MULAY: Key storylines for Virginia men’s lacrosse heading into conference play

With ACC play starting soon, here’s what to keep an eye on

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Virginia men's lacrosse showing signs of promise as ACC opener nears.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

After a 2-2 start to the season, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team is set to visit No. 14 Syracuse on Saturday for its ACC opener. Before the Cavaliers attempt to navigate their rigorous ACC schedule, let’s take a look at some of the important Virginia storylines that have emerged so far this season.

Virginia has been tested early and often

There is no denying that Virginia has faced an extremely difficult schedule to start the 2019 season. Each of the four teams Virginia has played so far are either ranked or receiving votes in the most recent coaches and media polls. Those four teams – No. 1 Loyola, Lehigh, No. 13 High Point and Princeton – have an outstanding combined record of 9-5.

In light of Virginia’s tough early-season schedule, the Cavaliers’ 2-2 record is a solid start to the year. The Cavaliers’ victories against teams like Lehigh and Princeton as well as their narrow loss to High Point prove that Virginia can compete with some of the best teams in the country. 

While Virginia may have been able to post a better record with an easier schedule, a difficult opening slate may actually be a blessing in disguise for the team.

Last season, the Cavaliers were 4-0 after only facing one ranked team before their ACC opener, but ended up going 1-3 in ACC play before falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

As the Cavaliers already have multiple games against strong opponents under their belt, the team will hope to be better prepared for future ranked showdowns. With all five ACC men’s lacrosse teams currently ranked, Virginia’s quality experience could prove invaluable. 

Michael Kraus has struggled with consistency in the first few games

Going into this season, junior attackman Michael Kraus was expected to be Virginia’s star goalscorer and leader on offense. Last year, Kraus led the Cavaliers in points, goals and assists with 83, 44 and 39, respectively, en route to earning Inside Lacrosse All-American and All-ACC honors. 

In stark contrast to 2018, Kraus’s inconsistent production has been a major challenge for the Cavaliers this season. Even though Kraus is still second on the team in points, his four-goal performance against unranked Lehigh provided nearly half of his 14 points. In Virginia’s other three games, Kraus produced a total of just three goals, though he also did contribute six assists. 

Kraus’ individual struggles severely weakens the Virginia attack, especially in situations when the team needs someone to step up and make a big play. Without Kraus as their reliable go-to scorer, the Cavaliers have suffered periods of stagnant play. 

In 2018, Coach Lars Tiffany emphasized Kraus’ “signature hard-charging style” and ability to create “offense for himself and his teammates by drawing attention from multiple defenders.” Virginia will need that dynamic version of Kraus every game to compete with ACC powerhouses like No. 6 Duke and No. 17 Notre Dame. 

Matt Moore is shattering all expectations in his new position

One of the most interesting developments this season for Virginia men’s lacrosse has been sophomore Matt Moore’s transition between midfielder and attackman. 

Playing in midfield last year, Moore recorded 19 goals and 15 assists in 17 games. This year, after replacing Class of 2018 alumnus Mike D’Amario on the frontline, Moore already has nine goals and 10 assists in just four games, leading the team with 19 points. 

Moore’s unique combination of physicality and quickness makes him a versatile threat who can put pressure on a defense in a number of ways.

The 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year can either use his elusive dodging to tear through opposing defenses or his big 6-foot-2 frame to overpower defenders, making him difficult to stop. 

Amongst other things, Moore’s ability to perform at a high level against elite competition is what makes him such a valuable player for the Cavaliers. Against top-ranked Loyola, Moore scored three much-needed goals in a game where Virginia’s other starting attackmen combined for just two.

If Moore can continue his strong goalscoring form, teams will struggle to slow down a Virginia attack that suddenly has a plethora of offensive playmakers.

Virginia’s defense is led by a couple of unlikely heroes

In addition to Moore, a number of other Cavaliers have played surprisingly well this season, especially on the defensive side.

For instance, junior defenseman Jared Conners has taken a big step forward this year. After recording 10 caused turnovers over the course of the entire 2018 season, Conners has already surpassed that mark in just four games this season. In fact, Conners’ 11 caused turnovers is one of the highest marks in the country. He has also picked up 14 ground balls, tied for second-most on the team. 

“[Conners] is becoming one of the program’s best cover defensemen, utilizing his disruptive approaches, long reach and unforeseen strength,” Tiffany said in praise last year. 

In addition to Conners, freshman defenseman Cade Saustad — a former five-star recruit and Under Armour All-American — has made an immediate impact for the Cavaliers as a first-year starter. 

Saustad’s aggressive playstyle helps the Cavaliers press opponents and push the pace in transition. The Dallas native is one of the team leaders in ground balls with 13 and still has four years to develop his game even further. 

Both Conners and Saustad are fiercely competitive defensemen and both add size and strength to Virginia’s backline. 

More recently, freshman goalkeeper Patrick Burkinshaw has emerged as a capable shot stopper in cage for the Cavaliers. After earning his first career start last Saturday against Princeton, Burkinshaw saved 24 shots, including six in the fourth quarter. In his collegiate debut, Burkinshaw set a Virginia freshman record and tied for the most single-game saves in the country this season.

If Burkinshaw can continue to play at a high level, the Cavaliers will be difficult to beat going forward.

Coach Lars Tiffany loves analogies

Of the many statistics concerning Virginia’s season so far, one little-known fact has failed to get the attention it deserves.

Only four games into the season, Tiffany has already used three analogies to compare Virginia men’s lacrosse to other sports.

The trend first started after Virginia’s home opener, when Tiffany likened pressuring the quarterback in football to Virginia’s aggressive riding. 

“We tell our attackmen that they are the defensive frontline of a football team, you got to get pressure,” Tiffany said. “If we can get pressure with three or four rushing the passer then we don't have to implement a 10-man [ride] and we can cause turnovers.”

Tiffany expanded his football analogy by discussing how the midfield and attack must work together for a successful ride. 

“We tell [Kraus, Laviano and Moore] you don't have to make the sack, just force a bad pass or an interception because our safeties, our middies, they're ready to jump on errant passes,” Tiffany said about the team’s riding philosophy.

He then drew parallels between the lacrosse team and Virginia men’s basketball’s stifling packline defense. 

“What I liked is we got a few Tony Bennett-like shot clock violations [against Lehigh],” Tiffany said in reference to the Virginia basketball coach’s emphasis on suffocating ball pressure. 

Tiffany’s use of analogies, however, wasn’t an isolated incident. After Virginia’s very next game — a heartbreaking loss to High Point — Tiffany made yet another analogy, this time involving baseball.

“I just told my team that we took some home run swings, when we can only score one goal at a time,” Tiffany said, referring to the Cavaliers’ reckless shooting. “This isn't baseball with grand slams.”

In his third year as the head coach of Virginia men’s lacrosse, Tiffany often offers unique insight through his analogies. With several months still left in the 2019 season including games against elite ACC competition, it will be interesting to see how many more analogies Tiffany has up his sleeves.

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