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Men’s lacrosse sets sights on NCAA title once again

With key roster changes, a mix of new talent and veterans have the Cavaliers aiming for the NCAA title

<p>Graduate student attacker Connor Shellenberger is set to captain the Cavaliers for the second consecutive season.</p>

Graduate student attacker Connor Shellenberger is set to captain the Cavaliers for the second consecutive season.

Following last year’s 13-12 overtime loss to Notre Dame in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, Virginia men’s lacrosse will once again embark on the search for its 20th ACC championship and 8th NCAA title. 

Leading that effort will be graduate student attacker Connor Shellenberger, senior defender Cole Kastner and graduate student defender Mitchell Whalen. Shellenberger is Virginia’s second ever three-time USILA First Team All-American, while Kastner was awarded the ACC Player of the Year in 2022. 

The majority of the Cavaliers’ offense returns for their 2024 season, including the likes of Shellenberger, graduate attacker Payton Cormier and junior midfielder Griffin Schutz. In addition to these weapons, Virginia acquired McCabe Millon — NLF’s No. 1 prospect in the freshman class — as well as Tufts senior transfer Jack Boyden, who totaled 157 points with 69 goals last season.

Peering at the defense, Virginia looks set to keep other offenses quiet with Kastner and junior defender George Fulton. The Cavaliers also boast a brick wall behind their defense in junior goalkeeper Matthew Nunes, who set the program record for saves last season with 213 saves over 17 games.

The central question about this year’s team lies on the dot, as Virginia looks to find the same success at faceoff that former midfielder Petey LaSalla brought to the team. LaSalla finished his career with a program best 1,050 faceoff wins over 77 games. 

Coach Lars Tiffany’s answer to that question seems to be senior midfielder Gable Braun. Playing 14 of 16 games in his 2022 season, Braun managed a career best of 11 faceoff wins against Richmond. He missed 2023 due to an injury, but is now back at full strength.

However, there is competition within the faceoff specialist position. Two transfers — graduate midfielder Matthew Desouza and junior midfielder Anthony Ghobriel — will both look to start in that role. Coming from Binghamton, Desouza finished seventh in the nation for faceoff win percentage and set a program high, winning 62.2 percent of his faceoffs. Ghobriel transferred from Navy where he won 60.5 percent of faceoffs, putting him at 12th nationally.

But it is not just players that have shuffled for the Cavaliers, as Tiffany’s staff will also see a change at the offensive coordinator position. With the departure of former assistant coach Sean Kirwan, Tiffany has brought in former Lehigh University head coach Kevin Cassese. The two coaches go way back, as far as 2004, when Tiffany was head coach at Stony Brook University and gave Cassese his first Division I coaching job. At Lehigh, Cassese had a program best 136 victories and led his team to six Patriot League championships.

Looking at the schedule, Virginia’s first test will be Feb. 10 against the reigning Big Ten Champions, Michigan. Ranked No. 13 according to USA Lacrosse Magazine, the Wolverines will prove difficult for No. 3 Virginia with their faceoff specialist, senior midfielder Justin Wietfeldt. Last season, Wietfeldt finished fourth in the country for faceoff percentage and will give Braun, Desouza and Ghobriel a chance to prove themselves.

Following Michigan are Richmond and Ohio State, two teams that Virginia handled with ease last season. The Cavaliers will then face No. 6 Johns Hopkins – who will see its entire attack return from last season – to kick off the month of March. The Blue Jays will be good competition for Virginia as it prepares for its conference games later in the season.

Virginia stays busy in March with six more games following the battle with Johns Hopkins, playing against Robert Morris, Towson, Maryland, Albany, Drexel and Harvard. Maryland will likely be Virginia’s toughest game during the stretch, as the Cavaliers have not defeated the Terrapins since the 2021 National Championship. Seven of Maryland’s leading point scorers are returning, and with new offensive coordinator Mike Phipps, the Terrapins are certainly dangerous. 

Virginia will open its home ACC campaign April 6 with a match against North Carolina. The No. 19 Tar Heels have two stars, graduate attackers Logan McGovern and Lance Tillman, who scored a combined 94 points last season. North Carolina has also added experienced coaches to both its offense and defense over the offseason and retained many veteran players, such as senior goalkeeper Collin Krieg.

It will not get any easier for the Cavaliers following their bout with the Tar Heels, as next on the schedule will be No. 2 Duke. Similar to North Carolina, the Blue Devils have many experienced players returning and have added Michigan’s all-time leading scorer, graduate attacker Josh Zawada. The Cavaliers will have to fight hard for a win in Durham, N.C.

Virginia will conclude the regular season April 27 with a matchup against No. 1 Notre Dame. After falling to the Fighting Irish in last year’s National Championship Semifinal, this year’s match is sure to be personal for the Cavaliers’ veterans. Notre Dame only loses three players from last year’s championship roster, so the Fighting Irish will be no easier to beat than in 2023.

With the level of talent Virginia boasts, the Cavaliers will likely find themselves as a top four seed in the conference and thus in the ACC Tournament. Additionally, Virginia will almost certainly have an opportunity to compete in the NCAA Tournament come its arrival in May.

Fans can expect the Cavaliers’ defensive prowess to be on display from the outset, but the backline group will likely need to buy time for a reshaped attack with Cassese at the helm. The games come thick and fast for Virginia starting in February, but Tiffany’s 2024 team has the coaching, talent and experience to make a serious run for the title.

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