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‘Stone-cold killer’ Cormier breaks career program goals record

The graduate attackman etched himself into history Saturday against Richmond

<p>Virginia will persist in its faith in Cormier as long as he remains at the school.</p>

Virginia will persist in its faith in Cormier as long as he remains at the school.

Graduate attackman Payton Cormier, having become a goal-scoring machine over four years, made history during the Virginia men’s lacrosse game Saturday at Richmond. He entered the final quarter with a unique record to break — he needed one more goal to break the all-time career program goals record.

The goal soon arrived. Cormier snagged a pass and adjusted his feet, his body coiling. He unleashed the shot and, as is Cormier’s standard, the ball hurtled into the net. The sequence looked overwhelmingly familiar to fans — anyone who has watched college lacrosse the last four years has witnessed dozens of quick shots from Cormier. 

While this shot looked identical to any other occasion, the goal meant something special. It lifted Cormier past previous record-holder Doug Knight, who set the record in 1997 with 165 goals. The goal Cormier scored early in the fourth quarter Saturday delivered goal 166. With the record broken, Cormier spared a fist pump, then carried on with his day as if it were nothing, scoring again two minutes later to extend Virginia’s advantage in its eventual 14-10 victory over the Spiders. Cormier’s praise finally arrived postgame.

“He’s an incredible goalscorer,” Coach Lars Tiffany said. “He’s a stone-cold killer. He wants the ball every time. He’s open all day, in his mind. Whether he is or not, you just still jam it in there.”

But Cormier struggled for most of Saturday’s game, missing 11 of his first 12 shots as the record dangled one goal away. Most of his shots skittered wide, snuggled into the goalie’s stick or bounced off defenders’ backs. He seemed sometimes to force plays, rushing into shots and confronting pods of defenders, intent on scoring that historic goal.

“Maybe if he’d gotten that second goal earlier in the game, we may not have had to take 10 more shots before another fell,” Tiffany said. “But that’s just the confidence we have in him, right? We’re gonna keep jamming that ball into the big fella.”

Cormier finished with three goals out of 15 shots, a percentage he surely will try to banish from memory. But the record-breaking moment will be the game’s primary lasting mark.

That moment will, of course, live on in posterity as a video clipped from the ESPN+ broadcast. One of the two voices providing commentary that day belonged to a man named Dom Starsia, who coached Virginia men’s lacrosse for 24 seasons, collecting 13 Final Four appearances and four NCAA Tournament titles. He peered down from the press box Saturday, watching the program he once coached battle against a program he once coached against. 

Starsia retired in 2016, but one remnant of his coaching era is still on the team. Almost nine years ago, Cormier announced his commitment to play for Starsia’s Cavaliers. If he sometimes appears as if he belongs to another era, playing with a unique style different from that of a modern attacker, that is because he does. He is the only holdover from the Starsia years, the last of the legendary coach’s recruits still donning an orange helmet on weekends. Now the coach who recruited him to play college lacrosse is yelling into a television microphone instead of yelling across the field, while Cormier has grown to be the greatest scorer in program history.

“Payton Cormier is one of the best goalscorers in the history of college lacrosse,” Tiffany said during his Feb. 14 media availability. “That’s what he was brought here to do. And he’s exceptional at it.”

He is exceptional for a couple reasons. Perhaps his most striking attribute — or, at least, his most conspicuous — is his power. Cormier is a 6-foot-2, 230-pound tank, capable of bowling over defenders. He sometimes simply bullies defenders, as he did against Michigan last week when he backed down a defender and drove him toward the goal before punching in a shot. Against Richmond, he also shunted a defender to the ground during one play, raising cries of loyal indignation from Richmond fans.

Cormier might sometimes appear unassuming, a deviation from the stereotype of the chiseled Division I attackman, but he upends that stereotype. Only one player in program history has registered multiple 50-plus goal seasons, and only one player in program history, among 100-goal scorers, has averaged at least 2.93 goals per game — Cormier. 

Virginia will persist in its faith in Cormier as long as he remains at the school. His record will only grow, his goal tally climbing higher and higher as the season goes on.

“Because he can handle the ball under duress and pressure, we keep throwing it in there,” Tiffany said Feb. 14.  

Now at 167 goals, Cormier sits seventh on the all-time ACC scoring list, 45 goals behind Duke’s Justin Guterding, who reached 212 goals in 2018. He rests 54 goals behind the NCAA all-time best scorer, Penn State’s Mac O’Keefe, who reached 221 goals in 2021. But Cormier scored 52 goals last season, meaning Guterding’s record at least stands within reach.

Regardless of whether Cormier shatters more records, that moment in Richmond, with the man who brought Cormier to the school helping call the moment he broke the school record, will forever remain the moment he stamped his name into program lore.

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