PHILADELPHIA — As he does several times a week, Virginia men’s lacrosse coach Lars Tiffany was out of bed one morning last summer and well into a jog around Grounds by 6 a.m.
He passed the McCue Center and rows of parking spaces already filling with students and was about to cross the bridge over Emmet Street when something caught his eye to his right on the Cavaliers’ practice field.
Tiffany peered through the chain link fence separating the turf field from the walking path at a lone figure in a hooded sweatshirt and shorts about 15 yards in front of a goal. A five gallon bucket at his feet, the figure dipped his webbed lacrosse stick into the bucket like a short order cook scooping meat balls out of a pot of tomato sauce and dropped three at his feet before scooping each off the turf and whipping it into the net.
Even with an orange and pink sky in the background silhouetting the young man’s features, Tiffany barely had to squint to know it was Dox Aitken. And judging by the number of balls littering the inside of the goal, he had been there a while.
“Dox Aitken loves the game of lacrosse, and he’s dedicated to it,” Tiffany said. “As a coach, it’s always a dream come true when one of your most talented players is also one of your hardest workers, and that’s what we have with Dox.”
Much like Matt Moore the previous weekend against Maryland, Ian Laviano deservedly stole the headlines Saturday with his game winner in double overtime. But it was Aitken who brought Virginia back from the brink of defeat early in the second half and, with less than nine minutes to play, sparked the run that ultimately punched the Cavaliers’ first ticket to the national championship game since 2011.
With Virginia trailing, 5-2, and in the midst of a scoring drought that lasted more than 21 minutes, Aitken’s first goal of the day gave the Cavaliers some life early in the second half. With Duke leading, 11-8, and 8:41 left in regulation, he reeled off back-to-back goals to bring Virginia within one.
“It’s easy to see his physical attributes. He uses that big body to create space and shooting angles, and there aren’t many defenders who want to step in front of his shot,” Tiffany said. “But what people don’t see is how intelligent a lacrosse player he is. He understands what defenses are trying to do, and while he is aggressive with his shots, he isn’t reckless.”
Monday’s national championship game against Yale in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field will be a homecoming for Aitken (6-2, 210). He grew up in Villanova, Pennsylvania, and he led The Haveford School to the 2016 high school national championship. He’s also a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan and caught many games in the stadium during their run to Super Bowl LII.
“I’ve been in the stadium probably 20 times, all in the stands,” he said. “This game being 20 minutes from my house and having a lot of support from friends and family, it’s a dream come true.”
This season, Aitken — a third-year — set Virginia’s record for career goals (110) and points (141) by a midfielder. His 42 goals this spring are No. 2 all-time in a single season at UVa, and his 50 points are the third most in a season by a Cavalier midfielder.
“He is a lanky guy that, whether he has a pole or a shorty, it doesn’t really matter. He’s so good at finding that open space and getting separation and being able to get his shot off,” Virginia midfielder Ryan Conrad said of Aitken. “Honestly, I haven’t seen a guy be able to do it like him. It’s pretty incredible.”
Conrad and Aitken met before they both suited up for the Wahoos. They played some club lacrosse together, and after Conrad’s freshman year at UVa in 2016, they both took the field for Team USA and helped it win gold at the world championships.
“Our styles mix really well together, and when we’re on the field together we can do some special stuff,” Conrad said. “I’m a little more basketball, where I’m quicker in and out. I’m more one move, where he’s more of a patient dodger who is able to find space in different ways.”
Much like Virginia has done time and time again this season, the U.S. was down six goals in that world championship final against Canada and needed a last-second goal by Conrad to win gold.
“That was something I’ll never forget,” Aitken said. “Putting on the USA jersey, all the great coaching and going to British Columbia. And that last game, especially.”
Aitken and Conrad have already called themselves world champions, and Aitken has been part of a high school national championship run. On Monday, they’ll team up one last time as Cavaliers and try to bring a national title back to Virginia for the first time since 2011.