Just five games into the Virginia men’s lacrosse team’s 2018 schedule, midfielder Ryan Conrad was running the same clear he had thousands of times before. Then his season came to an end.
Conrad initially thought someone had checked him and somehow their knees collided, but after going back and watching the film, he saw there was no contact. There wasn’t a player within three or four yards of him. He crossed midfield, cut to his left and his right knee buckled.
After a short examination on the sideline, a trainer told him his ACL was likely torn. But that was difficult to accept, especially for Conrad, who had never before missed significant time because of an injury.
“I had a lot of adrenaline pumping at the time, and I was able to walk off after without much pain, so I thought I could still go,” Conrad said. “It was a tough experience, but, frankly, I think it made me a better captain and a better person just going through it.”
A little more than 10 months after he was cleared to return to full contact, Conrad will lead Virginia into its first Final Four berth since its 2011 national title run. On Saturday in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, the third-seeded Cavaliers (15-3) take on No. 2 Duke (13-4). The winner gets No. 1 seed Penn State or defending national champion Yale in Monday’s national championship game.
“We are so excited to be in this situation, and I just feel blessed to be able to take the field with these guys for a few more days,” Conrad said. “We’ve put in the work and this team has grown, and we know we’ve earned the right to be here.”
Making a tough situation even more excruciating, Conrad called last season a stepping-stone year for Virginia. The Cavaliers snapped an 18-game ACC losing streak, made the conference tournament championship game and returned to the NCAA Tournament all with Conrad on the sideline in shorts and a T-shirt.
“He could have pouted and felt bad for himself and no one could have blamed him,” Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany said. “A lot of people say their understanding of the game deepens in a situation like that, and that’s exactly what happened with Ryan. He was active and as engaged as he would have been if he was on the field.”
Conrad said it came down to a simple decision: Focus on himself or find a way to help the team.
“I accepted the reality I wasn’t going to play and had to embrace a new role,” the two-time team captain said. “I knew I could still be a vocal leader, keep the guys up and be that consoling voice when they come off after a tough play.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound senior from Timonium, Maryland, is back to his old self this season. In 18 starts, he has 28 goals and 18 assists, and his 83 ground balls are second on the team only to faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla, who has 89. He brought more than numbers back to Klockner Stadium, though.
In February, when freshman midfielder Jack Simmons was heading to the sideline, head down after a crucial turnover in an overtime win against Princeton, Conrad ran from the far side of the field to offer a few uplifting words before Simmons’ cleats hit the white boundary line.
“Ryan is one of the greatest leaders and just best all-around people I know,” Virginia junior Dox Aitken said. “He really cares about everyone in the locker room, and it shows in how he plays.”
Of course, it hasn’t hurt to have the ball in his stick, especially the past two games. In NCAA Tournament games against Robert Morris and Maryland, Conrad scored a combined nine goals. And with the Cavaliers trailing the Terrapins by five goals in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s quarterfinal, he notched three goals in a little less than seven minutes to spark a decisive 6-0 run.
“He knows the game of lacrosse as well as anyone I know,” Virginia’s Michael Kraus said. “He understands angles and how to read goalies, and he knows when to shoot and when to pass. I’ve learned a lot from him on and off the field.”
Conrad heads into the final few days of his collegiate career with 58 goals and 35 assists. But to Tiffany, his 180 career ground balls are more impressive.
“That just shows what he’s willing to do for his teammates,” Tiffany said. “Those aren’t flashy stats like goals, but boy are they important. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to coach a young man like Ryan Conrad, who is willing to lay it all on the line every single day for his team.”
In March, Conrad was the No. 5 overall pick in the Major League Lacrosse Draft by the Charlotte Hounds. In April, he was the No. 2 overall pick in the inaugural draft of the new Premier Lacrosse League, taken by the Atlas Lacrosse Club.
He hasn’t publicly announced where his professional career will begin, but Conrad said he’ll worry about that after Championship Weekend.
“This is a huge moment for our team, for our program,” Conrad said. “We know the history and the past success and we’ve fought tooth and nail to bring it back. Now, we have to finish the job.”