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CHO: Five keys for No. 6 men’s lacrosse to defend its national championship

The Cavaliers have the talent to win it all again, but here are the five most important factors for the squad going into the heart of ACC play

<p>After a rocky start to ACC play — dropping games to Syracuse and North Carolina — the Cavaliers look rejuvenated and poised to make a run in the NCAA Tournament in May.</p>

After a rocky start to ACC play — dropping games to Syracuse and North Carolina — the Cavaliers look rejuvenated and poised to make a run in the NCAA Tournament in May.

The state of the program has drastically changed since the days of the 2019 National Championship team. Gone are the days of stars in midfielder Ryan Conrad and attackman Michael Kraus, but new stars have blossomed to take their place. Redshirt freshman attackman Connor Shellenberger leads the team in points and assists, and sophomore attackman Payton Cormier leads the team in goals. 

10 games into the 2021 campaign, Virginia stands at 8-2, with a 1-2 ACC record. Without an ACC Tournament this year, the Cavaliers will enter the NCAA Tournament straight after the regular season with an at-large bid — barring any surprises — and hopes to defend their crown in Hartford, Conn. this May.

With just four games remaining in the Cavaliers’ regular season schedule, here are five keys for Coach Lars Tiffany and company to win another National Championship.

5. Define Offensive Roles

Having too many weapons should never be an issue, especially with such a highly regarded offensive coordinator like Sean Kirwan running the show. However, a problem with Virginia’s star-studded offense has been the presence of too many elite level players with just six spots on the field at a time and only one ball to go around. 

With longtime stalwarts of the offense like senior attackman Matt Moore, senior attackman Ian Laviano and senior midfielder Dox Aitken returning as starters from the 2019 National Championship team, Tiffany and Kirwan must find a way to optimize their talents, even if it means sacrificing statistics for the good of the team.

Shellenberger and Cormier have emerged as stars. The pair must find time on the field, as Shellenberger’s elite vision and Cormier’s elite finishing are must-see television. Now with these five players mentioned, only one spot remains for another player. 

Senior attackman Charlie Bertrand has been as advertised, as the former two-time Division II Player of the Year is fourth on the team in both goals and points. However, as of late, junior midfielder Jeff Conner has been getting the start at midfield alongside Aitken and Laviano, with Moore, Shellenberger and Cormier getting the start at attack.

Sophomore midfielder Peter Garno, sophomore attackman Xander Dickson and senior midfielder Regan Quinn have been seeing meaningful minutes on the second midfield line. Additionally, senior attackman Griffin Harris has earned time on the extra-man offense.

Simply put, this leaves an abundance of talent at Kirwan’s disposal, but only six players can play at a time. With players moving constantly between attack and midfield, roles must be defined soon for the offense to get into a rhythm going forward.

4. Tighten the defense

Despite the offense’s struggles with roles and rhythm, they still rank 10th in the country in scoring offense. The defense, however, at 11.6 goals allowed per game, ranks 39th in the country. The unit, to be frank, has been subpar thus far and ranks second-to-last in the conference.

On paper, it seems as though the defense should be elite. Multiple former five-star recruits make up the defense, with sophomore defenders Cade Saustad, Quentin Matsui and Scott Bower all receiving meaningful playing time. All-American senior defender Kyle Kology continues to impress as a former walk-on, and All-American senior long-stick midfielder Jared Conners has been dominant in the transition game.

The former Final Four Most Outstanding Player, senior goalie Alex Rode ranks eighth in the country in saves and will be an integral part of the backline. However, the unit still struggles to find an identity. With such quality offensive stars in the ACC, such as Duke graduate attackman Michael Sowers and North Carolina senior attackman Chris Gray, it is of utmost importance for the defense to come together as a unit. 

3. Junior faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla

LaSalla holds the key to success for this Cavalier team. The potent offense cannot score without possession of the ball, and LaSalla has been dominant in giving them chances. 

LaSalla currently leads the country in faceoffs won with 156, 17 higher than the next player on the list. Despite the emergence of Duke freshman faceoff specialist Jake Naso at the faceoff X, LaSalla will surely be in conversation to be the top faceoff specialist in the conference. 

His success is directly correlated with the team’s success, as evidenced by his dominant 2019 postseason run. In a quarterfinal victory against Maryland, LaSalla won the game’s final seven faceoffs, and in the semifinal victory against Duke, he won the game’s last eight. He also pitched in two goals in the National Championship game against Yale, solidifying his place in Virginia lacrosse history. 

2. Be able to compete with the upper echelon of teams nationwide

2021 has been the year of the ACC in the lacrosse world. Simply put, the best competition in the country takes place in one singular conference, with each of its five teams ranked in the top 10 nationally. With the traditionally strong Ivy League not playing this season, no other conference has more than two teams in the top 10, which clearly shows the dominance of the ACC. 

Across the five teams, the ACC is an astounding 29-1 against non-ACC teams, with a singular loss by Syracuse to Army, who was previously defeated by Virginia. 

The league is loaded with stars, top to bottom. Duke’s Sowers and freshman attackman Brennan O’Neill have been nothing short of dominant, as have North Carolina’s Gray, Syracuse’s potent midfield unit and Notre Dame’s sophomore attackman Pat Kavanagh.

With such a tough conference schedule, the Cavaliers have struggled to keep up with the rest of the teams. Currently sitting at 1-2 in the ACC, the defending national champions still have many things to work out before taking on the gauntlet of Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse prior to the NCAA Tournament

It seems as though Duke and Big Ten rival Maryland have separated themselves from the pack, with the likes of Virginia, North Carolina, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Denver lurking closely behind. With Duke upcoming on the schedule, as well as rematches with North Carolina and Syracuse, the Cavaliers must show that they should be grouped in that top tier of teams in the country.

1.  Stay positive, test negative

In all honesty, the Cavaliers’ biggest threat this season isn’t Duke, North Carolina, Maryland or Syracuse. The Cavaliers’ biggest threat is literally microscopic, as the virus has the power to end everything prematurely, as evidenced by the recent shutdown of Delaware’s women’s lacrosse team, which had its season come to an end following COVID-19 related violations. 

We’ve seen the College Football Playoffs and the March Madness Tournament finish up as successes, and as the vaccine becomes more readily available, perhaps this issue will become less of a concern going forward. However, any team can see its entire season shutdown, and until this fight against the pandemic is over, avoiding COVID-19 will be of utmost importance for Virginia.

The Cavaliers hold all of the keys to defending their throne in May, but will need to tighten up a few things here and there to maximize their chances at victory. Virginia looks to continue its title defense Saturday against North Carolina at Dorrance Field in Chapel Hill, N.C. The opening faceoff is set for 2 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on ESPNU.

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