MULAY: “Cardiac Cavs” are on a collision course with the national championship

Depth and determination are the Cavaliers’ greatest strengths

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With Kraus and company leading the way, no lead is safe against the Virginia Cavaliers.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

There are just over 10 minutes left in the game and the third-seeded Virginia men’s lacrosse team trails by five goals to Maryland in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament. After a 5-0 Maryland run spanning the third and fourth quarters, the Cavaliers are on the brink of elimination.

Instead of collapsing, Virginia fought back. The Cavaliers mounted an unbelievable comeback, scoring six straight goals to finish the match. Junior attackman Michael Kraus delivered the game-tying goal late in the fourth quarter, and sophomore attackman Matt Moore scored the game-winner just 45 seconds into overtime. The improbable victory sent Virginia to Championship Weekend for the first time since 2011. 

The Cavaliers’ intense, down-to-the-wire game against the Terrapins last Saturday wasn’t an outlier but an exemplar of their 2019 season.

While Virginia’s 83.3 win percentage this year — second-best in the country — is impressive, perhaps more impressive is how they have achieved their 15-3 record. Seven of the Cavaliers’ games have been decided by one goal, four have gone all the way to overtime and several saw the team facing significant fourth-quarter deficits.   

Virginia, however, doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The Cavaliers have thrived in high-pressure situations. Virginia is 4-0 in games that have gone to overtime and 6-1 in games decided by a single score. Moreover, the Cavaliers have found themselves losing by four or more goals seven times this season and have come back to win five of those matches.

The team’s ability to erase deficits and win close games isn’t just determination or luck. While most of the top lacrosse teams rely on one or two stars, Virginia has arguably the most balanced attacking unit in the country. 

As expected, Kraus has been an attacking force, averaging an ACC-leading 4.47 points per game, while Moore has also been historically good, the only Cavalier to ever record 40 goals and 40 assists in a single season. 

In addition to Kraus and Moore, sophomore attackman Ian Laviano has stepped up this season as Virginia’s top goalscorer, and junior midfielder Dox Aitken is shattering program records at his position.

Any one of these players are able to step up when they’re needed.

Kraus’ and Laviano’s five-goal performances earlier in the season, Moore’s six-goal explosion in the ACC semifinals and Aitken’s hat-trick in the ACC Championship game  are just a few examples of the Cavaliers’ uniquely balanced attack. 

Beyond those four players, the Cavaliers have several other key contributors. With dynamic midfielders like senior All-ACC selection Ryan Conrad — 83 ground balls this season — and freshman faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla — 60.4 faceoff win percentage — and defensive stalwarts like sophomore goalkeeper Alex Rode and senior defenseman Logan Greco, Virginia is talented across the board. 

While they have terrific players lining up all over the field, the Cavaliers’ uncanny ability to edge out opponents in close games isn’t just because of raw talent. 

A “never-say-die” attitude instilled by the coaches, drilled in during practice and embodied by the players makes Virginia the most difficult team in the country to beat.

“In the huddle, we’re all saying ‘no doubt and believe,’” Kraus said after overcoming a four-goal deficit in the fourth quarter and scoring the game-winner in overtime against Brown March 10. “No doubt in yourself. No doubt in your teammates. No doubt in our scheme. No matter what the deficit is or how much we’re up, we’re [going to] come out on top.”

With Kraus and company leading the way, no lead, big or small,  is safe against the Cavaliers, and few teams, if any, are able to match their intensity late in games. 

The Cavaliers’ tenacity can be seen in their hustle and aggression. They lead all tournament teams in both ground balls, 41.06 per game, and clearing defense, 69.8 opponent clearing percentage. This helps them win close games in which every extra possession could be the difference-maker.

Boasting four all-conference players and unwavering confidence, Virginia is built to excel in the clutch. The Cavaliers aren’t dependent on one player and have multiple stars who can make the big play. When presented with adversity, Virginia thrives.

As the Cavaliers travel to Philadelphia, Pa., this weekend for their first Final Four since 2011, their upcoming opponents will have to first overcome their individual talent and their unbreakable spirit.

Only three teams have been able to do that in 2019. Two of Virginia’s losses came in the first two weeks of the season and the other defeat was against Duke in April when the team was undermanned.

The Virginia Cavaliers are hard to beat, and they only play better in the most important games of their season.

Virginia is set to play Duke at 12 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field as part of the NCAA Championship Weekend. 

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