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LOTHROP: The best of Virginia Athletics’ seniors

Highlighting the best teams and graduates of the last four years

<p>Jelani Woods (top left), Laurel Ivory (top right), Matt Moore (bottom left) and Alexis Wenger (bottom right) will be critical departures for Virginia athletics heading towards next season.</p>

Jelani Woods (top left), Laurel Ivory (top right), Matt Moore (bottom left) and Alexis Wenger (bottom right) will be critical departures for Virginia athletics heading towards next season.

For the first time in three years, the University will host normal Final Exercises this weekend. Among those leaving will be about a quarter of the school’s 750 student athletes. The athletes in the Class of 2022 have given their all to the University’s athletics programs and given some of the best results in school history as a result. The last four years have seen an unprecedented level of success for the Cavaliers. 

These athletes have combined to win five national championships in four years — a historic achievement — and many of the programs that didn’t win national championships shook off years of failure and made deep runs into the postseason. This, of course, was all done with many seniors missing a year of the college athletics experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it all the more impressive. 

As Finals Weekend approaches, it feels right to honor the most successful of the school’s graduating athletes who made these last four years so special for Virginia athletics.

Graduate student first baseman and pitcher Devin Ortiz Baseball

Virginia baseball’s 2019 and 2020 seasons were forgettable, with the 2019 team missing the postseason and the 2020 season starting strong before being canceled. 2021, however, was a magical year, as the Cavaliers caught fire in May and made it all the way to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. before being eliminated after a pair of tight losses to Mississippi State and Texas. The 2022 squad started white hot before cooling off as of late, but Virginia is still on track to host a regional and potentially return to Omaha.

Baseball’s Class of 2022 is headlined by graduate student first baseman and pitcher Devin Ortiz. Ortiz has been batting fifth in the order and will be a major offensive loss for the Cavaliers. In fact, it was Ortiz who hit the walk-off homerun in extra innings to defeat Old Dominion and send Virginia to the Super Regionals in 2021, a play that single-handedly not only affected the tail end of last season but also likely the Cavaliers’ attitude heading into 2022. Having been there for the lows of 2019 and 2020, the loss of a leader like Ortiz will mean much more than just an on-field impact.

Graduate student goalkeeper Laurel Ivory — Women’s soccer

Virginia women’s soccer has been one of the most consistent programs in school history, having not missed the NCAA tournament since 1993. In the four years that the graduating seniors played, the women played well, but never reached the summit. Twice, they were ACC runner-ups, they reached the national Sweet 16 twice and they lost in the national semifinals in 2020. 

Graduate student goalie Laurel Ivory — the program’s second winningest goalie — is perhaps the most impactful loss of this year’s class. Having been the starter since her freshman season, Ivory served as a steady presence in front of the net for the Cavaliers. She no doubt was a mentor to many of her younger teammates and her emotional impact on the team was made plainly clear following her season-ending injury in the ACC Tournament final in 2021 — the team made her a clear rallying point in its postseason run. Among all the key graduates moving on from the program this year, Ivory’s leadership makes her an especially important departure.

Senior wide receiver Billy Kemp — Football

The last four years under former coach Bronco Mendenhall saw Virginia take a big step forward and then a few small steps back. Both the 2018 and 2019 teams were ranked at one point or another. The 2019 team reached a peak of No. 18 in the national polls, beating Virginia Tech for the first time in 16 years and reaching the Orange Bowl, where it lost to Florida. The 2020 and 2021 teams had exciting offenses but horrendous defenses, and both teams returned to Earth and finished .500.

Perhaps the most crucial graduate of the 2022 class is senior wide receiver Billy Kemp IV. Kemp has been a reliable target throughout his career for both former quarterback Bryce Perkins and junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, totalling  176 career receptions — good for fourth in program history.

Kemp experienced a lot through the ups and downs of the Mendenhall era and would no doubt be a valuable leader in the transition to the tenure of Coach Tony Elliott. Armstrong and the group of upperclassmen that remain will miss the consistent presence and unmatchable work ethic of Kemp, a player who worked his way from a rotation player to an every-game starter.

Senior guard Kody Stattmann — Basketball

The men’s basketball team’s national championship victory in April 2019 will likely be the iconic Virginia sports memory of nearly every graduate this weekend. The following two seasons were just fine too, with the team reaching postseason play, but running into issues with COVID-19. The 2022 squad greatly underperformed, and well, the less said, the better. 

Senior guard Kihei Clark and senior forward Jayden Gardner will both play an extra year after completing their senior seasons, leaving senior guard Kody Stattmann as the most significant departures of this class. In his senior season, Stattmann began to find a more consistent spot in the lineup, contributing valuable minutes and points to a team that desperately needed it.

With Stattmann moving on, Clark and junior center Francisco Caffaro will be the only remaining players from Virginia’s national championship squad from 2019. While Stattman has struggled to play a substantial role in the Cavaliers’ on-court success for much of his college career, veterans that know what it takes to win are valuable on any team — losing that should not be taken lightly.

Senior Alexis Wenger — Women’s swimming and diving

Virginia women’s swimming and diving finished sixth in the country in 2018-2019, before breaking out after the canceled 2019-2020 postseason and winning the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 national titles

This group of graduating seniors for the women’s swimming and diving team played an instrumental role in the ascension of the Cavaliers from a good program to an elite program, and senior Alexis Wenger especially starred as an 11-time All-American selection.

Now back-to-back national champions, Virginia is on the verge of emerging as a dynasty. Wenger — who was part of the 400-yard medley relay team that set an American record — was an All-American in events as a sophomore and elevated teammates around her as a member of a number of relay teams. While the Cavaliers have a plethora of talent returning, the loss of Wenger will leave a significant void to fill.

Senior face-off specialist Petey LaSalla and graduate student attacker Matt Moore —  Men’s lacrosse

The final sport, men’s lacrosse, has been the most successful program on Grounds the last four years. The seniors, after winning the 2019 and 2021 national championships, have a chance to be crowned champions for every year that they had a postseason. Currently, the team is in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, where they will face No.1 Maryland on Sunday. 

As the all-time leader in face-offs won for Virginia, senior face-off specialist Petey LaSalla played a critical role in Virginia’s national championship runs, continually giving the Cavaliers the edge at the face-off X including critical performances deep in the playoffs. To compliment LaSalla’s face-off success, graduate student attacker Matt Moore has displayed incredible offensive prowess throughout his five-year career beginning with being names ACC Freshman of the Year in 2018. Moore recently became Virginia’s all-time point leader, and the announcement of his return for one final season following the 2021 season was a major boost for the Cavaliers’ preseason expectations.

With Coach Lars Tiffany at the helm for Virginia, there will always be a bright outlook, but the loss of Moore and LaSalla will be a major blow to the Cavaliers in two key areas of the field as well as from an intangibles perspective — they are undoubtedly emotional leaders of a team looking for a third consecutive national championship.

The last four years have been a wonder to behold for many Virginia sports programs. The graduating athletes have been exceptional, and the graduating students who have been watching for all their school careers have been lucky to have them. Hopefully, the next four years bring even more stars and even more rings.