MULAY: Virginia men’s lacrosse is a legitimate national championship contender

Cavaliers are one of the most well-rounded teams in the country

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The Virginia Cavaliers are winning consistently thanks to an all-around team effort. 

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

After years of difficult seasons and disappointing results, Virginia men’s lacrosse has transformed into a true ACC powerhouse this year. 

Top to bottom, the No. 6 Virginia men’s lacrosse team is one of the most talented squads in the nation. The Cavaliers (10-3, 3-1 ACC) are physically and mentally gifted and seemingly prepared to take on any challenge.

With the end of the regular season nearing, let’s dive into exactly why Virginia can win its first national title since 2011. 

Multidimensional offense

A common thread between top lacrosse teams in 2019 is the dominance of a single offensive star. Penn State has junior attackman Mac O’Keefe, Loyola relies on sophomore attackman Kevin Lindley, and Duke is led by sophomore attackman Joe Robertson — all three players contribute significantly more goals than any of their teammates.

Virginia however is one of the few teams that bucks against this trend. The Cavaliers are led by a dynamic quartet who have each provided at least 25 goals this season. No other top-10 team in the most recent USILA coaches’ poll boasts four players with that level of scoring production. 

Sophomore attackmen Ian Laviano and Matt Moore lead the team in goals and assists, respectively. Junior midfielder Dox Aitken is producing extraordinary numbers for a midfielder, while junior attackman Michael Kraus is in All-American form with 24 goals and 17 assists over his last eight starts.

The Cavaliers uniquely don’t have to rely on just one or two stars to attack their opponents. The ability to produce offense in a number of ways will be pivotal for Virginia moving forward.

Resilient defense

Defensively, Virginia depends on a trio of terrific individual defenders and an in-form goalkeeper. 

Each of the Cavaliers’ starting defensemen offer something unique. Armed with a high lacrosse IQ, sophomore defenseman Kyle Kology has gone from hopeful walk-on to a consistent starter. Senior defenseman Logan Greco serves as the leader of the defense and provides much-needed experience. Finally, freshman defenseman Cade Saustad  — a top recruit out of high school — is a technically talented and physically imposing pillar in Virginia’s backline. 

On top of that trio, sophomore goalkeeper Alex Rode has been playing tremendously well as of late. When all four of the aforementioned players are firing on all cylinders, Virginia’s defense is the equivalent of a brick wall.   

Extra possessions

The Cavaliers are offensively clinical and defensively solid, but when the team is picking up extra possessions left and right, Virginia is a truly a menace to play against.

Virginia’s high-pressure ride often allows the Cavaliers to win the all-important turnover battle, limiting the other team’s goal-scoring opportunities and giving Kraus and company more chances of their own.  

With an emphasis on relentless hustle, the Cavaliers also lead the country in ground balls per game, averaging 41.45. Senior midfielder Ryan Conrad has been pivotal here with 57 ground balls so far on the year. 

In addition, freshman midfielder Petey LaSalla has stepped up recently at the faceoff X, especially against top teams. Against North Carolina, LaSalla dominated the X and won 17-23 faceoffs, single-handedly keeping Virginia in the game. 

When Virginia is securing additional possessions at a rapid rate, the already tough Cavaliers become nearly impossible to beat.

Clutch factor

Last, but not least, the “Cardiac Cavs” have demonstrated their ability to win close games time and time again in 2019. 

During Virginia’s eight-game winning streak, the Cavaliers won half of their games by a single goal including three consecutive overtime victories.

Moreover, the Cavaliers don’t fear deficits in the fourth quarter, consistently erasing their opponents’ late-game leads with flurries of offense. 

When the game is on the line, Virginia doesn’t panic. The Cavaliers trust the principles Coach Lars Tiffany has drilled into them during practice and are confident in their ability to play their up-tempo style of lacrosse.   

To make a deep postseason run and even have a shot at the national title, Virginia is going to have to keep winning close games and, so far, the team has been up to the task.

After several tough years, Virginia men’s lacrosse has turned a page this season. From 2013 to 2018, the Cavaliers won just two games in conference play and never advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This season, Virginia already has three ACC victories — against No. 9 Syracuse, No. 11 Notre Dame and North Carolina — under its belt and will be the top seed in the ACC tournament. With an impressive resume, several star players and a propensity to win big games, the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers look poised to return to championship-winning form.

Best of all for the Virginia faithful, the young squad has at least a two-year window to capture an elusive sixth NCAA Tournament Championship. 

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