How Virginia Returned to the Pinnacle of College Lacrosse
This article appears in the July/August edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

As Lars Tiffany reflected on that incredible day — on how Virginia completed its return to the top of the college men’s lacrosse world by dismantling defending NCAA champion Yale with stunning, surgical efficiency — the Cavaliers coach acknowledged the trying times that fortified his team.

Tiffany, who was hired to replace coaching legend Dom Starsia following the 2016 season, came to Charlottesville with an overarching mission: Get Virginia back to its once-assumed place among the Division I elite.

The Cavs, who had not been a serious title contender since rallying in 2011 to become then the first five-loss team to take the trophy and had missed the NCAA tournament twice in Starsia’s final four seasons, needed an infusion of change. Tiffany was the agent.

He brought an aggressive, run-and-gun style of play from Brown that produced exhausting practices designed to help Virginia pound opposing defenses into submission. It produced mixed results in year one, which ended with an 8-7 record, a 0-4 mark against ACC competition and another NCAA tournament miss in 2017.

Last year, UVA took notable steps forward with its first ACC win since 2012, its first NCAA tournament bid since 2015 and a 12-5 record. But then it flopped badly at Loyola in the first round.

The final score read 14-12. In reality, on a five-hour night at Ridley Athletic Complex marked by persistent lightning delays, Virginia was woefully unprepared for the moment. It fell way behind early, trailed by seven goals in the fourth quarter and was never really in it.

Nine months later in the 2019 season opener, the Cavs returned to Ridley. Goalie Jacob Stover foiled Virginia’s up-tempo, trade-goals strategy, while eventual Tewaaraton Award winner Pat Spencer abused Virginia’s undisciplined defense, leading Loyola to a 17-9 rout.

The story of this year’s edition of Virginia is how it regrouped after that humbling loss and a 1-2 start. How it rolled to a sixth NCAA title and finished with a 17-3 record to tie the undefeated 2006 team for most wins in a Virginia season.

The story of this year’s Cavs, who went 7-1 in one-goal games, culminated on Memorial Day, when Virginia took a 13-9 win by thoroughly taking apart a dangerous Yale team that was never really in it.

Matt Moore, the first 40-40 player (46 goals, 43 assists) in Virginia history, did his thing with four goals. Goalie Alex Rode, the eventual tournament MVP, made 13 saves, including eight in a superb first half. Yale was outplayed nearly from the opening whistle. Virginia, no longer a run-and-gun outfit, picked its spots to play fast wisely and controlled tempo all day.

“We put it all together by playing our best game of the last three years on the biggest stage,” Tiffany said. “You really do have to step backward before you go forward. Players have to get beat up before they realize they have to change some things. Players have to commit to making real sacrifices in order to win a championship.”

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College
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Gary Lambrecht
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In other words, the Cavs became a study in avoiding distractions on a daily basis, in service to themselves and the team. They regularly passed on the temptations that are pervasive in the lively college town that is Charlottesville. They maintained laser focus on academic performance, evidenced by the team’s combined GPA of 3.26, according to Tiffany.

They threw more energy into “Cultural Thursdays,” weekly team meetings first organized by Tiffany early in his tenure, at which players discuss and interpret literature with inspirational themes of leadership, courage and achieving against great odds.

“The best part about Cultural Thursdays was the way [Tiffany] directed things without saying, ‘This is what I want.’ He wanted us to build our culture,” redshirt senior defenseman Logan Greco said. “When he first got here, he told us we can’t be normal students who go out. This team and winning are more important than going out on a Tuesday night. We have a higher standard to hold ourselves to, especially with what’s happened in the past. As student-athletes, we have a bigger microscope on us.”

The Cavs are sensitive regarding the disturbing, recent past in their program. And the seniors who went out in style, such as Greco and star midfielder Ryan Conrad, maintain a deep fondness for Starsia, the winningest coach in Division I history and one of the game’s more popular characters ever.

It was late in Starsia’s 24-year watch that a run of tragic and embarrassing events tarnished Virginia lacrosse — the killing of senior women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love in May 2010 and subsequent, first-degree murder indictment and eventual second-degree conviction of men’s player George Huguely; the report in 2010 that eight men’s players had been arrested in alcohol-related incidents; the dismissal and suspension, respectively, in 2011 of twins and star midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, reportedly for alcohol-related violations of team rules.  

“There are so many ways to lose sight of what’s important for a young person in a fun place like Charlottesville,” Tiffany said. “Our off-the-field decisions were going to be critical to our success.”

Defensive coordinator Kip Turner was the starting goalie on UVA’s undefeated 2006 title team. He and offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan came with Tiffany from Brown.

