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Haunted by 2023 defeat, Virginia gets Notre Dame rematch

A mammoth regular-season finale carries palpable anticipation and postseason implications

<p>Virginia battled against Notre Dame in the 2023 Final Four, ultimately losing in the final minute.</p>

Virginia battled against Notre Dame in the 2023 Final Four, ultimately losing in the final minute.

Nobody has to mention the last time Virginia men’s lacrosse played Notre Dame. The thought of it just lingers in everyone’s minds — the late lead that evaporated and the four Fighting Irish goals in four minutes to send Virginia trundling home. Now, though, a rematch is on the horizon, an inescapable narrative swirling around Saturday’s charged rematch.

The heartbreaking 2023 loss has hardly entered this team’s conversations. It was the kind of defeat that mentally stuck with the players and coaches alike, so painful it needs no mention. But it has served as a motivating force for what has generally been a victorious season thus far. 

“How much of a topic of conversation has it been? It hasn’t been,” offensive coordinator Kevin Cassese said in March. “But it hasn’t had to be. And the reason why is because that loss and that hurt is something that got stuck with the guys and continues to stick with them.”

Cassese has viewed the situation from a unique vantage point, having just joined the staff this offseason and so having dodged the firsthand pain. He has only experienced the agony through the sustained suffering of the men he coaches and the staff he works alongside.

“That is something that is just intrinsically going to motivate the guys,” Cassese said.

Cassese, a veteran coach and decorated former player, a man familiar with the proceedings of a lacrosse season, can certainly understand. He can understand the sleepless nights and the heaving mental torture. Coach Lars Tiffany, though, has lived with the ache since the final buzzer in May.

“It still lingers,” Tiffany said in November. “It motivates, though.”

In the loss’ aftermath, Tiffany turned to a familiar resource for guidance on how to move forward. He needed someone acquainted with a similar kind of suffering, someone who understood the feeling — he needed some wisdom from another veteran coach.

So Tiffany visited the best, closest consultant on this topic. Another title-winning coach, Tony Bennett, who works just a Matt Nunes bomb-clear away from Klöckner Stadium. Bennett’s 2018 loss to No. 16 seed University of Maryland, Baltimore County, brought on an onslaught of frustrated anguish — but the subsequent 2019 National Championship converted him into an authority on rebuilding. All sorts of coaches have now turned to Bennett for advice, most notably Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter after his own team’s loss to a No. 16 seed.

“[Bennett] called it the painful gift,” Tiffany said. “I’ve used that phrase myself. And so it’s something that drives and motivates us.”

The memory of the loss propelled Tiffany’s team through fall practices and well into the spring season. The Cavaliers shredded their first three opponents, all ranked teams, before losing to No. 3 Johns Hopkins. Then they rattled off seven wins in a row, getting back to their dominant winning ways.

But uncertainty has arrived. No. 2 Duke drubbed Virginia, 18-12 April 14, raising warning signs of wobbliness. The Cavaliers then traveled to the JMA Wireless Dome April 20 to confront No. 7 Syracuse, fighting in an instant classic. 

The game featured blinding action, goals rocketing both ways before a crowd of 8,348, charting a riveting chapter in a legendary rivalry. But Virginia surrendered the game’s final four goals to lose 18-17, conjuring up echoes of the painful fall to Notre Dame, in which the Cavaliers also fumbled a late lead.

“Today was an epic, heroic game,” Tiffany said after the Syracuse game. “We lost today’s battle. But we haven’t lost the war.”

The next battlefield is Klöckner Stadium, and the timing seems almost poetic. A rematch of last year’s Final Four thriller — concluding conference play in spectacular fashion — seems almost too good to be true.

“The ACC,” Tiffany said. “Who knows what they do?”

Schedule manipulation or otherwise, things worked out nicely. The eyes of the lacrosse world will now swivel to Charlottesville to witness a fascinating matchup. On one side sit the Fighting Irish, who are second in the nation in scoring offense, man-up offense, scoring margin and shot percentage. On the other side sit the Cavaliers, who lead the nation in assists per game, ground balls per game, and rank second in created turnovers per game and clearing percentage. 

The stats present a fairly accurate marker of the teams’ styles. Notre Dame is efficient and punishing. Virginia is more scrappy, a little less refined, its identity resting on a foundation of grit and tenacity. All told, it makes for an appetizing matchup between a team that has scarcely faced a bump in the road and one that almost seems to aim for them.

Notre Dame Coach Kevin Corrigan holds a roster brimming with talent. Graduate goalie Liam Entenmann is the putative best goalie in the nation. Graduate attackman Pat Kavanagh and junior attackman Chris Kavanagh operate a loaded attack alongside graduate attackman Jake Taylor. Then there is the midfield trio — senior Eric Dobson, freshman Jordan Faison and graduate student Devon McLane — the heart of Notre Dame’s offensive engine.

Virginia, of course, has its own firepower. Graduate attackman Connor Shellenberger is a frontrunner for the Tewaaraton Award — the accolade given each year to the most outstanding college lacrosse player — graduate attackman Payton Cormier leads the nation in goals per game and freshman attackman McCabe Millon is arguably the country’s best newcomer. Virginia’s midfield is stacked and crafty, and the defense is hounding and physical.

The imminent rematch perhaps lacks the complete majestic appeal it presented a few weeks ago, when Notre Dame occupied the No. 1 ranking and Virginia perched at No. 2. Still, many storylines surround this imminent weekend clash. Notre Dame is seeking an emphatic conclusion to a dominant season, and Virginia is aiming to escape from the mud that has bogged it down the last couple of weeks. Both are gunning for priority ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament seeding. And then, of course, there is the emotional side of the rematch.

“I couldn’t wait to get another stab at those guys,” senior defenseman Cole Kastner said.

Kastner mentioned he circled the game on his calendar the moment the schedule came out. But, then again, it needs no further hyping up or physical representation of its importance. It has roosted in everyone’s heads since May.

“It’s haunted me,” Tiffany said.

The ghosts have clearly endured for months, but now Virginia gets a chance to dispel them. A victory against the Fighting Irish would provide cathartic revenge, stabilize a teetering team and serve as the launchpad for another potentially incredible postseason run. 

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