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Previewing Championship Weekend for the Virginia men's lacrosse team

Carrying a 1-1 record against the Tar Heels this season, the men’s lacrosse team is looking to make its second straight appearance in the National Championship

<p>The top-ranked Tar Heels will be a formidable opponent for the Cavaliers in the semifinals, and, should they advance, the team will face tough competition in either Duke or Maryland.</p>

The top-ranked Tar Heels will be a formidable opponent for the Cavaliers in the semifinals, and, should they advance, the team will face tough competition in either Duke or Maryland.

The Cavaliers are returning to Championship Weekend for the second time in the past three years — excluding the shortened 2020 season. We all know what occurred the last time Virginia was in the semifinals in 2019 — then-sophomore attackman Ian Laviano’s overtime goal gave the team a date against Yale. The No. 3 seeded Cavaliers proceeded to upend the No. 5 Bulldogs on the shoulders of then-sophomore attackman Matt Moore who posted four goals and an assist in a 13-9 victory, winning the team the National Championship. It was a picture-perfect way to wrap up the spring during the Year of the Hoo.

Now, the Cavaliers have a chance to be the first team to repeat since Duke in 2013-2014. The pieces are all there for Coach Lars Tiffany, yet the competition looms large as Virginia sets its sights on the No. 1 ranked Tar Heels.

The Cavaliers are no stranger to this team, having played them both home and away in ACC play this year. In the first outing, North Carolina maintained its seven-game win streak with a 16-13 triumph over Virginia at home. Chris Gray, a Tewaaraton Trophy candidate and senior attackman, starred with four goals and an assist, while junior attackman Nicky Solomon played his own part by tallying six points for the Tar Heels.

Virginia’s Connor Shellenberger — a redshirt freshman — attempted to mount a late game comeback after posting two goals and three assists — both coming in the last nine minutes of the fourth quarter. Fast forward to the second contest between the two in Chapel Hill. A close affair throughout, the Cavaliers eventually extended their lead to four in the last period and left no room for a last ditch effort. Virginia essentially flipped the script and dictated its own pace of play, with junior midfielder Petey LaSalla winning 26 of 38 draws at the face-off X. 

Let’s now examine some of the key pieces for North Carolina, a team that will once again test the Cavaliers with their depth and experience.

Chris Gray, Senior Attackman: 

Gray — after transferring from Boston University two years ago — has provided a spark for the Tar Heel offense in his short time at Chapel Hill. While listed at only 5 feet 7 inches tall and 170 pounds, Gray plays above his smaller stature and finds ways to score, whether it be shooting from the wings or creating from behind the goal. His vision — as backed up by his 40 assists from this past season — has opened up opportunities for Solomon and others, since Gray captures much of the attention of the defense. The North Carolina offense revolves around #4 in blue, and his versatility as a scorer and a feeder will challenge the Cavalier defense immensely. Expect sophomore defenseman Cade Saustad — who stands at 6 feet 5 inches — to handle much of Gray in Saturday’s semifinal. Regardless of the matchup, it is a priority that the Cavaliers keep an eye on the 2021 ACC Offensive Player of the Year throughout the game. 

Will Bowen, Junior Defenseman:

Bowen is a freak of nature. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 220 pounds, he presents a physical challenge for any attackman on account of his sheer size and strength — let alone his skill with the stick. Having taken the 2019 season off for medical reasons, Bowen returned to the playing field in 2020 and ended the year as an Honorable Mention All-American. This past season, #24 dominated as the anchor of the Tar Heel defense, not necessarily finding himself on the stat sheet but consistently drawing the opponent’s best attackman. Moore or Shellenberger — the predominant scorers for Virginia — will likely find themselves matched up against Bowen. In order to keep the offense flowing, the Cavaliers will have to exploit one-on-ones away from the junior defenseman.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Duke (14-2, 4-2 ACC) will face off against No. 3 Maryland (14-0, 10-0 Big Ten) in a clash of the titans. Led by graduate student attackman Michael Sowers and freshman phenom attackman Brennan O’Neill, Duke boasts one of the most potent offenses in all of college lacrosse. The Blue Devils have had the Cavaliers’ number in the past decade and took home a 13-12 OT win in Charlottesville earlier this year. If they are able to overcome Maryland’s experienced attack — led by Tewaaraton Award Finalist senior Jared Bernhardt and senior Logan Wisnauskas — Duke will pose a serious threat for Virginia in the case of a semifinal victory. Maryland — underseeded despite an undefeated record — will wear down teams with sound defense and a seasoned offense. 

Overall, the top four teams that remain are quite simply the best of the best. Virginia — which restarts its final weekend campaign for a National Championship — will have to topple the No. 1 seeded Tar Heels first before having a chance at Duke or Maryland on Memorial Day. Thanks to those who experienced the 2019 National Championship, the Cavaliers will hopefully regain their postseason momentum as they attempt to repeat.