“You come to Virginia to win a national championship, and I got to do that. Then I got into coaching and watched their struggles [from a distance],” Turner said. “It’s amazing to be part of the reparation process that started with Coach T. This is a team with a lot of talent, but we won this because we’re a gritty team that cares a lot about each other. Just like our ’06 team, this team understands the sacrifice it takes to get to this place.”

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“You really do have to step backward before you go forward.” — Lars Tiffany
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Clearly, the Virginia team that dominated Yale at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia had become an increasingly close, strong and tough-minded unit — physically in the tireless ways they pushed themselves in the weight room, mentally in the ways they embraced grinding down opponents with second-half comebacks and close victories.

On a day when offensive stars Moore, Michael Kraus and Dox Aitken combined to score nine goals, it was faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla stealing part of the show by scoring twice, despite winning just four of 17 draws against Yale superstar TD Ierlan.

But it was the throw-down by Virginia’s defense and the Cavs’ overall hustle and muscle that ruled the day and took the suspense out of the afternoon.

Virginia forced 20 turnovers and held the Bulldogs to their lowest scoring output of 2019. The Cavs’ riding game, the best in the sport this year, led the way by spoiling eight of Yale’s 23 clear attempts. Their rope units made Yale’s midfield lines disappear. Sophomore close defenseman Cade Saustad was the primary reason Jackson Morrill, Yale’s star junior attackman, finished with one assist.

The tone was set in the first half. Virginia limited Ierlan’s ability to win faceoffs cleanly and ignite Yale’s transition game. The Cavs forced nine turnovers, often springing perfectly-timed double teams out of their 6-on-6 matchup zone. And Virginia seemingly came up with every contested ground ball.

Yale never got into a rhythm. The Bulldogs trudged off the field at halftime trailing 6-2 — the most unproductive half by the nation’s No. 2 offense.

“There wasn’t a guy in the locker room that had a doubt that would affect our belief we were taking this game,” said Jared Conners, the All-American long pole.

“I was kind of shocked that we were in control at the half against a team known for their [high-scoring] first quarters in the tournament,” Aitken said. “We’ve been in so many situations where we’ve been behind this year.”

In the quarterfinals, Virginia trailed Maryland by five goals in the fourth quarter, then scored six straight to win in overtime 13-12. (The Cavaliers did catch a break on Kraus’ controversial game-tying goal, ruled as such after the shot hit the underside of the crossbar and careened out of bounds 50 yards up field.)

A week later, in its first final four appearance in eight seasons and trying to beat nemesis Duke for only the second time in 21 tries, Virginia switched to the matchup zone it had just started practicing a few days earlier. That allowed the rattled Cavs, who had committed 13 turnovers and trailed 5-2 at the half, to stay close.

Then, it was Duke that blinked down the stretch, as an 11-8 lead evaporated. Kraus and Ian Laviano scored goals in the final 46 seconds of regulation. Laviano finished off the Blue Devils in overtime for another 13-12 win.

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Virginia’s energy two days later in Philly was startling. It was also a testament to some creative coaching. The Cavs had made it a habit to lift weights aggressively on Sundays, normally a rest day. Then Tiffany would run the toughest day of practice on Tuesdays.

The idea was to get the team conditioned to playing on postseason weekends with quick, two-day turnarounds. Once Virginia hit May, the Cavs lifted hardest on Sundays and practiced hardest on Mondays.

The Cavs were rugged and ready on the season’s final Monday. It showed in the decisive third quarter. Yale converted two easy Ierlan wins into goals to cut the deficit to 6-4. The crowd stirred. Virginia refused to panic.

Ierlan won the next draw, but the Cavs forced a loose ball. Conrad picked it up near midfield, sprinted untouched toward the goal and beat Jack Starr to ignite a 5-0 run. The Cavs silenced Yale in the third quarter with seven forced turnovers, negating Ierlan’s 7-for-8 showing. The Bulldogs trailed 11-5 and were effectively cooked.

“We took their punch,” Conrad said. “Then we delivered the knockout punch.”

“From top to bottom — faceoffs, clearing, riding, defense, offense — this is the best lacrosse game we’ve played in my three years here, hands down,” Kirwan said. “We hit the pinnacle in the last game. As a player, you realize how all of that hard work pays off. Everything you did and sacrificed was worth it.”

Short Summary: 
From culture change to Cultural Thursdays, this is the story of the Cavaliers' resurrection.
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Photographer Main Image: 
PHOTO BY KEVIN P. TUCKER
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PHOTO BY KEVIN P. TUCKER

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