Senior Petey LaSalla became Virginia men’s lacrosse’s all-time leader in career face-off wins with his first face-off win against Syracuse Feb. 26, passing alumnus Jack deVilliers, who formerly owned the record with 604 wins.
“I didn't even know I was on track to beat it,” LaSalla said. “Because of the COVID year everything washed away. But going into the Towson game, I saw something that I was coming up on it.”
LaSalla was also named ACC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance that game, winning 19 of his 28 face-offs and scoring a goal in the 20-11 victory in Virginia’s ACC opener.
Against Towson on Feb. 19, LaSalla went 12 of 22 on face-offs to tie the record before breaking it against Syracuse. LaSalla's 605th face-off win — the record-breaker — was picked up by junior Danny Parker which led to a goal for junior Payton Cormier later that possession, seemingly a fitting way for LaSalla to put his stamp on history.
“It's cool to have the record now,” LaSalla said. “But it wasn't something that was life or death for me to have.”
The face-off specialist has his sights set on a third national championship and played an integral role in the last two. Despite being a freshman, LaSalla — propelled by a fearless and aggressive mentality — was extremely dominant on the way to the 2019 NCAA championship.
“Being a first year, it's kind of a good mentality because no one knows you yet,” LaSalla said.
In Virginia’s semifinal win against Duke during the 2018-19 season, LaSalla won the game’s final eight face-offs and scored a key goal to propel them to a 13-12 double-overtime victory.
“After we won our Final Four game against Duke, I was happy and then I was like, ‘Oh, God, now I gotta go against TD Ierlan,’” LaSalla said.
TD Ierlan was the face-off specialist for Yale at the time and ended his collegiate career as the all-time leader in career face-off wins and ground balls. The matchup would be LaSalla's toughest battle of the season.
“I have to play the best face-off guy that's ever played in college across history,” LaSalla said. “But you kind of realize … he's human.”
Embracing the underdog mentality, LaSalla went on to score two goals against Yale en route to a 13-9 victory for Virginia's eighth men's lacrosse National Championship.
In his second national championship game, LaSalla scored one goal and picked up an assist for a 17-16 win against Maryland. That year, he finished first in the nation with 277 face-off wins and was named a Second Team All-American by United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association.
In between the team’s two national championships, the NCAA made two rule changes to the face-off position, no longer allowing players to take a knee for face-offs and banning the “motorcycle grip” technique — a grip in which the stick is held with both palms down.
LaSalla trained with Tommy Kelly, who currently plays in the Premier Lacrosse League, and was taught the traditional “knee down, motorcycle grip” technique. This rule change completely changed the complexion of the face-off — the intention behind it being to reduce the number of stalemates reached in faceoffs — now forcing players to utilize the standard neutral grip where the palms face in opposite directions. Some players were frustrated, but the rule change came at a good time for LaSalla, who suffered significant wear and tear under the previous rules.
“In the 2020 season before it got canceled, I had pretty bad knee pains, just from always banging my knee on the ground,” LaSalla said. “So I was happy, you know, that we didn't have to go on [our knees] anymore. It kind of saved my knee a bit.”
LaSalla learned the new technique and returned to dominating the face-off X in 2021, but he has always been more than the typical face-off specialist.
A face-off specialist’s role for a team typically starts and ends at the face-off — exiting the field right after the face-off is complete, but LaSalla is much more than that. Unlike other face-off specialists, he is able to stay on the field, playing as an offensive midfielder, which also forces the opposing face-off specialist to remain on the field.
“They don't know the defensive schemes and they don't really know how to slide,” LaSalla said about opposing face-off specialists. “We try to expose that either by dodging, playing off the ball, cutting or setting picks because the opponent's FOGO can kind of mess up the whole defense's slide game.”
Last season, LaSalla scored 10 goals and dished out seven assists. This season, LaSalla already has five goals and through six games he has won 63.5 percent of his face-offs compared to a 62.4 winning percentage last season.
“Much of my career, I've been a one trick pony, just really focusing on my clamp and my hand speed,” LaSalla said. “So in the offseason, just working on another secondary move if I don't win the clamp.”
His work in the offseason was demonstrated against Syracuse this season. After allowing senior Jakob Phaup to go 44-60 last season against Virginia, in their rematch LaSalla only allowed Phaup to go 11-32 with help from sophomore Gable Braun, Virginia’s other face-off specialist.
Now in his fourth year on Grounds, LaSalla is chasing his third title with the Cavaliers.
Having already broken the all-time career face-off record, LaSalla plans to return for a fifth season after being accepted into the M.S. in Commerce program.
“I think everyone thinks about it a little bit,” LaSalla said when asked about potentially playing in the Premier Lacrosse League. “I mean, it's really not on my mind as much because I'm coming back for another year next year.”