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As the dawn of the 2023 season approaches, Virginia lacrosse looks to return to the top

As the preseason favorite, the Cavaliers are primed to add another trophy to their collection

<p>The season begins for the Cavaliers on February 12 with a home noon matchup against Michigan.</p>

The season begins for the Cavaliers on February 12 with a home noon matchup against Michigan.

Last year, Virginia was denied a chance to compete for their third consecutive title after losing in the national quarterfinals to a Maryland team that ranked among the best in the history of college lacrosse. A team on its way to a perfect 18-0 season with a whopping six players drafted into the Premier Lacrosse League that year proved to be a buzzsaw in the Cavaliers’ hopes at a three-peat.

Entering as the top-ranked team, Virginia is certainly in a position to return to the top of college lacrosse. They have the talent and the coach to win another championship, and their schedule provides a multitude of opportunities for this team to grow against solid competition. Fans will know more about the potential of this Cavalier team in a few weeks, but there is plenty of reason for excitement around this program.

Key Players

Virginia leads the nation with eight preseason All-Americans according to Inside Lacrosse. Leading the way for the Cavaliers is redshirt junior attacker Connor Shellenberger, a finalist for the 2022 Tewaaraton Award for the best player in college lacrosse. 

Last year, Shellenberger led Virginia in both points and assists, finishing second in goals scored with 32. Senior attackman Payton Cormier was the only one to finish ahead of Shellenberger in goals last season, totaling 50. Both are returning this year to form what should be another explosive offense for the Cavaliers.

The defensive end of the field will be helmed by junior defender Cole Kastner, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Last year, Kastner finished with 29 ground balls and caused 32 turnovers. He will look to continue to cause havoc for opposing offenses in 2023.

In the cage for Virginia will be sophomore Matthew Nunes, looking to build on a stellar first season. Along with being named ACC Rookie of the Year, Nunes recorded a school freshman record 159 saves last season. In the Cavaliers’ NCAA Tournament first-round victory over Brown, Nunes matched his season high with 16 saves. Nunes is ranked among the best goalies in the country this season, and Virginia will have to rely on his steady presence in front of the net if they want to make a run.

Matchups to Look Out For

The Cavaliers will be tested early, playing three games in a row against teams ranked in the Preseason Top 20 after their home opener against Michigan. In Week 2, they will welcome No. 13 Harvard to Charlottesville. The Crimson are coming off a much improved 2022 season that was capped by their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014. They will return much of that year’s team, including sophomore attackman Sam King, Harvard’s leading scorer in 2022. The Crimson are a young and talented team that should provide Virginia with some early season experience within the safe confines of Klöckner Stadium. As long as Kastner and Nunes hold their own against King and the rest of Harvard’s offensive unit, Virginia ought to be able to come out on top.

After that, the Cavaliers will take on No. 11 Ohio State. The Buckeyes, however, will not get to play this game in their new 24.9 million dollar stadium, but will instead meet Virginia for a neutral site game in Naples, Fla. Ohio State is also coming off of an NCAA tournament appearance, and have added two impactful transfers in senior attackman Richie LaCalandra from Long Island University and senior defender Marcus Hudgins from Army. LaCalandra was awarded NEC Offensive Player of the Year two years in a row and Hudgins was the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. Though the Buckeyes have bolstered both sides of their game with imported talent, the formidable duo of Shellenberger and Cormier can rise to the moment and earn a big win.

Right before conference play begins is the game that every lacrosse fan has circled on the calendar. The heavyweight battle between Virginia and Maryland will take place in Charlottesville this year, and is likely to be a top-two matchup. The Terrapins have experienced massive roster turnover after last season, particularly on the offensive side. They will have to find a way to reload after losing four of their top five goal scorers from last season, including attackman Logan Wisnauskas, who recorded one of the most impressive seasons of all time last year.

On the defensive end, graduate defenseman Brett Makar leads the way for a large group of returning defenders. Makar is probably the best and most experienced player on the team, and this Terrapin defense will present an interesting challenge for head coach Lars Tiffany and the Cavaliers to figure out. This matchup is becoming one of the best and most prestigious rivalries in the sport, and this year's edition is not to be missed.

No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 8 Duke have emerged as Virginia’s biggest challengers to the conference title, and the Cavaliers will play each team both home and away this season. Against the Blue Devils, Virginia will be looking to break a streak of regular-season losses that dates back to 2004. A 17-8 loss last year should serve as motivation for both sides of the ball to step up. Against the Fighting Irish, however, the Cavaliers have won four games in a row, an impressive streak that Tiffany and co. can certainly extend. However, this year’s matchup will take place in South Bend, Ind., adding an additional layer of pressure. All four of these matchups will be imperative in the conference title race.

Virginia has arguably the most talented roster in lacrosse this season, and with the added motivation of hoping to return the program to Championship Weekend after a year’s absence, the Cavaliers are looking to be a force this year. 

Their quest begins Saturday, Feb. 11 at home against Michigan. Face off is set for 12 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ACC Network.