Virginia is Still The Defending Champions

(Photo Courtesy of Virginia Athletics)

In just the third season of the Lars Tiffany era, the Virginia Cavaliers reached the pinnacle of college lacrosse and took down the Yale Bulldogs to claim their sixth NCAA title and first since 2011.

With a clear target on their back as defending national champions, the Cavaliers went 4-2 last season before the Coronavirus outbreak shut things down. Their only two losses came against Princeton, 16-12, and Brown, 14-13. And while we are now two years removed from the Cavaliers national title run, they still have that target on their back as they still hold the title of defending champions and will be looking to make it back to the top of the mountain in 2021.

Heading into this spring, many consider Virginia to be the third-best team in the ACC behind Duke and Syracuse, and rightfully so. But the Cavaliers are still a top-five caliber team and have the talent necessary to not only get back to Championship Weekend but defend their title.

Going back to his days at Brown, high-powered offense has been a prime highlight of Lars Tiffany teams. Especially when Sean Kirwan is the offensive coordinator. And things should be no different for this Cavaliers squad.

Ranked as the 20th-best scoring offense (13.67 goals per game) when the 2020 season was cancelled, the Cavaliers will return, at least, three of their top five scorers from a year ago. Matt Moore (19G/16A) and Ian Laviano (11G/3A) look to be their top options at the attack spot, while Payton Cormier (12G/7A), who recently took his name out of the Transfer Portal, is their top returner at the midfield spot and looks to take an even bigger step forward after a breakout season a redshirt freshman.

In addition to those three returnees, the Cavaliers add a versatile lefty attackman in Merrimack grad transfer Charlie Bertrand, who is a two-time DII Player of The Year and helped the Warriors win DII national titles during those two seasons (2018,2019). He had 23 points (18G/5A) during the Warriors’ first season as a DI program in 2020.

Redshirt freshman attackman Connor Shellenberger looks primed for a breakout season in 2021. The 2019 Under Armour All-American has the skillset to play both attack or midfield and should see a lot of playing time this season for the Cavaliers after redshirting last year. The same can be said for redshirt sophomore Xander Dickson, who missed last season with an injury after having a solid freshman season in 2019.

There is also a chance that Virginia returns midfielder Dox Aitken for an extra season. He has originally planned to play football at Villanova as a grad transfer this fall, but their season got pushed to the spring. He is currently listed on both rosters and no official word has been issued by either program on him being there this spring.

Update (11/29): US Lacrosse Magazine has reported that Dox Aitken won’t be returning to Virginia.

While this Virginia offense returns some absolute studs and adds a game-changer in Bertrand, perhaps the biggest news for the Cavaliers this offseason has been the return of LSM Jared Conners for a fifth season.

The Pittsford, N.Y., native is the motor of this Cavaliers squad and has absolutely transcended into one of the best two-way LSM’s over the past few seasons. He not only makes a huge impact as a defender, but also has the stick skills, IQ, and prowess, to make stunning plays on the offensive end of the field. And with a system that is built heavily on the fast-paced play and taking advantage in transition, having a player like Conners around is absolutely crucial. He recorded three goals, one assist, 28 ground balls, and 10 caused turnovers last season.

Alex Rode (.552 save percentage) will also return as the starter in cage for a third season and looks to continue being a solid anchor for that defense.

Outside Conners and Rode, there is some reason for hesitation or skepticism around how good this defense can be. The Cavaliers ended the 2020 season tied for 35th in scoring defense with Marist, allowing 11.17 goals per game.

Senior Kyle Kology (16GB/12CT) has been a solid and consistent presence on the back end for the past few seasons and is their most proven close defenseman. Sophomores Scott Bower (15GB/1CT) and Quentin Matsui (8GB/4CT) stated all six games as a freshman. The two did prove to be very capable and showed some flashes of what they can be. However, there are some areas where you would like to see both of them improve this coming spring.

In addition to their three starting defenseman, redshirt sophomore Cade Saustad should be back to full strength after sitting out due to an injury last season. He was one of the most impressive freshmen in 2019, starting at close and being a huge piece on the back end during the Cavaliers’ NCAA title run. With him back and this whole unit being more experienced, we could see a much-improved defense from what we saw at times last season.

Petey LaSalla backed up an impressive freshman campaign in 2019 with a strong sophomore season last year. The Miller Place, N.Y., native went 73-for-124 (.589) and finished the season ranked 23rd in the nation in faceoff percentage. There is no reason to believe that he can’t churn out another strong season in 2021 as a junior.

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