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Virginia faces goalie conundrum heading into Final Four

The coaching staff must decide between an experienced starter and the guy who helped rescue the season

<p>Sophomore goalie Kyle Morris replaced junior goalie Matt Nunes after the first quarter Sunday.</p>

Sophomore goalie Kyle Morris replaced junior goalie Matt Nunes after the first quarter Sunday.

Less than seven minutes into No. 6 seed Virginia’s NCAA Tournament quarterfinal Sunday against No. 3 seed Johns Hopkins, as the Blue Jays celebrated their fourth goal, sophomore goalie Kyle Morris trotted onto the field to replace junior goalie Matt Nunes. The change happened swiftly and without ceremony. Then Morris settled in and played the remainder of Virginia’s riveting double-overtime victory, making eight saves and allowing six goals as Nunes watched from the sideline.

The coaching staff now faces a dilemma. It will have to determine, ahead of Saturday’s semifinal against No. 7 seed Maryland, which goalie to deploy — the established starter of nearly three full seasons or the respected backup who performed when the lights turned brightest.

“We’ve got a goalie battle, don’t we?” Coach Lars Tiffany said Sunday. “We’ll see how practice goes this week.”

The decision-making window is tight. Virginia will operate only one full-speed practice in the narrow interim between games, providing limited data for the coaches to evaluate.

“In terms of our data that we put in and the metrics as we measure our depth chart, it’ll be difficult for a lot more input to make a new decision,” Tiffany said during his Tuesday media availability. “So we’re gonna talk about it as a staff a lot.”

Both times Tiffany has spoken to the media since the quarterfinal game, he has remained noncommittal. He has referenced the team’s “system,” the procedure used every week to guide depth-chart adjustments, and said it will heavily impact the deliberations.

That system includes a process whereby coaches reevaluate the depth chart weekly. Tiffany said the system values practice performance in addition to gameday execution, and the system yielded a surprising result last week, telling the coaches that Morris should start in the quarterfinal over Nunes.

“We’ve been seeing Kyle play better,” Tiffany said. “We actually talked about him more this week than any other week this year. There were actually one or two coaches who were thinking, ‘Maybe we should start Kyle.’”

Tiffany, however, balked at the idea of displacing Nunes — who has been the starter since he arrived at the program — in favor of a goalie who redshirted last year and had never before started a college game. So Nunes retained the starting spot. 

Then everything went wrong. A distant shot made it into the net a few minutes into the game. A second goal came moments later, and the third not long after that — a low shot from roughly 15 yards out. 

Then came the final straw. Johns Hopkins freshman defenseman Quintan Kilrain had never scored a college goal before Sunday. He had never, in fact, even attempted a shot. But from beyond 15 yards, with some available turf before him, he fired off a shot and added another goal for the Blue Jays. Nunes and Morris swapped places a moment later.

“Everything was saying Kyle should be the starter this week,” Tiffany said. “And then the first six minutes it was like, ‘Yeah, Lars, you should’ve followed your process.’”

It was not the first time Tiffany has mentioned Morris outplaying Nunes in practice. After Virginia finished crushing Ohio State Feb. 25, Tiffany, between praises for Nunes, made an intriguing aside.

“Kyle Morris was the better goalie in practice this week,” Tiffany said.

But nothing substantial ever came of it against Ohio State. Morris has, excluding garbage-time minutes, replaced Nunes only once before this season. That came April 14 at Duke, after Nunes, grappling with a minor injury, surrendered seven goals in the opening quarter. 

But Tiffany attributed that switch entirely to the injury, never hesitating later that week in declaring Nunes the unequivocal starter. This time against Johns Hopkins was different, a switch with possibly lasting implications instead of a temporary replacement.

The situation represents a turnaround for Tiffany’s squad. Nunes has started in goal from the moment he joined the team, maturing and slowly developing into a formidable goalie. He set the program single-season saves record in his second season. He entered this year on the back of that campaign, expected only to continue progressing. Early in the season, Tiffany awarded him the highest of praises.

“We think he’s just about the best goalie in the country,” Tiffany said Feb. 17 after a road victory over Richmond.

Nunes electrified the lacrosse-watching nation March 30 against Harvard. He made 16 saves, including an astounding triple save, and scored the coast-to-coast game winner. The highlights were scattered all over television and social media.

But Nunes was watching from the sideline barely seven weeks later.

The complicating factor in the coaching staff’s decision is that Nunes is universally considered among the best clearing goalies in the college game, composed with the ball in his stick, capable of launching pinpoint clears. Morris lacks that same ability — he is competent but not as uniquely useful. But a goalie’s primary mission is, of course, to stop shots, and Morris did that, calming his teammates down and helping dispel fears of elimination that had materialized after the early onslaught of goals.

“He made the saves that you really need and rely upon a goalie to make,” Tiffany said Tuesday. 

The implication, of course, is that Nunes failed to make those saves. The coaching staff will have to weigh all these factors — recent performance, experience, clearing ability and practice results — in making a potentially pivotal decision. Some team members, though, are happy either way.

“No matter who’s in there,” senior defenseman Cole Kastner said Tuesday, “I’m 100 percent confident that they’re gonna play incredibly well.”


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