Fall Ball Focus: Loaded Virginia Roster Has Something to Prove

PHOTO BY RICH BARNES

A second-year captain, defensive midfielder Grayson Sallade is one of seven returning All-Americans to the Virginia men's lacrosse roster.


Editor’s note: This interview with Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany took place last week before the tragic deaths of three players on the Virginia football team. Tiffany shared his thoughts about the tragedy on Twitter:

“Our hearts are broken. We grieve with our football brothers. We cry for the tragic loss of the lives Devin, D’Sean and Lavel were living, and for the loss of the lives they would have lived as husbands, dads and leaders.”

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Tewaaraton finalist Connor Shellenberger? He’s back.

ACC Defensive Player of the Year Cole Kastner? He’s back.

All-American faceoff specialist and clutch goal scorer Petey LaSalla? He’s back.

50-goal scorer Payton Cormier? He’s back.

U20 gold medalists Quentin Matsui and Danny Parker? They’re back.

Yes, Virginia loses all-time leading scorer Matt Moore, but the above players are just a smattering of the talent returning to Charlottesville this year. All-Americans Jeff Conner, Grayson Sallade and Cade Saustad also return, along with promising young goalie Matt Nunes.

In fact, Moore is the only player that started more than one game for Virginia last year that’s not back.

Oh, did we mention that Virginia signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation according to Inside Lacrosse?

Yes, this has the potential to be a very special season at a school that is no stranger to success in recent years. But in the post-COVID era, with the NCAA not counting the 2020 season as a year of eligibility, there are several teams around the country more experienced than usual.

Can Virginia’s experience take them back to greater heights?

Virginia had its moments last season, but it also showed some flaws. The Cavaliers ranked just 41st in the country in scoring defense, giving up almost 12 goals per game. Virginia also converted 50 percent of its man-up chances, but got just 30 opportunities all year, tied for 70th out of 72 teams in the country.

LAST SEASON

Two-time reigning NCAA champion Virginia started last season 6-0 before being humbled by Maryland 23-12 in an undefeated match-up of No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams in mid-March. While that allowed the Cavaliers to go under the radar, it was also the first sign of how dominant Maryland’s 2022 team would be.

Virginia’s season ended in much the same fashion, an 18-9 loss to Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals, a cruel twist after Virginia had ended Maryland’s season in both its 2019 and 2021 NCAA championship seasons.

A 12-4 season, including a perfect 8-0 record at home, while being the only ACC team to make the tournament field was pretty impressive, but it’s hard to be content when you’re used to being king of the mountain.







BIGGEST FALL QUESTION

How do you win the ball on the ground?

During the Cavaliers NCAA championship seasons in 2019 and 2021, UVa led the country in both total ground balls and ground balls per game. Virginia wasn’t bad in either category last year — second in ground balls per game and seventh overall — but it just didn’t feel the same.

“I didn’t feel the desperation last year when the ball was on the ground,” Tiffany said. “That defined us the last couple of years.”

As a result, Virginia put renewed emphasis on that portion of the game in the fall.

“We’ve been doing some drills that are not for the faint of heart,” Tiffany said. “We’ve been putting our men in some demanding and difficult settings.”

The results aren’t where he wants them to be yet. Before a fall scrimmage against Lehigh, the only thing he was measuring was ground balls. It didn’t go as planned and gave him flashbacks to last year’s quarterfinal loss to Maryland.

“Maryland kept getting the extra possessions and the Lehigh game felt the same,” Tiffany said.

That hard work will continue as an emphasis heading into the spring, but with a balance. Tiffany has more fifth-year players than he’s ever had.

“We want to put the first-years and second years in high physical and high intensity drills while not over training the fifth years,” Tiffany said. “That’s a fifth fall in the weight room, a fifth fall of groundball drills, a fifth fall of sprints. It’s physically taxing on the body.”

MARQUEE ADDITION

Thomas McConvey

McConvey didn’t see a lot of action in the fall after being injured in the gold medal game of the World Lacrosse Men’s U21 Championship, but the Vermont transfer should add some dynamite to an already explosive offense.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 National Lacrosse League draft, McConvey was a two-time All-American with the Catamounts and scored a school record 60 goals last season. In Charlottesville, he’ll be reunited with Cormier. The duo first played together when they were four years old.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE

Evan Zinn

One of UVa’s fifth years, Zinn arrived on campus last January as a graduate transfer after playing his first three seasons at Johns Hopkins.

“It took him a little while to learn our defense last year, but he’s been watching a lot of film and really understanding our defense,” Tiffany said of the midfielder.

The fastest player on UVa’s roster, Zinn can bring his dynamic athleticism to the field and contribute in a variety of ways. He had 13 points last season, but can potentially make a bigger impact on the defensive half of the field.

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