The first lacrosse game I ever watched was at Klöckner Stadium in 2010, where I witnessed Virginia take on Johns Hopkins.
The Cavaliers won in dominant fashion, 15-6. I didn’t realize at the time that this was one of college lacrosse’s most heated rivalries, with the Doyle Smith Cup at stake. I didn’t realize that I was watching arguably the best lacrosse team in the nation, a team that went 17-2 that year, falling to Duke in the Final Four. I didn’t realize that I would eventually cover Virginia men’s lacrosse.
I did realize, however, how exciting it was to watch lacrosse. I loved watching the miraculous saves, agile doding, and incredible goals. The fluidity and high-paced nature of the game reminded me of basketball. Additionally, the calm possession, incisive passing and gritty defense reminded me of soccer.
But lacrosse is truly a game of its own, with unique attributes and a distinct heritage. It is deeply embedded in America, having roots earlier than the country’s founding in the Iroquois Confederacy. The free-flowing, high-paced game embraced by its founders is exactly what Virginia Coach Lars Tiffany preaches in the Cavaliers’ style of play.
In 2010, the part of the game I cherished most were the amazing saves and jaw-dropping shots. I loved watching the attackmen tear up the field and put the ball into the goal.
I’ve learned a lot about this game since my first experience with it in 2010. Over the course of the season covering Virginia, I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot more to lacrosse than flashy play from attackmen and jaw-dropping stick saves from goalies.
In fact, I’ve come to appreciate other parts of the game perhaps even more than the plays that reach the highlight reels.
As a sports fan and player, the single quality I value most is hustle. Some players are gifted with athleticism, with unteachable skill. But nobody is gifted with hustle. Hustle is focused commitment and hard work that is the backbone of any great sports team. Hustle is selfless.
As in any sport, hustle is critical in lacrosse. The part of the game in which hustle is most evident is in winning ground balls. Ground balls win games. They can make runs happen. They can stop momentum.
After over a month covering Virginia men’s lacrosse, winning ground balls is the part of the game that I appreciate the most.
The grit of the midfield position, combined with skill in transition, impresses me in particular. Junior captain Ryan Conrad caught my eye early on in the season by exemplifying the tenacity, but also deft skill of the midfield position.
No non-defensive player or specialist fielded more ground balls in Division I than Conrad last year, who was also a third-team USILA All-American.
Conrad had picked up right where he left off this year, picking up 23 ground balls along with four goals and three assists. He had also offered important leadership for a young team.
The Cavaliers lost Conrad for the season on March 4, in their ACC opener at home against Syracuse. In Conrad, they lost perhaps their most key player, in his versatility, motor and leadership.
Virginia went on to lose against Syracuse, their first loss of the year, despite a great comeback from down 11-5. Since then, their play has been up and down, picking up four solid non-conference victories, but dropping their other ACC contest against Notre Dame.
Conrad’s grit, athleticism and leadership will be impossible to completely replace in the Cavaliers’ bid to return to the postseason. Particularly, the edge their captain provided in winning ground balls will be missed.
If Virginia wants to turn this good season into a great one, they will have to embrace this edge and hustle.
Zach Zamoff is a Sports senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.