Men’s Lacrosse: Virginia’s ‘Pretty Boys’ host Michigan in big opener

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia’s men’s lacrosse team opens the season at noon today (ACC Network) when the No. 3-ranked Cavaliers host No. 8 Michigan in a huge debut for both teams.

UVA and the Wolverines reached the NCAA tournament last season, the Cavaliers getting knocked out by eventual champion Notre Dame, a team Virginia had defeated twice in the regular season.

Coach Lars Tiffany returns seven starters and features some impressive transfers into the program, which will be tested by Michigan today. The Cavaliers may have some extra incentive courtesy of Michigan coach Kevin Conry.

During a recent interview with Inside Lacrosse, Conry said: “We play in the best conference in the country. It’s not the pretty-boy conference. It’s full of 6-foot-4 gorillas ready to rip your face off.”

Certainly the Big 10 is highly respected in the sport, boasting Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Penn State and Michigan. But didn’t the ACC feature three teams in last May’s Final Four?

Perhaps Conry forgot that Notre Dame, Duke and Virginia made up three-quarters of championship weekend?

After losing 18 players from that squad, including a ton of institutional knowledge, Tiffany believes his ‘24 team made significant strides between the first and second scrimmages leading up to today’s opener.

“We grew and learned a lot,” Tiffany said of the warmups with Navy and Penn. “Most importantly to me was really grit and toughness. The camaraderie couldn’t be better. It’s one of the best we’ve ever had in my eight years here. There’s a lot of question marks, but the intensity of the unification, how much these guys have come together, but this one has been unique. It’s special.”

Tiffany doesn’t shy away from the importance of this challenging opener, which he described as a big-timer.

“This is a big-boy game,” Tiffany said. “Whoever wins this game has earned a bigtime victory. I’ll be honest with you, when we scheduled this a couple of years ago, this wasn’t the thinking. Give Coach Conry and his men tremendous credit, going to the quarterfinals last year and doing really well in the transfer portal. So not only have they developed players, but they supplemented really well.”

Four of the Wahoos’ returning starters include two-time Tewaaraton Award finalist Connor Shellenberger, 2022 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Cole Kastner, 2022 ACC Freshman of the Year Matthew Nunes and 2023 preseason All-American Payton Cormier.

Shellenberger, a home-grown star from St. Anne’s-Belfield, is back for his last go-round with the Cavaliers, after leading the nation in assists in 2023 (3.38 per game). He enters his final campaign with 140 career assists (20 shy of the program record). Shellenberger’s 239 career points are only 38 from breaking Matt Moore’s UVA record of 276.

Tiffany has high expectations of Shellenberger this season.

“Connor has not been 100-percent healthy the past two seasons, but I think he’s back in form now,” the coach said. “His brain and his intelligence has still allowed him to score 80 points a season, but he is as healthy as we’ve seen him, so that’s exciting, and he’s ready to take it to a different level this year.”

Cormier has led Virginia in goals the last two seasons, and is only seven shy of breaking Doug Knight’s program record. Cormier is the only Cavalier to have scored 100 career goals and average at least 2.89 goals per game, plus is the only player in Wahoo history to post a pair of 50-goal seasons (52 in 2023, 50 in ‘22).

Tiffany said that the second scrimmage showed him that his team can be tough, intense and not be pushed around, which will be important against Michigan.

“Also, the understanding of schemes … I think there’s a real level of high IQ here in terms of what we’re doing defensively and offensively, despite having some graduation, so I’m really content at this point for early February, knowing that the scheme comprehension is where it is despite the graduation. I don’t want to beat it to death, but there really is a tightness and a unity with this team.”

Having come so close to the national championship game last year, Virginia feels like it has some unfinished business.

“I mean, it’s always wonderful … you idolize the history of the program, the tradition that we stand on the shoulders of giants,” Tiffany said. “This is our time. This is now and it’s our time to write this chapter and see if we can take the next step.

“I’ve never lost 18 guys before, but we have a lot returning. There’s a balance of new people fighting for starting spots and yet incredible talent and depth when you look at our offense.”

That new chapter begins today.