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Breaking down the men’s lacrosse season

From a slew of shattered records to one explosive debut and late-season turbulence, a look at the story of a fascinating season

<p>A cluster of players confer after a goal.&nbsp;</p>

A cluster of players confer after a goal. 

A tough loss to Maryland in the Final Four marked the end of Virginia’s 18-game campaign, cementing an overall record of 12-6. Coach Lars Tiffany and his team battled hard all season, overcoming injuries, setting national and program individual records and shoring up weaker points of the team. Despite the team’s considerable accomplishments, it feels like Virginia, toting a roster overflowing with talent, could have done more and gone further.

Coming into the season, Virginia was ranked No. 3, and for good reason. The roster consisted of veterans like graduate attackman Payton Cormier, senior defenseman Cole Kastner, graduate attackman Connor Shellenberger and junior goalie Matthew Nunes. It also contained champions like freshman attackman McCabe Millon, the No. 1 recruit in his class. With weapons like these, Virginia started the season in what seemed like a strong position.

Questions surrounded the defense after losing players the year before, but the biggest question arose at the faceoff dot. How would the Cavaliers make up for losing Petey LaSalla, a program legend? Tiffany answered by using the transfer portal to add three faceoff men — junior Anthony Ghobriel and graduate students Matthew DeSouza and Thomas Colucci — in addition to returning senior Gable Braun.

“That is the most tenuous depth chart we have,” Tiffany said before the season. “When you look at the faceoff X, [it’s] really unproven, across the board, and certainly unproven at the ACC”

The Cavaliers fired off three solid wins — against Michigan, Richmond and Ohio State — to start the season. With a start like this, Virginia was slated to be a dominant force. The offense was coming alive in both young and old players, and the defense was holding out with the help of Nunes. Faceoffs were still a work in progress but showed potential.

It was in early March when the Cavaliers suffered their first defeat against Johns Hopkins. Losing the ground ball and faceoff games, in addition to shooting at a hot goalie, proved to be just enough to erase an early lead and allow Johns Hopkins to win in a comeback.

However, this loss did not stifle the team’s resolve, as the Cavaliers finished non-conference play with a 9-1 record. Virginia bounced back with a dominant showing against Robert Morris before a close win against Towson.

Making a statement in the March 16 game against Maryland, the defense’s 12 turnovers and Nunes’ 11 saves gave the offense the time it needed for players like junior midfielder Griffin Schutz to tally a total of six points — four goals and two assists. This team effort resulted in a confident 14-10 win in College Park.

The Cavaliers carried this confidence into its games against Albany and Drexel, demolishing both teams. In the ensuing away game against Harvard — a game which saw a record attendance of 3,295 spectators, the most ever for a lacrosse game held at Jordan Field — they found themselves trailing until the fourth quarter. Nunes had likely his greatest performance yet. Impersonating a brick wall, he made 16 saves and then recorded his first career goal — one which put the Cavaliers in the lead.

In their first conference game, Virginia faced North Carolina and won 14-6. The win improved Virginia’s record to 10-1 — the best start to a season since 2012, before the Tiffany era. 

However, the rest of the season would not be so bright. Then-No. 2 Virginia struggled against then-No. 3 Duke, losing 18-12. Even though this game marked the eighth time in 12 games where the Cavaliers went above 50 percent on faceoffs, the defense still struggled to hold back Duke’s offense. Nunes was pulled out after surrendering seven goals in the first quarter, though Tiffany attributed the decision mainly to a minor injury.

Throughout the entire season, the team relied on Nunes to bail the defense out. After any mistake the defenders made — getting beat, a bad check or giving too much space — normally Nunes was there to make the save. However, after Duke that reliability seemed to waver.

The ensuing loss to Syracuse was one of the hardest losses of the season. Virginia fell after a late comeback, where the Orange scored twice in the final two minutes, but it was a game where two incredibly good teams battled it out, going back and forth in a game Tiffany labeled “heroic.”

“It’s a testament to the thrill of what this game can bring,” Tiffany said. 

The feeling of being so close returned the following week in Virginia’s bout against Notre Dame, the powerhouse which beat the Cavaliers in last year’s NCAA semifinals and went on to win the national title. The Fighting Irish sat on top, ranked No. 1, this entire season and represented Virginia’s toughest opposition yet.

With a season-high 6,497 spectators at home, the Cavaliers faced Notre Dame in a game riddled with mistakes. Virginia committed 27 turnovers and lost the ground ball battle by a rough 51-26. But the 11-9 loss provided hope. Keeping the No. 1 team in the nation within two goals on a bad day comforted the Cavaliers.

Notre Dame apparently was not playing at its best either. The ACC semifinals offered a rematch of the two teams. High hopes entering the game were soon crushed as the Fighting Irish dominated throughout the day. The end of the first half saw Notre Dame leading 10-3 on the way to an 18-9 walloping. Tiffany’s words encapsulated fans’ feelings. 

“This is four losses in a row,” Tiffany said. “This is not what Virginia lacrosse is all about … on the defensive end we just weren’t able to take away what they were trying to do.”

Still ranked at No. 5, Virginia entered the NCAA Tournament and hosted St. Joseph’s in Charlottesville. The Cavalier offense shone, no player more than Cormier, who broke the NCAA record for goals scored with a career-high eight goals. Overall, the team performed well in a decisive win that took it to the next round, where Virginia would face Johns Hopkins once again.

The Blue Jays and Cavaliers fought hard, with Johns Hopkins taking the lead early. This prompted Nunes to be taken out in favor of sophomore goalie Kyle Morris. Shellenberger, Millon and graduate midfielder Jack Boyden’s three goals apiece, in addition to the Blue Jays’ being held scoreless in the final quarter, allowed Virginia to come back and force overtime.

Five turnovers, three of which were caused by Virginia, forced the teams to a second overtime. There, a strong stand by the defense and a clean clear allowed Shellenberger to win the game for the Cavaliers, sending them to championship weekend.

In another rematch of a previous game, the Cavaliers faced Maryland once more in the semifinals. Virginia struggled to score all game, while the Terrapins continued its momentum in the first half, winning 10 of 12 faceoffs. Recording only five saves, the 12-6 loss ended the season for the Cavaliers.

Especially later in the season, the questions surrounding defense and faceoffs continued to plague the team. Morris came in when Nunes struggled, and as the goalie performance wavered late in the season, the defense’s deficiencies emerged more obviously. Additionally, the faceoff unit managed to have good games during the season, but when it mattered, it was not an asset Tiffany could rely on.

The offense, however, was a consistent weapon. The attackmen are important, but the midfield is just as crucial when it comes to scoring. Opposing defenders match up against attackers, leaving the midfielders to take advantage of short-stick matchups, yet the Virginia midfield scored only 10 of 34 total goals during the tournament.

Looking to the 2025 season, the Cavaliers must devise a way to fully take advantage of their massive quantities of talent. Veterans like Shellenberger and Kastner were drafted into the Premier Lacrosse League, and Cormier was later picked up in free agency. Their absence will be felt, leaving big shoes for the likes of Millon, Schutz, sophomore midfielder Joey Terenzi and sophomore attackman Ryan Colsey to fill. Defense and faceoffs continue to need work, as Nunes cannot be expected to always bail the team out. Overall, Virginia can be proud of this year, but they must not forget their mistakes. 

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