A Broadcast and a Text: How Saturday's Virginia-Army Game Came Together


Connor Shellenberger had four goals and three assists in his NCAA debut on Saturday.

Adaptability is going to be among the valued traits in this lacrosse season. Army and Virginia already rate among its foremost practitioners.

The Black Knights had their scheduled opener at the University of Massachusetts canceled Sunday when the Minutemen were forced into a two-week athletics shutdown. Within hours, they had a replacement game and a trip to Charlottesville, Va., set for Saturday afternoon.

“Our desire is to challenge ourselves, not only in conference but out of conference, that I thought was an easy sell to our administration,” Army coach Joe Alberici said. “I’m not sure they’d want us to travel seven hours to just play anybody, but they realize it’s the defending national champions. Our goal here is to play against the best so we can be the best, and certainly Virginia fits the mold.”

The matchup received an inadvertent lift from the ACC Network broadcast of the Cavaliers’ 20-11 defeat of Towson on Saturday.

Last week, Virginia coach Lars Tiffany reached out to five programs the Cavaliers could visit on a day trip but found no takers. He’d tried for weeks to hammer out a neutral-site game with Lehigh, but the schools couldn’t secure a facility willing to host. Tiffany still wanted to play, and his mention of it made it into the broadcast.

It turned out to be a brilliant throwaway line. Alberici received a text when he was leaving an 8 a.m. church service from Massachusetts coach Greg Cannella, who explained the Minutemen wouldn’t be able to host the Black Knights. About a half-hour later, Army junior attackmen Brendan Nichtern texted Alberici to point out Virginia was looking for a game, prompting Alberici to pick up the phone again.

“Brendan, where did you hear this?” he asked. “Was it from one of your buddies?”

“No, it was on the TV broadcast,” Nichtern said.

Soon, Alberici and Tiffany were hashing out the details. On Virginia’s end, Klöckner Stadium was available, meaning the teams could schedule a noon game to get Army on the road earlier. The Black Knights already had permission to stay overnight Friday. Because they’re playing Syracuse next weekend, they were already familiar with the ACC’s medical protocols and were already PCR testing Wednesday.

“Fortunately, both of our administrations were forward-thinking, saying, ‘How do we say yes?’ instead of, ‘How do we say no?’” Tiffany said.

The trip fit reasonably well into Army’s budget as well, and Alberici had approval for the game in the mid-afternoon. Yet given how the last 11 months unfolded, he couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy.

“It was maybe about 3 o’clock, we were texting back and forth, and it looked like it was good, and I just called him and said, ‘Lars, this has gone way too smooth. What  aren’t we thinking of right now?’” Alberici said. “I threw out a couple things. He was all over it with the officials. Here we are. It’s Tuesday, and we still have a game. We’ll see what Wednesday brings.”

So far, so good — to the point, this could be an early example of what is possible this season with a mix of creativity and luck.

“It’s a little bit of a BYU-Coastal Carolina, except we had six days and not three days,” said Tiffany, referencing a college football matchup put together on the fly in November. “To have this opportunity in front of us is really cool. Now we’re just doing what we do. The normal jitters and anxiety of, ‘Gosh, West Point’s really good.’”

So is Virginia, a fact Alberici is well aware of as the Black Knights prepare for their first game against the Cavaliers since the 1985 NCAA tournament. But Army, which won the Patriot League in 2019 and was off to a 6-2 start last season, is like just about anyone at this stage and is eager simply for the chance to take the field.

“These days, even practices are gifts because you’ve seen it in other sports — it so easily can be taken away,” Alberici said. “I think that’s been our approach, and to have this chance to play Virginia is clearly a gift. It’s a heck of competition for our guys, but just to be out there against another color jersey is going to be a welcome sight for our guys.”

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