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ISTVAN: The history of the three-peat and why men’s lacrosse can become royalty

The red-hot Cavaliers appear poised to break 24-year curse

<p>Currently undefeated, the men's lacrosse team is looking to continue their stretch of dominance into a third straight season.</p>

Currently undefeated, the men's lacrosse team is looking to continue their stretch of dominance into a third straight season.

The same team winning three consecutive championships — widely considered a “three-peat” by American sports fans — has been the most difficult team accomplishment to achieve in sports this century.

Of course, there have been several recent occasions in which an individual achieved a three-peat, most notably Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt — 100-meter and 200-meter gold medalist in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics — and American swimmer Katie Ledecky, who was an 800-meter freestyle gold medalist in the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Olympics. But occasions in which a team manages this feat are hard to come by.

Take four of the U.S.’ most popular professional sports leagues. Since Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association began league action in the early 19th century, there have only been 15 occasions across all four leagues in which the same team has won three consecutive championships. Only four of these have occurred since 1983, and none have occurred since the Los Angeles Lakers won their third successive NBA Championship in 2002.

In perhaps college’s most coveted sport, only one NCAA Division I men’s basketball team has managed to put together three straight title runs, and that team is UCLA. 

Since Coach John Wooden’s crew capped off their seventh straight national championship in 1973, no club has managed a three-peat. In fact, only two men’s basketball programs have even put together back-to-back championships, those being Duke in 1991-1992 and Florida in 2006-2007.

Elsewhere in the NCAA, the three-peat has not materialized since 1946 in the FBS, when Army found themselves as champions in three consecutive years. Division I baseball hasn’t seen a three-peat since USC in 1974 and only two Division I men’s soccer clubs have accomplished the feat — Virginia in 1993 and Stanford in 2017.

Most importantly, however, is that only three Division I men’s lacrosse teams own the bragging rights of a three-peat. Johns Hopkins did it in 1980, Syracuse in 1990 and Princeton in 1998.

No. 2 Virginia (6-0, 2-0 ACC) has a chance to join them. Hot off the heels of their seventh national championship and second successive, the Cavaliers are chasing history.

The cancellation of the Division I Men’s Lacrosse Tournament in 2020 makes things a bit foggy for the Cavaliers, however. 

Their current two-championship streak, including a 2019 victory over Yale and 2021 win versus Maryland, was sandwiched in between a year in which the title was voided. This means if Virginia runs the table again this spring, their three victories will have occurred in four years, rather than three. 

Still, the Cavaliers will have won three national championships in a time span in which no other team mustered even one, making it a set in stone three-peat. To achieve something that has been unachievable for 24 years, immense talent is a requirement – a category in which Virginia has no shortage. 

Sophomore attacker Connor Shellenberger has already accounted for 25 assists just six games into the Cavaliers’ young season, good for the overall lead in the ACC. Not too far behind Shellenberger, junior attacker Payton Cormier is fourth in the ACC in goals, having poured in 21 at this point.

In the midfield, Virginia is led by a pair of veterans, with senior midfielder Petey Lasalla being the key cog for the Cavaliers. Lasalla’s 35 ground balls are fifth in the ACC, and he’s a sneaky threat to ripple the net as well, having scored five goals this season. Senior midfielder Jack Simmons isn’t far behind, totaling eight points on the season, seven being goals.

Further down the field, sophomore defender Cole Kastner and junior defender Cade Saustad headline a defensive unit that doesn’t give up much ground. The 6-foot-7 Kastner and 6-foot-5 Saustad each played large roles in Virginia’s championship run last season, giving the Cavaliers’ defense an excess of experience where it is most needed.

Between the sticks, Virginia starts freshman goalie Matthew Nunes. Entering college as the No. 1 goalie prospect in the nation, Nunes’ impact on the Cavaliers was felt right away. On Feb. 15, the freshman earned ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors after making 16 saves in Virginia’s 11-10 victory over High Point, the last of which was a crucial stop that kept the Cavaliers in front with under 30 seconds remaining. 

On the sidelines, Virginia is in great hands with coach Lars Tiffany. Entering just his sixth season at the helm, Tiffany has already helped end the Cavaliers’ nine-year national championship drought in 2019, as well as their eight-year ACC championship drought in the same year. He is the only coach in Virginia men’s lacrosse history to win two consecutive championships.

With all of these factors being on the table, a third being in the cards is certainly a possibility. 

While 15 professional teams in the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL have completed the three-peat, 43 more teams have won back-to-back championships and failed to win a third the following season. Put the two together and just 15 out of 58 teams that had a chance at a three-peat went on to finish the job.

But what matters most for the Cavaliers is lacrosse. Including the three aforementioned teams that won a trio of championships in succession, nine teams have gotten their hands on the Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship trophy in consecutive years. Five have come up short in their run at a third the next season, and Virginia is attempting to not become the sixth this season.

So, even if a team wins a championship and follows it up the next season with another championship, historically, they are still against the odds to go out and win it again.

The good news for the Cavaliers is that they are already in the history books, regardless of how their 2022 campaign plays out. Only three schools have appeared in more national championships than Virginia’s 11, and only two have won more titles than Virginia’s seven. It is the ninth team and seventh school to win back-to-back national championships, and it can become the first team this century to round off the three-peat.

The Cavaliers are on the cusp of the near impossible, and if they push their way through a crowded field to reign supreme once again, it should not be overlooked.