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Connor Shellenberger, an unforgettable shot, and a wave of unbidden tears

The graduate attackman’s double-overtime game-winner sent Virginia to the Final Four

<p>Shellenberger reaches into the stands after the game.</p>

Shellenberger reaches into the stands after the game.

At first he sprinted euphorically away, holding his arms aloft, diving into the crowd of onrushing teammates. Then he collapsed to the turf, pushed there by an impromptu team pileup, disappearing in the mound of jubilant, screaming bodies. Everyone else quickly jumped up and careered away, leaping in the air, yelling, hugging.

Graduate attackman Connor Shellenberger stayed lying on the ground. He sprawled flat on his back, moments after his double-overtime game-winner launched Virginia to the Final Four, his gloved hands covering his helmeted face in the universal expression of disbelief. Then he started crying.

“I’m not a big crier,” Shellenberger said. “But I just started crying.”

He eventually rose, pulled to his feet by a couple teammates, and wandered slowly among the exultation still gushing from the sideline, getting embraced every few steps. He walked with his shoulders slightly hunched and his head tilted down, trying to marshal those tears.

But they kept coming. Try as he might, the man who is always in control of everything, from his peerless level of preparation to his deep relationships with teammates, could not control a few tears.

“I just honestly couldn’t believe it,” Shellenberger said.

That orange helmet hides a lot, but as people kept coming over to him and peering through, they saw those tears. A couple people asked him if he was okay. His response made each of them smile and laugh.

Eventually Shellenberger, helmet still on, raced over to the track ringing the field, looking into the crowd of orange-clad fans. He pumped his arms at his side and roared, and those ecstatic fans responded. They shook their fists in the air, cheering and clapping, until Shellenberger turned away and reentered the crowd of players and coaches still milling around. 

That’s when offensive coordinator Kevin Cassese found him. He leaned in and placed a hand atop his star player’s helmet, saying something. Then, as they parted, he slapped Shellenberger on the back and squeezed his shoulder. Some 30 minutes later, in the interview room, as Shellenberger fielded a question about the moment’s emotion, Coach Lars Tiffany made the same motion.

These were fatherly gestures, which makes sense — Shellenberger is a son of this program. It is the program that inspired him, the one he dreamed about as a kid growing up in Charlottesville. Now he has become the face of that very same program.

“Isn’t it amazing what he’s done?” Tiffany said. “He sashayed into the lacrosse world as a redshirt first-year in 2021 and blew us all away, what he did in those four games. And now there’s a ton more attention and everyone’s studying film of him. And he keeps elevating his game.”

A couple days before the game, Shellenberger and graduate attackman Payton Cormier got to talking about the topic of overtime. They talked about how neither of them had ever won a college overtime game. They had lost in two overtime games last season and lost another back in 2021. The barren record marked a reversal for a program that, during the 2019 national title campaign, won five overtime games.

The extra period had grown foreign. Neither Shellenberger nor Cormier, they discussed, had ever experienced the feeling of scoring an overtime goal — not until Sunday. 

“The fact that two days ago we were talking about that,” Shellenberger said, shaking his head. “And just that moment.”

It all started with a play Cassese drew up on the sideline, and when the players returned to the field an official placed the ball back in Shellenberger’s stick. It never left again until it hit the net.

“He’s a tremendous player,” Blue Jay goalie Chayse Ierlan said. “So I knew if he had a little bit of an opening he’d take a shot.”

Shellenberger wheeled around, moving toward the field’s center. Then he hopped a little and pushed forward, tracked by Johns Hopkins senior defenseman Scott Smith. He maneuvered down the right alley, seeming relatively unhurried. Then, as he dipped behind the cage, he planted his foot. He rolled, shaking Smith off, and a shred of space materialized.

Everything, for a second, paused. It all happened so fast, but as that space appeared some sort of recognition dawned on everyone watching — this could be it. Shellenberger, grasping the stick in a lefty grip, turned and unleashed the shot that won the game.

“We did a pretty good job with him most of the day,” Johns Hopkins Coach Peter Milliman said, his face devastated. “I was proud of the effort. He’s as dynamic of a player as there is with his athleticism, his feeding ability and then turning corners and getting shots off. He made a good play.”

Just about everyone on the sideline tried to get a piece of Shellenberger in the ensuing celebration. That included freshman attackman McCabe Millon, arguably the team’s biggest contributor on the day with three goals and three assists, who said postgame, laughing, that he thanked Shellenberger for scoring the goal and told him he loved him.

“He’s been a role model for me the whole year,” Millon said. “I don’t think I’d be able to do anything at this level without the guidance that I’ve gotten from him.”

Most people call Shellenberger “Mr. May.” This moniker has developed over the years as Shellenberger has defeated opposing defenses during Virginia’s recently unparalleled postseason successes. Tiffany, however, uses a different nickname —  “Mr. Unselfish.”

He is, as Tiffany has said, the consummate team player, a fundamentally good person. He wants, more than anything, to be the greatest teammate. But Sunday, as the tears flowed, Mr. Unselfish finally got his own moment.


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