PHILADELPHIA — During a timeout early in the first half of Monday’s national championship game, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team broke into two groups in front of the Cavaliers’ bench. Head coach Lars Tiffany ran the defensive huddle, while assistant Sean Kirwan had the attention of the offensive players.
Absent from both gaggles were assistant coach Kip Turner and goalie Alex Rode. They were a couple yards away with mere feet separating them as Turner was whipping shots at his sophomore keeper.
“He’s telling me where he wants it and what he thinks he needs to work on at that time,” Turner said. “It’s just kind of a way to talk through what’s going on, on the field.”
Turner said it’s a move he borrowed from the Notre Dame coaching staff, and its intent is to keep the goalie hyper-engaged.
He and Rode were back on the field a couple minutes before the rest of the team made its way out of the locker room after halftime. This time, Rode was in front of the cage and Turner, with a flick of his wrist, forced him to go low and practically scoop a shot off the grass before coming right back with one above his shoulders.
“He shoots at me so I can keep seeing the ball, and he tries to keep me confident,” Rode said.
Rode admitted there were some butterflies before the title game in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, but he held them in check pretty well. He limited Yale to two goals in the first half, already had nine saves by halftime and finished with 13 in Virginia’s 13-9 win.
Between the Final Four and national championship game, Rode racked up 31 saves. After Monday’s win, he was named the 2019 NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“Fantastic, fantastic performance by Alex Rode. Early on, Yale found some openings and our defense was still getting settled in, trying to figure out who Yale is,” Tiffany said. “Alex made big saves early when we made mistakes, when there were openings. That allowed our defense to grow more comfortable.”
The gold standard of NCAA Tournament performances by a Virginia goalie is Tillman Johnson’s in 2003, when he led the Cavaliers to a 9-7 win over Johns Hopkins in the national title game at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. Turner said Rode’s performance is right up there, though.
“He wasn’t as dramatic as Tillman was, but what he did so well was he made all the [saves] he needed to make consistently, and he shut the door early,” Turner said. “He made all the ones he needed to make for us to be successful as a team.”
Johnson also earned most outstanding player honors, and in that win, he became Virginia’s all-time leader in saves in a season with 205. He also set the Cavaliers’ career saves mark with 700. Both records still stand.
Rode has a ways to catch up to those numbers. He finished this season with 169 saves and has 307 in two seasons on Grounds, but the paths he and Johnson took to stardom on a national stage couldn’t be more similar.
After tying his career high with 18 saves in a Final Four win over Maryland, Johnson also posted 13 saves in the title game. In last weekend’s double overtime win in the Final Four against Duke, Rode stopped 18 shots — one shy of his career high, which he set earlier this season against Brown.
“The way the defense has been playing and flying around lately, I felt like we had a chance against anybody,” Rode said. “I thought the whole defense just played amazing the whole tournament, [defensive midfielders] and the close defense. I’m just very fortunate to be able to play with that group of guys.”
Rode had a strong freshman season in the cage (138 saves, .493 percentage), but he didn’t come into this spring cemented into a starting spot. Highly touted freshman Patrick Burkinshaw pushed him each week in practice and stole a couple starts. In an overtime win at Princeton, he set a UVa freshman record with 24 saves.
Former starter Griffin Thompson’s name even came up last week as the Cavaliers were making final preparations for their title run. But after struggling to save just six shots in the quarterfinals against Maryland, Rode saved two of his best games of the season for last.
“To be honest, Alex didn’t play his best lacrosse in our first two tournament games,” Tiffany said. “But he never lost focus, which is the mindset you want in your goalie, and boy did he step up on the biggest stage.”
He admitted it got stressful at times, not knowing from week to week if he was going to start, but Rode said competition in the goalies’ room did not breed contention. The opposite was true.
“Griff Thompson, Will Hudson and Patrick Burkinshaw are like three of my best friends on the team,” Rode said. “It’s a community inside a community, and it’s just amazing to get to hang out with them every day.”
Rode also gets to hang out most days with Turner, who holds onto his own fond memories of a national title win in Lincoln Financial Field. In 2006, Turner only had to post six saves in Virginia’s finals win over Massachusetts, but he knew what it was like for Rode on Monday playing in front of 31,528 fans.
“It depends on who you are, but I think I might be similar to Alex in that I love a good challenge, and gosh darn it, he rose to it,” Turner said. “It was his mentality. He never got rattled or down. It was a next-save mentality.”
Despite his experience on the big stage, Turner didn’t offer Rode any sage advice while they were staying loose during timeouts and before the second half. He kept it simple.
“I just said do your thing,” Turner recited. “Have fun and find the ball out of the pocket of a guy’s stick. You’ll save it.”