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Matt Nunes, blocking shots and launching bombs, anchors Virginia lacrosse in latest win

The goalie stopped 17 shots and quarterbacked Virginia’s clear in another sterling performance

<p>Junior goalie Matt Nunes made 17 saves in the Cavaliers' victory over the Buckeyes last week.</p>

Junior goalie Matt Nunes made 17 saves in the Cavaliers' victory over the Buckeyes last week.

Barring injury or catastrophe, junior goalie Matt Nunes will eventually climb to the top of the Virginia men’s lacrosse standings for career goalie wins. After Sunday’s 14-8 defeat of No. 20 Ohio State, Nunes is tied for seventh on the list, and with the better part of two seasons remaining to win 24 more games, he likely will get there. The issue is that sports tend to invite plenty of that injury and catastrophe, so it’s better to focus instead on what is happening more immediately.

After the Cavaliers bludgeoned the Buckeyes early on in Sunday’s game, Ohio State recovered and tightened things up in the third quarter. The Buckeyes, creeping back into the game as the momentum swayed, suddenly exploded out in transition. The ball soon swung to an unguarded attacker stationed on the goal’s doorstep, and he unleashed a shot — which thudded into Nunes.

“[Ohio State] started to crawl back, and guys can start to get a little rattled,” freshman attackman McCabe Millon said. “But [Nunes] kept us here. And he was an anchor for us.”

Nunes stopped 17 shots that day, rebuffing 70.8 percent of the attempts he faced, ensuring that Ohio State would not make the comeback. He snared shots low and high. He sprawled to the sides. He played 57 rigid minutes before, with the outcome decided, he exited for sophomore goalie Kyle Morris.

He also frequently kickstarted the Virginia offense. It has become an increasingly common sight to see Nunes, seconds after catching a shot, springing forward and cranking his stick back to launch soaring passes downfield. These passes almost invariably hit their targets.

“Matt Nunes is a quarterback, surveying the field,” Coach Lars Tiffany said Tuesday. “Is it man-to-man or zone coverage? [He] just finds his teammates, in the clearing game, who are coming back to the ball or breaking deep for the bomb.”

Nunes laughed postgame when asked about his tendency for delivering those impressive long passes. He committed to Virginia partly, he said, because of the program’s breakneck style and its emphasis on coming out fast in transition. Watching Tiffany’s teams at Brown University, where he coached before Virginia, enthralled Nunes, who decided he also wanted to play like that. 

“It’s Virginia lacrosse. It’s pretty fun to play in,” Millon said. “And [Nunes] is definitely a huge piece of that.”

Nunes holds the program single-season record for saves — rejecting 213 shots last season across 17 games — and was the 2022 ACC Rookie of the Year. Tiffany has praised Nunes at just about every opportunity, and rightfully so. 

“We think he’s just about the best goalie in the country,” Tiffany said. 

Nunes and his defense sometimes disappear against the backdrop of arguably the most explosive offense in college lacrosse, but there are times when the two exist in perfect harmony. On one first-quarter play Sunday, Nunes dropped down and blocked a shot between his legs, then immediately leaped up and sent the ball speeding back in the other direction. Millon scored mere seconds later, sending the Virginia bench to its feet, some hollering praise at Millon, the other half at Nunes. After the victory had been sealed, however, Nunes insisted only on talking about everybody else. He repeatedly credited his defense, the scout team and Assistant Coach Kip Turner for making life easier on him. 

“I thought we did a great job of doubling the ball, making plays off the ground,” Nunes said. “So big credit goes out to our defense and really seeing the shots I wanted to see.”

Nunes has talked about the bigger picture as well — Division I lacrosse is not all about what happens in the public eye. He has the benefit of playing every day in practice against a loaded arsenal of attackers. Nunes sometimes makes senior defenseman and captain Cole Kastner laugh when the high expectations he has for himself aren’t met. 

“I just crack up when I see him be a little hard on himself,” Kastner said preseason. “Because he's such an incredible player. He has no reason to ever be hard on himself. But that's just the standard he holds himself to.”

Kastner, the towering pillar of the Virginia defense, reserves those laughs for the practice field, however. Nunes might berate himself in practice or in warmups, like the time Sunday when he laughed sarcastically after a warmup shot squirmed under his stick. He never breaks composure during games, though, and Tiffany has repeatedly described him as poised. During Sunday’s game, as he destroyed Ohio State’s attack and dissected its ride, that level-headedness clearly paid off. 


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