No.1 Virginia men’s lacrosse — coming off knocking previously ranked No. 1 Notre Dame on the road — now faces arguably its greatest rival in Duke. The team from Durham, N.C. has frustrated Virginia all throughout the 21st century — having won the last 15 regular-season meetings and having only conceded two postseason losses in Coach John Danowski’s seventeen-year tenure. The Cavaliers (7-1, 1-0 ACC) will look to turn the tides in one of the more lopsided rivalries in college lacrosse history — one which defies the success which Virginia has largely enjoyed.
The stakes could not be higher as the Blue Devils (9-1, 2-0 ACC) come to Charlottesville Friday riding a seven-game win streak and holding a No. 4 national ranking. Danowski evidently knows what it takes to challenge this top-ranked unit, but will Coach Lars Tiffany find a way through?
Virginia has yet to crack the code of Duke under Danowski
Yes, Tiffany has one win against Danowski under his belt — a dramatic, overtime triumph in the semifinals of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. However, like his predecessor — legendary coach Dom Starsia — he just cannot figure out the riddle that is Duke in the regular season. In two of the four years in which Virginia has won a national championship this century, it lost to Duke three times by 12 goals combined. There is a mental aspect that comes into play when these teams clash.
Last season, the Blue Devils won by nine in Durham against a Cavalier team that went 12-4 — two of whose losses came against arguably the best college team ever assembled in 2021-22 Maryland. Duke would miss the NCAA Tournament that season and came into that matchup against Virginia a mere 9-5. Everything — the rankings, the talent and the national championships that the Cavaliers possess — is thrown out the window against Duke. To beat the Blue Devils, a psychological factor may be more at play for Virginia than any talent advantage.
Virginia senior attacker Xander Dickson has evolved into an elite finishing attackman
In high school, Dickson thrived at attack. At Virginia, the senior attacker had to adapt. With the combination of former player Matt Moore, senior Payton Cormier and junior Connor Shellenberger, there was not much room for Dickson to squeeze into the starting rotation. Enter Moore’s absence this season. Having gained the third spot on this formidable attack unit after playing much of his career at midfield, Dickson has surpassed his single-season high in points in four fewer games.
His ascendance can be linked to Shellenberger’s mastery as a feeder, yet the attacker from Connecticut can hurt you in a variety of ways. He can finish just as well as Cormier — a fantastic finisher in his own right — and forces the defense to honor his dodging ability from behind the goal.
A 32-goal campaign so far — good for fifth in the country — is a sign of his marked improvement over five years in Charlottesville. The tandem of Dickson and Cormier, who has scored 23 goals in six games, will be once again needed against Duke.
Players to Watch
Virginia sophomore goalie Matthew Nunes
Complementing the Cavaliers’ offensive firepower is a defense chock-full of Texans led by Nunes. The netminder from The Woodlands, Texas has not taken a massive step from 2021-22, posting a similar save percentage and goals allowed per game, yet keep in mind that he won ACC Freshman of the Year last season. Despite some slow starts and frustrating outings against Johns Hopkins and Towson, Nunes put it all together against Notre Dame — stopping 14 shots and willing Virginia to a big road win.
There is no doubt that the sophomore will be tested against the Blue Devils’ uber-talented offense. In order to steal this one away from Duke, Virginia will need the Nunes from last week.
Duke senior attacker Dyson Williams
All of the acclaim goes to sensational junior attacker Brennan O’Neill, with 29 goals and 23 assists, yet Williams has decimated opponents for years. The Canadian attacker has a nose for the net — like his compatriot Cormier — and has 33 goals on the season as compared to one assist. When O’Neill and sophomore midfielder Andrew McAdorey create, they look to “old reliable” on the crease for a quick catch-and-finish.
The Virginia defense has not shown many flaws this season, but an off-ball expert could slip from their watch as it keys into O’Neill and McAdorey. Maryland’s Daniel Kelly — a finisher like Williams — nailed the overtime winner against the Cavaliers, while Notre Dame’s Jake Taylor sank two on the crease last Saturday. Last season, Williams posted a hat-trick against the Cavaliers in the Blue Devils’ 17-8 win.
The Virginia defense must key into No. 51 from the jump.
The Cavaliers can solidify their case as the nation’s top team, but they will have to go through an old foe first. Face-off is scheduled Friday at 5:00 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPNU.