The Virginia men’s lacrosse team poured onto the field and mobbed goalie Alex Rode when the final horn sounded Saturday afternoon on the ACC Tournament championship game at Klockner Stadium.
On the same field where the Cavaliers let last season’s ACC title slip away, Virginia put on one of its most dominant performances of the season against the same team that celebrated with last year’s trophy. Top-seeded Virginia beat No. 3 Notre Dame, 10-4, to win its first conference tournament title since 2010.
While the team celebrated with Rode, who nearly pitched a shutout in the second half, Tiffany hung back near the sideline and embraced assistant coaches Sean Kirwan and Kip Turner. Everyone in the small circle knew how meaningful the moment was.
Three years ago, when Tiffany took over for longtime coach Dom Starsia, the Cavaliers were still in the early stages of an 18-game ACC losing streak, which didn’t end until last April with a win at North Carolina. In three years, Virginia went from the bottom of the standings to conference champion.
“We’ve seen the bottom,” Tiffany said. “Some people talk about the advantage of when you hit rock bottom, is that there’s only one way to go.”
Not lost on Tiffany on Saturday was the effort of his team’s defense – a unit which bore the brunt of the criticism for the program’s inability in recent years to compete on a national stage.
Dating back to his days as the head coach at his alma mater Brown, Tiffany’s teams have been known for their fast offensive pace, but he began his coaching career as a defensive coordinator.
While embracing his staff, Tiffany couldn’t help but reminisce about 2017, which was his first season on Grounds and when he served as both head coach and defensive coordinator.
“We’ve come a long way,” Tiffany said, “and I give credit to this group of men for still believing in me after that first year.”
In one moment in the third quarter, Tiffany slapped high fives on the sideline with long stick midfielder Jared Conners after Conners forced a turnover. In the next, Tiffany was explaining a particular aspect of a slide to freshman starter Cade Saustad, who at 6-foot-5 towered above his coach. But as time wound down on a game that felt decided by halftime, the old defensive coach in him couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s a major statement for our team defense,” Tiffany said. “It culminated today with our decision making in when to slide to the man being dodged and when not to, because we don’t just slide to everything. That decision making has taken years to hone.”
With a little more than four minutes left in the first quarter, Notre Dame’s Nick Stinn scored to tie the game, 2-2. That was the Fighting Irish’s final goal until Connor Morin scored to cut Virginia’s lead to 10-3 with 6:59 to play.
Virginia did not allow a goal in the second or third quarters and held the Irish without a goal for more than 43 minutes. Four goals are the fewest the Cavaliers have allowed in a game since a 2016 shutout of Richmond, and UVa forced 16 of Notre Dame’s 23 turnovers.
“It’s communication,” said Conners, who scored off of a faceoff to give UVa a 9-2 lead in the third quarter and scooped four ground balls. “Those are some of my best friends down there, so we all know we have each other’s back. When something goes wrong, you know you’ve got your boys there to back you up.”
Rode, who Tiffany reiterated is in a fight for his job every week, finished with 11 saves. He located the ball well early, and he surrendered the game’s final goal only after leaving the cage to deliver a blow, which knocked the ball out of a Notre Dame player’s stick.
“I give him a lot of credit because it was be a lot easier on him emotionally to show up on Tuesday or Wednesday and go ‘I just have to show up on game day,’” Tiffany said. “Not if you play for the Virginia Cavaliers. You’ve got to earn it Tuesday and Wednesday, and for him to step up and shut the door for a couple quarters, that was huge by Alex.”
Dox Aitken led the Cavaliers with three goals, and Ryan Conrad added two. Leading scorer Michael Kraus was held without a goal, but he added two assists.
“This just shows you how far we’ve come,” Aitken said. “I remember being on the outside looking in my freshman year. Last year, we made a pretty big stride. We were in the thing. We just didn’t have the energy last year and we were new to it.”
An added benefit to Saturday’s win is the Cavaliers are now likely to receive a home game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which begins next weekend. The top eight seeds host opening-round games, and not only is Virginia the ACC champion, its ranked No. 5 in the latest USILA Coaches Poll.
The 2019 men’s lacrosse bracket will be announced at 9 p.m. on Sunday.