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Previewing the 2021 Virginia men’s lacrosse season

The Cavaliers look to defend their national title after last year’s up-and-down season was cut short

No. 3 Virginia men’s lacrosse has another legitimate shot at defending its national title after its 2020 season was cut short due to the pandemic. The Cavaliers hope to build upon some of their 2020 success this year and ultimately find themselves leaving the spring season with some more hardware. With an abundance of key pieces returning to the program — and the addition of a few new impact players — the 2021 Cavaliers have high hopes of keeping the ACC Championship in their hands and bringing another national championship trophy to Charlottesville.

The Cavaliers opened their season with a 20-11 win over Towson and will look to build on the victory as they dive into the rest of their schedule.

New additions

This year, Virginia welcomes the No. 6 ranked recruiting class according to Inside Lacrosse, boasting one five-star recruit and nine four-star recruits.

Four-star freshman long-stick midfielder Ben Wayer from Alexandria, Va. looks to contribute right away behind All-American senior long-stick midfielder Jared Conners, after the departure of senior long-stick midfielder Will Rock from the program. 

The most notable addition, however, is senior attackman Charlie Bertrand. Bertrand completed his undergraduate engineering degree at former Divison II powerhouse Merrimack College — where he was a two-time National Champion, two-time USILA National Player of the Year and three-time USILA All-American in just three seasons. 

Prior to the shortened 2020 season, Merrimack moved up to the Division I level, and Bertrand continued to impress against more elite competition — netting 18 goals in just six games for the Warriors.

“With each week on the field, [Bertrand is] proving himself and the accolades that surround his past,” Coach Lars Tiffany said.

Bertrand netted four goals and two assists in his Virginia debut, seemingly scoring at will against the Tigers’ defense. 

Despite Bertrand’s many achievements, he will not be expected to shoulder too much of the offensive burden. Virginia’s offense is loaded with former five-star recruits, All-Americans and even more talent that has yet to shine.

Notable returners

The Cavaliers welcome back All-American senior attackman Matt Moore, who in 2020 was ranked No. 8 nationally in points per game with 5.83 and No. 12 in assists per game with 2.67. This season, Moore’s talent and presence will play major roles on and off the field. Despite being unavailable for the season opener, Moore will be vital in the team’s success.

“[Moore is] taking his leadership role with the team to astronomical levels,” Tiffany said. “[He is] personally taking responsibility for the offense and all of its constituents.”

This high praise suggests that Moore’s leadership could play a determining factor in the offense’s success in 2021.

Moore is joined by his long-time linemate, senior attackman Ian Laviano — the spark plug for this Cavalier offense and a stalwart in the riding game. Sophomore attackman Payton Cormier — who saw time at midfield last year — may also slot in as the third attackman on the left wing.

Cormier set a career high this past Saturday with six goals, along with an assist, starting at attack with Moore out.

Though these three won’t be joined by now-graduated attacker Michael Kraus, the blow is softened by the exciting news that three-time All-American senior midfielder Dox Aitken is back in Charlottesville after spending the fall at Villanova.

The Cavaliers have many talented options at midfield — or perhaps even attack — besides Aitken, including former No. 1 recruit redshirt freshman attackman Connor Shellenberger and Bertrand. 

Shellenberger made his collegiate debut starting at attack, pouring in four goals and recording three assists in an electric start to his Virginia career.

Sophomore midfielders Peter Garno and Mike Bienkowski look to remain in the midfield rotation as well, along with junior midfielders Jeff Conner and Jack Simmons and junior attackman Xander Dickson. Both Garno and Dickson recorded their first goals of the young season Saturday.

With so much depth on the offense, Virginia’s defense was the talk of much speculation in 2020. Last season, now-sophomore defenders Quentin Matsui and Scott Bower started for the Cavaliers, and they both look to contribute again in 2021. Matsui earned the start against Towson, alongside senior defender Kyle Kology and sophomore defender Cade Saustad.

The return of Conners will be vital in the success of the defense, with All-American Kology — a former walk-on — looking to anchor him and others on the backline.

“[It is] understated to call [Kology] a coach on the field,” Tiffany said.

Kology’s leadership could play a pivotal role in the growth and development of the relatively young Virginia defense, in the same way that Moore’s leadership impacts the offense.

Cade Saustad hopes to return to his prime form after an injury kept him off the field in 2020. As a freshman starter on the 2019 National Championship team, Saustad consistently drew the matchup of the opposing team’s best attacker — even as a rookie.

Holding down the backline will be senior goalie Alex Rode. Rode — the 2019 Final Four Most Outstanding Player — will be another leader for this Virginia defense and looks to build upon his impressive 2020 campaign. Rode had eight saves in 48 minutes of play against Towson.

Another specialist that will play a vital role in the team’s success is junior midfielder Petey LaSalla. LaSalla went 19 of 23 from the faceoff X Saturday, dominating possession for the Cavaliers. As the starting faceoff man since his freshman year, LaSalla has worked relentlessly in the off-season to improve. 

