(Photo Courtesy of Virginia Athletics)
The Virginia Cavaliers ended the 2021 season just as they did the last full season (2019) prior, as national champions. This time around, the Cavaliers took down the Maryland Terrapins to become the first program since Duke (2013,2014) to win consecutive national titles and claim their seventh in program history.
Virginia’s rise under Tiffany has been swift. From three consecutive winless seasons in ACC play from 2015 through the first year of the Tiffany era (2017) to back-to-back national champions. The Cavaliers are back on top of the college lacrosse world and once again have a clear target on their back each time they take the field.
Heading into the 2022 season, the biggest question concerning this Cavaliers squad is whether they can indeed pull off a three-peat. Such a feat is difficult and has only been accomplished three times in the NCAA era (Johns Hopkins 1978-1980, Syracuse 1988-1990, Princeton 1996-1998). The question of whether Virginia will join the likes of those truly great dynasties or not is one that can only be answered in time, but the fact of the matter is that this Cavaliers team does indeed look the part of a championship-caliber team, once again.
Ian Laviano and Dox Aitken both played a big part on offense during both national title runs and have now moved on. The same can be said for goalie Alex Rode, LSM Jared Conners, and defenseman Kyle Kology on the defensive end. Additionally, Charlie Bertrand’s one-year graduate stop in Charlottesville is over. And while losing a combined five impact players on both sides of the ball is a lot, the Cavaliers still return more production than a lot of teams across the board, especially their ACC counterparts.
From their third-ranked scoring offense (14.61%), Virginia returns their top three scorers in Connor Shellenberger (37G/42A), Matt Moore (33G/34A), and Payton Cormier (45G/8A). Shellenberger blew up as a redshirt freshman in 2021, especially in the NCAA Tournament where he was named the Most Outstanding Player, and now with a year of college lacrosse under his belt is expected to only progress further. Moore is the eldest statesmen on this offense as a fifth-year returnee and Cormier is coming off his first full season of college lacrosse in which he further solidified himself as this team’s best finisher and goal scorer.
The trio of Shellenberger, Moore, and Cormier returning is huge and vital to the success of this Virginia offense this spring. But with the aforementioned losses, there are certainly holes to fill, and this Cavaliers squad can indeed meet that task. Junior midfielder Peter Garno (22G/3A) is one of multiple names who could see their role significantly increased this spring following a 2021 campaign in which he served as a top reserve and made two starts. The same can be said for senior midfielder Jeff Conner (14G/8A) and redshirt junior attackman Xander Dickson (10G/10A). Conner and Dickson combined for 14 starts last season.
Additionally, junior attackman Will Cory and freshman Griffin Schutz have generated some buzz this fall and could very well be solid or heavy contributors this coming spring.
This Virginia offense will likely have the chance to get those coveted extra possessions again this season, not only due to the expectation that the Virginia ride will continue to cause problems for opposing teams but also due to the fact that Petey LaSalla is returning at the faceoff dot. LaSalla has been part of both national title runs and is coming off a 2021 campaign in which he went 277-for-167 (.624%) and finished the season ranked 12th nationally (second in ACC) in faceoff win percentage.
Many of the biggest questions surrounding this Cavaliers squad coming into the 2022 season lie on the defensive end of the field. And none is bigger than the question mark in cage due to the aforementioned loss of Alex Rode, who has been the primary starter in between the pipes since the second half of his freshman season in 2018.
Bobby Gavin saw action in eight games with two starts last season against Army West Point and Loyola, making a season total of 29 saves with a 50% save percentage. The sophomore has seen multiple starts in fall scrimmages and is firmly in the battle for that starting goalie spot. Freshman Matthew Nunes out of The Woodlands (Texas) has also seen a good amount of action this fall, starting against Team USA last weekend, and could also see himself get that starting spot come spring.
Out in front of the cage, Cole Kastner, Scott Bower, and Cade Saustad are the Cavaliers’ top returning poles at close. Kastner, who spent most of his freshman season coming off the bench before starting all four games in the NCAA Tournament, tallied seven caused turnovers and 14 ground balls last season. Bower saw three starts in 18 appearances last season with 11 ground balls and two caused turnovers. Saustad, who missed 2020 due to an injury, returned to form, grabbing 38 ground balls and causing 17 caused turnovers as one of the Cavaliers’ most productive poles.
Despite their losses, this defense still returns a very solid core at close defense and the same appears to be true with the Cavaliers’ rope unit where they lose not only Jared Conners but also SSDM Chris Merle. Grayson Sallade () is the team’s top returning SSDM and will be a leader at the top this season while a number of new faces will likely emerge. Junior Drew Brennfleck and freshman Dawson Chitwood have seen action at the position this fall and are two of multiple names to watch at the position.