It’s not out of the ordinary for teams to scheme up ways to limit the affect one star player has on a game, but there haven’t been many college lacrosse teams this season that have effectively found a way to shut down Virginia’s talented trio of Matt Moore, Dox Aitken and Michael Kraus.
In Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal in New York, unseeded Maryland did just that for the better part of three quarters. All three were scoreless in the first half, and, though it will likely go down as the biggest goal of the season, Moore’s game-winner in overtime was his first of the day.
Moore, Kraus and Aitken — who have combined this season for 114 goals — finished Saturday’s win with three between them. Instead, a veteran fighting to keep his final season alive willed the Cavaliers (15-3) to their first Final Four appearance since 2011.
Senior Ryan Conrad scored three of his four goals in the fourth quarter during a 6-0 run, which punched No. 3 seed Virginia’s ticket to Saturday’s national semifinal against No. 2 Duke (13-4) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany wasn’t shocked someone other than the big three stepped up on the biggest stage of the season, especially after watching another veteran emerge from the shadows the previous weekend. In the opening round against Robert Morris, senior Mikey Herring led the team with six goals.
Tiffany said it’s all a product of the depth his staff has been working the past few years to build and the competition the coaches create in practice.
“That’s what’s making us a championship team, when you’ve got those other people,” Tiffany said. “If you’re going to make a run late in May in lacrosse, you’ve got to have other people step up and adapt.”
Coming out of high school, Conrad was the No. 1 recruit in the country. He had already been on campus for a year when, as freshmen in 2017, Kraus, Aitken and longstick midfielder Jared Conners stepped onto Grounds as starters. Last season, Moore and fellow first-years Ian Laviano and Kyle Kology followed suit.
This spring, freshman defender Cade Saustad has started all but one game and both Jeff Conner and Xander Dickson have stepped into major offensive roles. On Saturday, Conner assisted on Aitken’s goal, which tied the game, 7-7, late in the third quarter.
The Cavaliers have well-known names on the roster and waves of talented players coming off the sideline, but Tiffany is sticking to his philosophy of earned playing time. Nobody is guaranteed a starting spot in any game. They have to compete for it each week.
Tiffany credited that competition for much of the Cavaliers’ success on the faceoff X against Robert Morris. Freshman Petey LaSalla was limited by a stomach bug, so Justin Schwenk — who just last spring set the program record for faceoff wins in a season — stepped in and won 22-of-28.
“It’s part of the process,” Tiffany said. “There’s a depth chart, and you can move up and down that depth chart based on how you play in practice, not just games. It’s not the 1927 Yankees where you know you’re going to start even if you strike out 12 times in a row. If you strike out here, someone else is going to be playing for you.”
There aren’t many secrets between Virginia and Duke. They met a little more than a month ago in Durham, North Carolina, in a game the Blue Devils won, 12-7.
On Saturday, Duke is going to do its best to follow in Maryland’s footsteps and take the Cavaliers’ big three away. So the question is who is going to step up and punch Virginia’s first ticket to the finals since its national title win in 2011?