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No. 1 Maryland men’s lacrosse vs. No. 2 Virginia preview

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Two of the top teams in the nation will meet at Audi Field.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

In what may be the single most-anticipated college lacrosse game this season, top-ranked Maryland men’s lacrosse is set to face off against No. 2 Virginia on Saturday.

The contest will be held at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. as a part of the Capitol Classic Lacrosse Tournament. The event features a noon game between Catholic and Hampden-Sydney and a 6 p.m. game between No. 12 Duke and Towson.

“It’s a great venue, perfect for this type of event,” Maryland senior defenseman Brett Makar. “And I think it’s going to be really good for the game of lacrosse. It’s going to draw a great crowd. Just super exciting.”

As if the top two teams in the country playing wasn’t enough, this game between Maryland and Virginia is a continuation of an almost century-old rivalry and is a rematch of last year’s national championship game, a narrow 17-16 victory for the Cavaliers. Maryland holds a slim 47-46 advantage all-time over Virginia, but since 1980 the Cavaliers have a 38-18 record against the Terps.

The last time Maryland played in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game was March 10, 2018, when the Terps fell 11-10 to No. 1 Albany. The last time the Terps were the No. 1 team in a top-two matchup was Feb. 23, 2013, a 12-10 win over Loyola.

Having both occupied the No. 1 spot in the rankings at some point this season, the general consensus seems to be that Maryland and Virginia have separated themselves from the pack. Saturday’s heavyweight matchup will settle the debate as to who is truly deserving of that top spot.

“It’s why kids go to Virginia and Maryland,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said. “I think it will be great for the local lacrosse community.”

Saturday’s game is set to begin at 3 p.m. and will be broadcasted live on Big Ten Network.

No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers (6-0, 2-0 ACC)

2021 record: 14-4, 2-4 ACC

Head coach Lars Tiffany is in his sixth season as head coach at Virginia and has carried on the program’s proud tradition with outstanding success. Tiffany has led the Cavaliers to two national championships (2019, 2021) in the three tournaments Virginia has qualified for under his leadership. There was no NCAA Tournament held in 2020 due to COVID-19, so Virginia holds the title of back-to-back defending champions. Tiffany has a .735 winning percentage at Virginia after coming from his alma mater, Brown University.

This year’s Virginia team picked up right where it left off last year, entering the season ranked as the top team in the nation. Four of their six wins have come by at least nine goals, and they had a four-goal victory over a top-10 opponent in North Carolina. Their only close call was a one-goal win over High Point, where freshman goalie Matthew Nunes made a clutch save in the closing seconds to seal the win. That narrow win was the reason why the Terps were able to leapfrog the Cavaliers and take their top spot in the rankings.

“Virginia’s really, really good. They’re undefeated. They’ve beaten a lot of [teams] by a big amount,” Tillman said. “They haven’t had a lot of close games and they’re talented everywhere and our kids know from playing them.”

Players to watch

Connor Shellenberger, redshirt sophomore attacker, No. 1 — Connor Shellenberger very well might be the best player in all of college lacrosse. As a freshman last year, Shellenberger burst onto the scene and led the Cavaliers with 79 points, the fifth-most points in a season in school history. He’s on pace to easily break that mark this season with an absurd 40 points through six games. Shellenberger is one of the nation’s elite passers, averaging over four assists per game this season and leading the country in Individual Assist Rate, according to Lacrosse Reference. He is arguably Virginia’s best shooter as well. Shellenberger has recorded ten straight games with five or more points and is going to pose a major threat to Maryland’s defense.

Cole Kastner, sophomore defenseman, No. 39 — Listed at 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 200 pounds, Cole Kastner is a unique athlete. It took Kastner a few months to get consistent playing time last year, but broke through in the NCAA Tournament and has carried that momentum into this season. He has caused 22 turnovers so far this season and is frequently assigned to opponents’ top scoring threats and shuts them down. Because of his size and previous experience, Kastner was reportedly considering playing this winter with Virginia’s basketball team but his academic schedule presented too many conflicts. Logan Wisnauskas’ 6-foot-3 frame is usually an advantage over smaller defenders, but Kastner’s size and speed could prove to be a challenge for the fifth-year attacker.

