After winning the past two NCAA National Championships, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team looks primed for another deep playoff run this year. The Hoos have been truly dominant thus far, racing out to a 6-0 record and winning games by an average of more than 7 goals per game.
In fact, UVA ranks third in both scoring margin and points per game (27.33). That undefeated record and significant goal differential is not for a lack of quality opponents either as the last three opponents – Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, and North Carolina – have all been ranked in the Inside Lacrosse Top 20. The toughest test yet, however, comes against No. 1 Maryland in a rematch of last year’s National Championship Game, which Virginia won 17-16. The Hoos will look to stave off the Terps’ attempt at revenge in the headliner of three matchups that make up the Capitol Classic Lacrosse Tournament this Saturday at Audi Field in Washington, D.C.
The Cavaliers’ dominant start to the season has been due in part to the incredible play of Connor Shellenberger, last year’s Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament. Shellenberger has carried his momentum from last year’s playoff run into the start of this season as he has gone 10 straight games with at least 5 points, dating back to last season. Notably, Shellenberger currently ranks second in points per game (6.67) and first in assists per game (4.17) in the entire nation.
And perhaps his best assist of the season came last week in Chapel Hill when he deftly fired a pass through a crowd of defenders to sophomore Patrick McIntosh right on the doorstep of the North Carolina goal.
Connor Shellenberger showing why he leads the nation in assists. Here’s his 23rd of the season…
ACC Network pic.twitter.com/y1N6MXoO6w
— Virginia Men’s Lacrosse (@UVAMensLax) March 11, 2022
Shellenberger’s performance against UNC – 4 goals and 3 assists – earned him ACC Offensive Player of the Week honors. But Shellenberger hasn’t been the only offensive standout so far this season. Payton Cormier has racked up 21 goals in Virginia’s six games, good enough for eighth in the nation in goals per game (3.5). Cormier has also tallied 5 hattricks already this season, just 3 short of his total of 8 last season. The junior also matched his career high of 6 goals in a game in Virginia’s 19-8 demolition of Johns Hopkins.
This past week also included an impressive feat for attackman Matt Moore. In recording his 21st career hat trick against UNC, Moore reached 128 career goals and that moved him into eighth all time in UVA history. Virginia also saw senior Jeff Conner score a goal in his return to the field after he missed three games due to injury.
Offensive possessions and the turnover battle are critical to success in lacrosse and the Hoos have certainly outdone their opponents in maintaining their possessions and creating new ones by causing turnovers and winning groundballs. Faceoffs, handled mostly by senior Pete LaSalla, have also played a significant role in the early season success as LaSalla is ninth in the country when it comes to faceoff percentage. The Hoos turn the ball over at the eighth lowest rate and turn other teams over at the 10th highest rate nationally. While top 10 rankings in those statistics are certainly good, the Hoos move into elite territory with their groundballs, ranking first in the nation by a substantial margin with 41.5 per game.
The defense and goalkeeping haven’t been lacking for the Hoos either. Freshman goalie Matthew Nunes came in with a big role to fill this season after the graduation last year of Alex Rode, a two-time NCAA All-Tournament player and the Most Outstanding Player in Virginia’s 2019 title run. Despite his inexperience, Nunes has been strong for the Hoos, posting the 12th best goals-against average in the country at 9.45.
The Virginia defense has also benefited substantially from the exceptional play of Cole Kastner as the sophomore’s 3.67 caused turnovers per game are second in the country. Kastner earned his second consecutive ACC Defensive Player of the Week honor after forcing 3 turnovers for a UVA defense that limited UNC to just one second half goal in the 15-11 win.
The second ranked Cavaliers continue their run of five straight ranked matchups on Saturday against the top-ranked Maryland. The Hoos and Terps have been the best two teams in the country by some margin thus far, so this may just be a preview of a National Championship rematch come May. The following Saturday the Hoos will host No. 16 Notre Dame at Klockner Stadium, followed by a trip to Richmond on April 2.