“Nothing in the weight room is too heavy [for LaSalla],” Tiffany said.

Another potential impact player will be sophomore midfielder Gavin Tygh. The former five-star recruit spent last season behind LaSalla, but has the potential to make the faceoff position more of a timeshare this year.

“[Tygh] moved his bed into the weight room,” Tiffany said. “[Tygh is] attacking the new faceoff rules with his own version of quickness and power.”

Key Matchups

No. 2 North Carolina (March 11)

It’s been almost two years since the teams of the South’s Oldest Rivalry played, with the Cavaliers winning 11-10 in 2019. Following up on an underwhelming 8-7 season, the Tar Heels roared back in the limited 2020 season — posting an undefeated record of 7-0 with notable wins over Johns Hopkins and Denver.

North Carolina opened their 2021 campaign with a dominant 24-13 victory over No. 10 Denver.

Riding the momentum from last season, North Carolina is looking to build on an unbelievably talented attack core led by senior attackman Chris Gray, who finished last year with 48 points — the most in Division I. 

Gray netted six goals and an assist in the Denver victory. Paired with junior attackmen Nicky Solomon and Jacob Kelly, Gray will likely wreak havoc once again as the catalyst of an electric Tar Heel offense. 

Freshman Cole Herbert — Inside Lacrosse’s No. 1 ranked incoming midfielder — will make his mark early along with team captain and speedster, senior midfielder Justin Anderson. In short, this North Carolina team looks to be one of the most talented rosters that Coach Joe Breschi has seen in his 13-year tenure in Chapel Hill.

No. 1 Duke (April 15)

The Cavaliers follow up a second game against North Carolina with a duel against the Duke Blue Devils — Virginia’s clear kryptonite over the past decade. Duke owns a 10-2 record over the Cavaliers since 2010. However, the Blue Devils did fall to Virginia in the 2019 national semifinal courtesy of an overtime goal from Laviano.

There is no shortage of depth on Coach John Danowski’s roster. Managing to snag one of the most dynamic attackmen in college lacrosse history — Princeton transfer Michael Sowers — the Blue Devils also reeled in the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2020 — freshman attackman Brennan O’Neill. 

O’Neill, who poured in three goals in his debut against No. 10 Denver, will certainly continue to shine as Sowers draws the attention of the defense. Danowski — who some regard as the Nick Saban of college lacrosse — will have many chess pieces to play with as he welcomes in another top recruiting class.

The Blue Devils opened up the season with two victories over Denver and Robert Morris. 

The Cavaliers — who are not far behind Duke in the national rankings — will have a good shot to upend their archnemesis in Charlottesville. Containing Sowers and O’Neill will be the main priority for this Virginia defense, and it will most certainly be a battle from the start.

No. 4 Syracuse (April 24)

April will surely prove to be a tough month for the Cavaliers, with Syracuse, North Carolina and Duke all squaring off against the nation’s No. 3 ranked team. The Orange — who experienced a resurgence last season after a disappointing 9-5 campaign in 2019 — finished the shortened 2020 season with a record of 5-0. 

Much like the Blue Devils, Syracuse largely benefited from the NCAA transfer portal, landing former Loyola attackman and renowned scorer, sophomore attackman Chase Scanlan in 2020. 

In the midfield, junior Brendan Curry and lightning-quick sophomore Tucker Dordevic will cause problems for defenses with their ability to dodge and shoot down the alley. The Orange also welcome back fifth-year senior midfielder Jamie Trimboli, an Inside Lacrosse preseason All-American.

As if these three aren’t enough, Coach John Desko retained fifth-year senior X-attackman Stephen Rehfuss and nabbed the No. 2 overall recruit in the class of 2020 — freshman attackman Owen Hiltz. Rehfuss, who can dissect a defense with his clever passing, can count on shooters Hiltz and Scanlan to make his job that much easier.

Syracuse welcomes back seven fifth-year seniors, including Inside Lacrosse preseason All-American goalie Drake Porter. One of the best goalies in the country, Porter returned for another chance at championship weekend. Claiming “Hartford or bust” on his Instagram post announcing his return — as Hartford is the host city of the 2021 NCAA Final Four — Porter hopes to lead this dangerous Orange team back to championship weekend.

The road for Virginia will go through these three squads, and each presents a unique challenge. As in normal years, the ACC offers competition unlike any other conference in the country and will push this Cavalier team to their limits, hopefully giving them enough experience to make a strong run in the postseason.

All in all, Virginia reloads yet again under Tiffany and will remain a legitimate contender in 2021. With the ACC attracting many impact transfers, such as Sowers transferring to Duke, it appears that Cavalier fans will see some fierce competition this season. Yet despite its numerous notable departures, it seems as though Virginia has a plethora of talent to potentially repeat as ACC champions and national champions.