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Kevin Cassese, an unplanned reunion and a kinetic offense

The new offensive coordinator joined the staff this offseason and inherited a dynamic unit

<p>Cassese encourages sophomore attackman Truitt Sunderland during the Cavaliers' game against Maryland.&nbsp;</p>

Cassese encourages sophomore attackman Truitt Sunderland during the Cavaliers' game against Maryland. 

The story of men’s lacrosse offensive coordinator Kevin Cassese and Coach Lars Tiffany began two decades ago, at an off-the-beaten-track lacrosse program in New York. Their coaching relationship began in 2004 — the two young coaches met at Stony Brook, spending one season together before a 19-year interlude where they forged decorated but separate head coaching careers.

Then came their reunion. Tiffany recruited Cassese to join his staff this season, and now the two are together again, a little older and a little wiser, chasing a national title together. 

Before last offseason, Cassese never planned to leave his head coaching position at Lehigh for a coordinator role. He had spent the last 16 years there building the Mountain Hawks into a respected mid-major program. He liked it there. But then Tiffany came calling.

“There’s literally one person that I would leave a head coaching job to become an assistant for,” Cassese said. “And that’s Lars Tiffany.”

So Cassese and Tiffany reunited in Charlottesville, nearly two decades after spending a season together at Stony Brook. The two, though separated in age by 13 years, basically grew up together as coaches. That year at Stony Brook was Tiffany’s first as a head coach and Cassese’s first as an offensive coordinator. 

Now, Cassese is nearing the conclusion of his first regular season helming arguably the nation’s most powerful offense, a unit that seems invincible at times. The offensive coordinator transition has proven flawless, in part because of a strategic move on Cassese’s part regarding Virginia’s offensive system.

Cassese has retained the principles installed by his predecessor, Sean Kirwan — who departed this offseason for the head coaching position at Dartmouth — despite importing some of the principles he employed at Lehigh. He decided to keep Kirwan’s system more or less intact, especially since Virginia returned most of the unit that finished last season as the nation’s top scoring offense.

“My intention coming in was not to completely reinvent the wheel,” Cassese said. “I certainly have my own thoughts and philosophy of the way that I want to coach, but I also wanted to keep some of those same principles so that the guys still felt comfortable and confident.”

Cassese and Kirwan knew each other before the transition, having met through Tiffany. They communicated occasionally during Kirwan’s time at Virginia, exchanging ideas as those who face the daunting task of operating Division I offenses are wont to do. They talked even more, of course, during the transition.

Virginia’s offensive system entrusts the players, more or less, with the decision-making on the field. Players operate freely within sets — “move about the cabin,” as Cassese puts it. Cassese describes himself more as a guide than a commander, someone whose focus is more on shepherding his talented players by pointing them in the right direction. But this philosophy undersells his true impact.

“His lacrosse mind is amazing,” graduate attackman Connor Shellenberger said. “And he’s a head coach coaching offense, which is just amazing to think about.”

In the transition, Cassese inherited arguably the premier offense in college lacrosse. Anyone would appreciate and relish the opportunity to coach players like Shellenberger, to work alongside them every day on the practice field and in the film room. But it goes beyond that — the players are more than just players to Cassese.

“It’s been a dream come true to coach these guys,” Cassese said. “And it has less to do with the talent level and more to do with just the character of the individuals and just the passion they bring to this thing.”

Cassese matches that passion. He values his relationships with players just as much as he does his system and schematics. 

“He epitomizes what a player’s coach is,” graduate midfielder Jack Boyden said in February. “I think he really cares about his guys, and he’s really easy to talk to.”

A month or so later, someone relayed Boyden’s words to Cassese. He paused after hearing them, eventually finding words of his own. 

“Man, that’s really cool to hear Jack say that,” Cassese said. “Very, very much validates what I’ve been trying to do.”

The relationships have not developed by accident. Some time after getting the job, Cassese piled his family into the car and journeyed down the road to Charlottesville for his first visit — mainly to meet and get to know Shellenberger.

Another time, he boarded a plane to Toronto to meet graduate attackman Payton Cormier. He stayed the night, talking in depth with Cormier. He tried to make as many of these trips as possible, planting the seeds of personal relationships with his new players.

“I felt like it was important to sit down with each of those guys,” Cassese said. “Let them learn about me, allow me to learn about them, and start to build that relationship right away.”

Those relationships have formed the foundation of Cassese’s plan in his first season in Charlottesville.

There is little, from a purely technical standpoint, that sticks out as far as improvement is concerned. Cassese wishes his offense could improve its shooting a little bit, hoping it can take its shooting percentage from a merely excellent 33 percent to an unparalleled 40 percent. But the only thing that can really stop Virginia is itself.

“The biggest thing is just focus,” Cassese said. “When you’re going through the schedule, it’s easy to have a little bit of complacency, and I feel like that’s set in a little bit.”

Saturday’s game at Harvard provided a glaring example. In the first three quarters, Virginia posted only six goals, its lowest output of the season entering the final quarter. The Cavaliers seemed sluggish and sloppy, doomed for a stunning upset and a damaging setback entering the ACC gauntlet.

“We practiced like that on offense all week leading into Harvard,” Tiffany said Wednesday. “So we weren’t totally surprised.”

Then the fourth quarter changed everything — resulting in seven goals in 13 minutes for the Cavaliers. Some were unorthodox, having nothing to do with Cassese’s offense, like junior goalie Matt Nunes charging down the center of the field to score the eventual game-winner. But the offensive explosion said plenty — Virginia’s offense may hibernate at times, but it always wakes back up when the game is on the line. 

Cassese points out two games this season, though, where the offense blasted off at the opening whistle and just kept dominating throughout the game. The first came on the opening day of the season at Klöckner Stadium against then-No. 8 Michigan, when Virginia put 19 goals past the Wolverines in what Cassese called a breakthrough. 

“We went out and played with such passion and confidence,” Cassese said. “I felt like we did that in that game, and then we’ve done that in spots throughout the rest of the year.”

Cassese mentioned the game against then-No. 5 Maryland as the other example of a complete performance. The trouble now is replicating those same offensive explosions every week, especially as the grueling ACC schedule looms. Conference play begins Saturday at home against North Carolina and then continues with the most brutal three-game stretch of the season — at No. 2 Duke, at No. 4 Syracuse and home against No. 1 Notre Dame. 

Thus begins the home stretch of the season. At the end of it lies the target Cassese came to Virginia to hit. Asked what his ultimate goal is as a coach, Cassese delivered the direct, essential truth of his mission at the moment.

“My ultimate goal is to win a National Championship at the University of Virginia this year,” Cassese said. 

As April begins and teams jockey for position with the postseason looming nearer, his chance to achieve this goal approaches. Going for a national title together is an opportunity that two young coaches, sitting in an office at Stony Brook all those years ago, could probably have hardly envisioned, but now presents itself as an exciting reality.


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