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National champion men’s lacrosse set to begin title defense

With a strong returning core, the Cavaliers have what it takes to repeat as NCAA champions

<p>Virginia men’s lacrosse begins its national title defense Feb. 8 against Loyola at Klöckner Field. &nbsp;</p>

Virginia men’s lacrosse begins its national title defense Feb. 8 against Loyola at Klöckner Field.  

Virginia men’s lacrosse begins its national title defense Feb. 8 against Loyola at Klöckner Stadium. With a plethora of key pieces from last year’s title-winning run returning, the 2020 Cavaliers have high hopes of bringing another championship back to Charlottesville.

The Roster

Virginia will be returning seven of 10 starters from last year’s national championship game against Yale as well as sophomore face-off specialist Petey LaSalla. Only midfielder Ryan Conrad, attacker Mikey Herring and defender Logan Greco will not be back — all three graduated in the spring.

Included in that returning core are four All-Americans — two-time first-team selection and senior midfielder Dox Aitken and debut first-team selection and senior long-stick midfielder Jared Conners.

The Virginia offense is expected to be one of the nation’s most dynamic, as the Cavaliers return their four leading point-scorers from last season in junior attacker and All-American honorable mention Matt Moore, senior third team All-American attacker Michael Kraus, sophomore attacker Ian Laviano and Aitken.

Additionally, after garnering interest from teams as a head coach candidate in the offseason, offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan will be back — further helping the team’s chemistry and transition into the 2020 season.

"We're very fortunate," Coach Lars Tiffany said. "We have fantastic talent back. We have most of our offensive firepower back, and we have Sean Kirwan back."

In stark contrast, however, the Cavaliers’ defensive unit has several question marks heading into the season. 

Standout two-way midfielder Conrad and attacker Herring and All-American defender Greco are gone. Junior defender Kyle Kology, sophomore defender Cade Saustad and junior goalkeeper Alex Rode — named the NCAA tournament’s most outstanding player — will return, but injuries kept Saustad as well as Conners out of much of the team’s fall scrimmages.

As a result, Virginia will have to turn to young talent on the defensive end with freshmen Scott Bower, Quentin Matsui and Jake Giulieri likely slated to play significant minutes. In terms of replacing Conrad and his tenacious play, Tiffany believes sophomore midfielder Chris Merle could help fill the gap.

"He's as close to fearless as we have on our team,” Tiffany said. “He runs through bodies –– not to hit people, but because there's a ball there –– and he's oblivious to giving you a charley horse or getting slashed. So I love his doggedness in pursuit of ground balls.” 

LaSalla is expected to continue handling face-offs after winning 58.7 percent of his matchups last year — ranked top 20 in the country. Freshman face-off specialist Gavin Tygh has shown potential and could challenge for reps during the season.

The Schedule

Virginia opens the season against Loyola just as the team did in 2019. Last year, the Cavaliers were defeated handily in Baltimore by a score of 17-9. The Cavaliers will return to Charlottesville with hopes of avenging their season-opening loss a year ago.

The rest of the schedule closely resembles 2019 with the opponents responsible for Virginia’s three losses — Loyola, High Point and Duke — all on the 2020 slate. 

An addition to this year’s regular season schedule is Maryland. The Cavaliers mounted a dramatic comeback to pull off an improbable win against the Terrapins in the national quarter finals last year, including a controversial game-tying goal awarded to Virginia with just over a minute remaining. The rematch will be another highly-contested matchup with emotions running high on both sides of the ball.

Of the 14-game regular season schedule, the Cavaliers will host 10 matches — including a regular season game in Charlottesville against VMI following the ACC tournament in late April.

Another game of note is the April 9 matchup against Duke at Klockner Stadium. The Cavaliers ended an 11-game losing streak — dating back to 2010 — to the Blue Devils by pulling off yet another stunning comeback in the national semifinals last year. A Virginia win this year would be its first regular season win over Duke since 2004.

"Formidable obstacles abound in 2020," Tiffany said. "We are fortunate to have significant challenges on our schedule this spring, with many opponents coming to Charlottesville. Such a demanding slate serves as a fantastic motivator, prompting us to train in the off-season and preseason with greater focus and intensity."

While repeating as national champions is certainly no easy task, the Cavaliers have the experience and offensive firepower to put themselves in a position to capture the program’s seventh NCAA title. This, combined with the strong culture that Tiffany has reestablished, means Virginia has the tools necessary to be playing lacrosse in late May.

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