No championship game is quite as harrowing as Division I men’s lacrosse, and no program has excelled in that cauldron during the past two-plus decades like Virginia.
Steeled by May challenges past and present, the Cavaliers added to that legacy Monday afternoon in East Hartford, Conn., with a riveting 17-16 conquest of previously undefeated Maryland.
Thanks to binges of 6-0 and 5-0, UVA did not trail during the final three quarters, but Lars Tiffany’s team could not exhale until a shot by Terps faceoff specialist Luke Wierman careened off goalie Alex Rode’s chest with 5 seconds remaining.
“Alex Rode is just about as clutch a lacrosse player as it gets,” said Cavaliers freshman Connor Shellenberger, voted the tournament’s most outstanding player after a four-goal, two-assist performance Monday.
Clutch has long defined Virginia as well. Since an overtime setback to Princeton in 1996, the Cavaliers are 6-0 in national championship games. No other Division I men’s lacrosse program has ever won in six consecutive NCAA final appearances, no matter the time span.
UVA’s run includes 2019, when Rode was the MOP and the Cavaliers defeated Yale 13-9 in the title contest. With no postseason last year due to COVID-19, Virginia has repeated as national champion for the first time, perhaps the only missing piece from the program’s historical mosaic.
“We weren’t going to let the 2019 team be the 2021 team,” senior defenseman Jared Conners said. “We were going to have our own story.”
And what a story they authored.
The Cavaliers (13-4) learned from regular-season losses to Syracuse (twice), North Carolina and Duke, tightened their defense and designed an offense that Maryland coach John Tillman described as “choose your poison.”
The Terps (15-1) had not yielded more than 13 goals in a game this season — their opponents averaged a scant 9.7 — but Shellenberger, Matt Moore and Jeff Conner teamed for 11 and five assists as Virginia scored more goals against Maryland than any team in the past 16 years.
Terps attackman Jared Bernhardt led the nation in goals per game at 4.6, but Cade Saustad led a defensive effort that limited him to a pair of goals on 13 shots.
Virginia led 8-4 midway through the second quarter and 16-11 early in the fourth, but Maryland “just wouldn’t go away,” Tiffany said. “Of course, they wouldn’t.”
Not on this stage.
Not in this sport.
Monday was the 21st one-goal final in the NCAA tournament’s 50 years, a mind-bending tradition of tension. Add Saturday’s 12-11 semifinal victory over North Carolina, and Virginia is the sixth national champion to prevail by a goal in the semifinals and final, the first since Duke in 2010.
Now consider the overall excellence of UVA’s athletic department. Combined with their women’s swimming national title in March, this marks the fifth academic year in which the Cavaliers have earned multiple NCAA team championships. Here are the others.
1992-93: Men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse
2009-10: Men’s soccer and rowing.
2014-15: Men’s soccer, men’s tennis and baseball.
2018-19: Men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse.
Moreover, men’s lacrosse is the fourth UVA program to win consecutive NCAA titles. Women’s cross country did so in 1981 and ’82; men’s soccer won four straight from 1991 to 1994, and men’s tennis won three in a row from 2015 to 2017.
Granted, Tiffany’s program is two years removed from its perilous 2019 championship — those Cavaliers were 5-0 in sudden-death overtime, including 2-0 in postseason — but this unique repeat is more impressive than a conventional title defense.
Virginia was 4-2 and preparing for a nonconference clash at Maryland when the pandemic shuttered all of college sports in March 2020. What followed were months of uncertainty regarding seasons, eligibility and academics, not to mention COVID-19 protocols that ranged from inconvenient to unpleasant.
No wonder Tiffany said last week that the best part of advancing to championship weekend was the gift of time. More time for this team to bond and compete, and with restrictions easing, more time to interact in-person.
Monday I asked Tiffany what that extra time means to him. His thoughts immediately turned to Conners and midfielder Dox Aitken, who were freshmen when Tiffany succeeded Dom Starsia as coach in 2016.
“With Dox and Jared, I mean, there’s no better way to say goodbye, right?,” said Tiffany, the ninth coach to win consecutive NCAA tournaments.
Then Tiffany pondered the trip home from East Hartford to UVA.
“I can’t wait for this 10-hour bus ride home,” he said. “I can’t wait for it. I won’t want it to end. I know it’ll be 2 in the morning when we get in, but I’m going to squeeze my time, because I know once we get to Charlottesville and we get off that bus, it will never be the same. It’ll be over.
“I just don’t want to let it go. Win or lose, the time with Jared, Dox and this group of men, it defines who we are, the bonds, the tightness, the community, the culture we’ve tried so hard to create, it’s real. And saying goodbye is going to be hard.”