Matt Moore, graduate attacker, No. 5 — Moore is one of the most productive offensive players that Virginia has ever had. In 2019, he set the school record with an 89-point campaign and led that team to a national championship. With another good season this year, Moore could break Steele Stanwick’s career points record at Virginia. In last year’s national championship game, Moore scored four goals and added two assists. Moore has 11 goals so far this season and can have a monster performance any given game.

Petey LaSalla, senior faceoff specialist/midfielder, No. 23. Petey LaSalla is not a traditional faceoff specialist. He has elite faceoff ability (LaSalla has the highest career faceoff percentage of any Virginia player in the last 20 years), but he also has uncharacteristic offensive skills that have led to him being listed as a midfielder. LaSalla will sometimes stay on the field after taking a faceoff and already has five goals this season. In last year’s championship game, LaSalla had a goal, an assist and won five of the game’s first seven faceoffs before Luke Wierman stepped in for the Terps and won almost 50% of the faceoffs from then on. LaSalla has won 63.5% of his faceoffs this season.

Strength

Balance. Don’t confuse the production of Virginia’s superstars with them relying on a few players too much. This Cavaliers team can beat opponents in many ways and has an incredibly balanced attack. With Shellenberger quarterbacking the offense and being able to look to players like Moore, Payton Cormier (who’s on pace to lead the team in goals for the second straight season) and Xander Dickson, there are elite offensive players all over the field. The midfield is one of the nation’s best, and Virginia’s defensive unit that includes Kastner, Mitchell Whalen and short stick midfielder Grayson Sallade has little to no holes that can be exploited.

Weakness

Goalie experience. It’s difficult to find any major flaws in Virginia’s team, but one thing that could hinder them moving forward is their lack of experience in goal. The Cavaliers have relied on freshman Nunes as their starting goalie this season. Ranked as the top incoming goalie recruit in the country, Nunes has been fantastic so far and made a game-saving save to clinch Virginia’s victory over High Point. However, winning with freshmen in key positions can be difficult. This Saturday will no doubt be the toughest challenge at this point of Nunes’ lacrosse career and the country will get to see how he stacks up against a loaded Maryland attack.

Three things to watch

1. Virginia’s 10-man ride. A staple of Tiffany’s strategy is a 10-man ride, where his team tries to make it difficult for opponents to clear the ball by pressing up as far as the goalie after a stop or faceoff win. Maryland junior goalie Logan McNaney, his corps of defenseman and the midfield are more than capable of pushing through that pressure, and if it’s broken it can lead to quick opportunities for the Terps’ offense.

“The 10-man [ride] is something that we practice starting in the fall,” he said. “One of the reasons we opened [the season] with High Point [is that] they’re a team that likes to 10-man [ride] and they do a lot of tricky things in the ride. So even [in the] preseason [we were] working on [it],” Tillman said.

2. Cade Saustad’s health. As a junior, Cade Saustad might be Virginia’s best defenseman. However, in the third quarter of Virginia’s March 5 game against Johns Hopkins, he appeared to suffer a knee injury after his leg got caught under two of his teammates. Saustad wasn’t able to return to the game and then missed the Cavaliers’ next game against North Carolina. Tiffany has been stingy with information on Saustad’s status, but if he is unable to play on Saturday or plays through an injury, Maryland’s offense could have an opportunity to take advantage of a Virginia defense operating at less than 100%.

3. Out for revenge? When Maryland released its schedule for the 2022 season, fans instantly looked to this game as an opportunity to play the team that beat the Terps in last year’s national championship.

“Regardless of what happens Saturday, last year’s last game isn’t changing. That game’s never coming back,” Tillman said. “We’ve tried to guard ourselves on the whole revenge thing… [playing over-emotional], that’s not going to serve [us] well.”

That game still sits with many of the returning players on this year’s team, but they are trying to keep their emotions in check and move on from last year’s result.

“Whatever happened in the past is the past,” senior defenseman Brett Makar said, echoing Tillman’s sentiment. “This is 2022 Maryland versus 2022 Virginia. And I don’t think it has anything to do [with] what happened before.”