Virginia, Maryland Set For Premier Lacrosse Showdown

Connor Shellenberger leads UVA with 40 points so far this season. ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The No. 2 Virginia men’s lacrosse team (6-0) will take on No. 1 Maryland (6-0) at Audi Field on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the inaugural Capitol Classic Lacrosse Tournament. The Cavaliers began the 2022 season as the preseason No. 1, but the Terrapins quickly took the top spot after Week 1 and have remained at the top. UVA and Maryland faced off in the 2021 NCAA Championship Game, where the Hoos withstood a late Terrapin comeback to become back-to-back National Champions with a 17-16 win.

This will be the first regular season meeting between the two schools since Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten in 2014. Since then, the Cavaliers and Terrapins have faced off twice in the NCAA Tournament with UVA winning both times. Maryland leads the head-to-head series 47-46, but Virginia is 20-9 since 2000. For this matchup, Virginia’s players and coaches are more exhilarated than nervous.

“It’s not often that we get such a highly anticipated matchup this early in the season,” Virginia midfielder Grayson Sallade said, “just to see this type of lacrosse that’s going to be played on Saturday, early in March, should be exciting.”

On the attack, the Cavaliers are led by Connor Shellenberger. He leads the team with 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists), and currently ranks second in the NCAA in points per game (6.67) and first in assists per game (4.17). In the win against North Carolina last week, he scored a season-high 4 goals on 6 shots and added 3 assists. Alongside Shellenberger is Payton Cormier, who is one of the top goal scorers in the country with 3.5 per game. Maryland will also have to keep an eye on Matt Moore, who has three hat tricks in 2022.

On the other side, Maryland’s Logan Wisnauskas is the player to watch. In the 2021 National Championship Game, Wisnauskas was a major contributor to keep the Terrapins alive. He finished the game with 5 goals and an assist. He is one of the most dangerous attackers nationally with 20 goals and 15 assists on the season.

Virginia coach Lars Tiffany gave high praise toward Wisnauskas, who told Tiffany he wanted a rematch after Maryland’s loss in the title game.

“I just so admired Logan in that moment, when it’s so painful … he wanted to keep playing the game, and he just couldn’t wait to get back to next year,” Tiffany said. “I admire him as a lacrosse player … he’s one of the best out there.”

UVA has done well in limiting opposing teams’ impact players. Joey Epstein leads John Hopkins in points (16 goals, 8 assists), but he was held scoreless and recorded only 1 assist in the Blue Jays’ 19-8 loss to the Cavaliers. North Carolina’s points leader Chris Gray (26 goals, 19 assists) was held to a goal and 3 assists, and the Hoos’ defense pressured Gray enough for only 2 of his 7 shots to be on goal.

Virginia defender Cole Kastner has played a vital role for the Cavalier defense. Kastner is the reigning back-to-back ACC Defensive Player of the Week after being the primary defender on the Tar Heels’ Gray. The Cavaliers played that game without defender and team captain Cade Saustad, who is dealing with a lower extremities injury and has yet to practice. However, Kastner, who ranks second in the country with 3.67 forced turnovers per game, has anchored the defense in his absence.

Maryland still deploys a balanced attack outside of Wisnauskas, and Virginia has to be ready to adjust. Jonathan Donville has 15 goals and 5 assists, for example. Plus, the offense features eight players with 10 or more points on the season. Virginia only has five. In Maryland’s last outing against Albany, 15 different Terps pitched in a goal as they cruised to a 24-6 win.

“When I look at Maryland, it’s hard to be really personnel-driven because they have so many weapons,” Tiffany said.

For Maryland’s defense, UVA needs to be cautious of Brett Makar and Ajax Zappitello. Makar has not popped out on the stat sheet much this season, but his impact is still felt by the opposition for his close defense ability. Against Princeton and Notre Dame, Zappitello had 3 caused turnovers in each game. His efforts against ND earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors, as the Fighting Irish were held to only 9 goals, their lowest scoring output this season. He is tied for the most caused turnovers on the Terrapins (10) with Matt Rahill, who made Princeton and Albany pay with 3 and 4 caused turnovers, respectively.

When it comes to faceoff win percentage, Maryland’s Luke Wierman ranks fourth in the NCAA, while Virginia’s Petey LaSalla ranks ninth. LaSalla went 9-10 on faceoffs against John Hopkins, which allowed the Hoos to dominate the Blue Jays for the entire game until the starters were subbed late. However, in a tighter contest against North Carolina, LaSalla went 14-27. In the Terrapins’ last three games, Wierman has won 47 of 64 faceoffs. Because of how tight the game will most likely be, every possession will matter, and this matchup could end up determining the victor.

This game will pit the top two scoring offenses in the country. On the defensive side, Maryland ranks 10th in scoring defense, while Virginia ranks 15th. UVA leads the nation with the most ground balls per game (41.5), while Maryland sits in ninth (36.67). With how competitive both teams are, ground balls and faceoffs will be major factors to keep an eye on. One scoring possession was the difference in the last meeting, and there will be an emphasis on maximizing possessions on both sides Saturday.

Regardless of the outcome, Tiffany believes the Capitol Classic could allow the sport to grow.

“It’s an opportunity for our sport to play on the big stage, and we need more of those,” Tiffany said. “This type of venue can put maybe upwards of 10,000 people. … We want athletic directors at schools that don’t sponsor lacrosse to witness this to see how much attention and how many bodies they can put in seats.”