For much of this season, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team spent time rallying from behind or in nerve-racking one-goal games. That included Saturday’s double overtime win against Duke in the NCAA Tournament Semifinals. There was no such drama on Monday.
The Cavaliers took a 3-2 lead early in the second quarter and never let Yale within one goal again in the final 36 minutes as they marched to a 13-9 victory and the National Championship in Philadelphia. It’s the sixth title in program history, which ties UVA with Princeton for third all time.
“It’s been a dream of mine for a while now,” said Virginia’s Matt Moore, who grew up outside of Philadelphia. “I came to a bunch of Eagles games. I’ve dreamed of this since I was a kid, and I can’t believe it, it’s just awesome, being here with my teammates and celebrating.”
“If you sit in my desk, physically sit at my desk, there are five championship trophies on top of it, hanging over me. You feel that,” UVA coach Lars Tiffany said. “At the University of Virginia the support [is] there from the athletic department. … So we saw Tony Bennett do it this year. You’re provided what you need to win. Achieving this is a realistic objective. It’s not a fantasy. So I’m just very fortunate to be in a position in an athletic department that really cares about its athletic teams.”
While Yale held a considerable 19-6 advantage on faceoffs behind NCAA leader TD Irelan and UVA countered with its pressure ride defense on clears, the title game looked fairly even statistically but Virginia controlled the run of play for most of the afternoon. Between a stingy defensive effort and quality offense that emphasized a balance of aggressiveness and possession, the Hoos dictated the flow of what developed as a physical game.
The Cavalier defense smothered the Bulldogs for most of the afternoon, keeping the 2018 champs from building rhythm through contested passes and keeping dodgers out of the lanes. Then when the Yale offense did break through for a good opportunity, goalie Alex Rode came up with several strong saves to prevent scoring. Rode finished with 13 saves and took home the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honor. He had 32 saves in the final two games combined.
The Bulldogs had gotten off to a fast start throughout the NCAA Tournament with 26 goals (8.7 per game) in the first quarter of their first three games, but the Hoos made sure to prevent that in the title game. Yale managed just one goal, 2:01 into the game, in the first quarter and only two goals before halftime. In fact, other than a quick flurry to start the second half and a string of three goals late in the game after Virginia built a six-goal lead, the Bulldogs got nothing going against a defense that really delivered with its slides throughout.
“Yale is a very good offense,” Rode said. “I thought the whole defense just played amazing. They were flying around, D middies and the close defense, just very fortunate to be able to play with that group of guys.”
The UVA offense played its part in slowing down Yale’s attack too. The Cavaliers mixed some quick-strike possessions – most notably faceoff man Petey LaSalla streaking down the middle for two goals in seven and eight seconds respectively – with some clock-eating work to frustrate the up-tempo hopes of the Bulldogs. Frequently, the Hoos would work the ball to a player with a potentially good matchup or work movement to force switches that opened up great opportunities.
The results there speak for themselves. Moore ripped off 4 goals with 1 assist to lead the scoring and he became the program’s single-season record holder for points in the process. Moore’s 89 points this season surpassed Doug Knight’s 86 tottal from 1996. Michael Kraus contributed a hat trick of his own, while Dox Aitken also scored multiple times with 2 goals of his own. Aitken broke his own program record for single-season points by a midfielder with 52. Throw in LaSalla’s pair and a goal each from Ryan Conrad and Ian Laviano and Virginia’s offense combined to wear down Yale through the afternoon.
“We played smart in terms of possessing the ball,” Tiffany said. “When we got here to Virginia three years ago we were playing at a frenetic fast pace, and while it was fun it wasn’t successful. We were able to manage the shot clock well throughout the season and the pinnacle of it is how we did it today. We’re not usually winning – as most of you know, we’re more comfortable losing at halftime, not that we want to but we’re more comfortable there. So we talked about it as a staff, what do we do? We don’t want to stall, you can’t do that in the shot clock era, but the men made us look smart. They understood shot clock awareness, Matt Moore and Michael Kraus, especially; Dox Aitken and Ryan Conrad, especially.”
“No doubt about it,” Yale coach Andy Shay said of the impact those possessions had on the outcome. “They held the ball for every shot clock. They got it do single digits, I don’t know, I don’t know how many times. So that was very frustrating. We like to run, and we like to play fast, and they got a few saves on us a few failed clears, and they’re possessing the ball as long as they were, it got very frustrating, and it wore on us.”
The run to the championship completed an impressive and quick rise back to the top after a coaching change at UVA. The Cavaliers brought in Tiffany for the 2017 season to take over from long-time coach Dom Starsia, who won four national titles with the Hoos, and then steadily ticked off steps to get the program back to title territory. They ended an 18-game losing streak in ACC play, won the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2010, and then finally broke a 10-game losing streak to Duke in the semifinal round Saturday. The final step came with Monday’s National Championship.
Tiffany has frequently credited Starsia for bringing in many of the players leading the charge for this team and for continuing to serve as his mentor over the last three years. Tiffany played for Starsia at Brown as well and that experience helped lead him into coaching in the first place.
The players adjusted to the changes and gave Virginia its second national title this year following the men’s basketball championship in April.
“Yeah, it’s been almost a flawless transition. For Coach Tiffany and his other assistants to be able to come in here in year three [and] have a championship is unreal,” Kraus said. “It’s a testament to them buying into us, not just taking this first three years to settle in. They attacked it from the start. They gave us free reign the first year. Second year we started to settle down a little bit, and this year you can see how much we’ve matured, and that’s all a testament to them, what they have instilled in us, the confidence, mentality, it’s been a big change from my first year to now. You can just see the heart, the grittiness and toughness that we were playing with today out on that field. It just felt like we wanted it so bad, and every ground ball, whatever it may be, we were able to get it, second chances we were picking them up, moving them up into the offensive end. So the transition has been unreal. Especially the coaches buying into us and us buying into their schemes.”