienced offense, which was its weakness last season. Loyola will have to come up with some offensive magic and limit Virginia’s dynamic offense to have a chance to win Saturday.
As this momentous season approaches, anxious fans hope to witness the second step in the great revival of Virginia lacrosse. Brimming with exciting young talent on the attack, Virginia is sure to deliver a barrage of goals. It is defense, however, that will ultimately send the Cavaliers back to the postseason.
These offseason concerns and more will be addressed Saturday at 1 p.m. at Klöckner Stadium, as the Cavaliers take on the Greyhounds.