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Virginia’s Jared Conners passes the ball during a game against Princeton at Klöckner Stadium.

After winning the 2019 national championship, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team entered the 2020 season with high expectations. Lars Tiffany’s team returned an abundance of talent at every position. The team was strong offensively, and its defense featured some of the best upperclassmen in the nation.

COVID-19 kept Virginia fans from really learning who the 2020 Cavaliers were. Virginia played just six games, winning four and dropping a pair of contests to Ivy League schools.

UVa showed flaws, but if the 2019 season taught the Cavaliers anything, it’s that early season results don’t dictate late-season standing.

Instead of replicating a late-season surge, the Cavaliers headed home before even playing a conference game. Virginia finds itself in the unusual position of entering the 2021 season as the reigning national champion despite not playing a postseason game in 2020.

Luckily for Tiffany and company, the Wahoos possess the pieces to make a run at winning the championship again in 2021.

“We truly believe that we’ve spent three years driving hard, creating a culture, creating a roster that can experience and create championships,” Tiffany said.

Last season’s results

Virginia took down Loyola, Lehigh, High Point and Air Force for four decent wins. Princeton and Brown got the better of the Cavaliers.

Six games is a small sample size, so it’s hard to take too much away from the results. The one noticeable trend through the six-game season was Virginia’s tendency to start fast and finish slowly.

UVa led Brown 8-4 before losing 14-13 in its final game of the year. Even in wins early in the season, the Cavaliers jumped out to big leads before fading late. In the season opener against Loyola, UVa led 9-3 at halftime before being outscored 6-3 in the second half.

Whether it was the ability to adjust in game or maintain focus for the entire contest, Virginia had room to improve with its finishes. Regardless, the Cavaliers were excellent in the opening minutes of games and not every finish was poor.

In a victory over High Point, the Cavaliers entered the fourth quarter tied before outscoring the Panthers 5-2 to win 18-15.

Notable departures

Despite what’s shaping up to be an elite roster for the 2021 season, the Cavaliers lose the majority of their seniors. Michael Kraus is the most noticeable loss for the Wahoos.

Kraus scored 14 goals and added 12 assists in the team’s 2020 season. He spent four years being one of the most consistent and reliable attackers on the Virginia roster. He joined the professional ranks instead of opting for another season in Charlottesville.

Kraus leaves a hole at attack.

N

otable returners

Matt Moore and Ian Laviano are two important returners at attack. Alex Rode returns as the team’s goalie. All three of those players should play major roles in 2021.

When it comes to 2020 seniors, however, the major returners are Jared Conners and Dox Aitken. Both plan to use eligibility relief to return for the 2021 season.

Aitken’s case is a bit unusual. He plans to play football at Villanova — an FCS program — for the 2020-21 fall football season before returning to the Cavaliers in the spring. Oddly enough, Aitken’s case is allowed under NCAA rules.

Assuming that all goes to plan, the Cavaliers return an elite midfielder in Aitken and one of the country’s best defenders in Conners.

Key additions

While incoming freshmen will have a hard time breaking into the lineup, the Cavaliers did add Merrimack graduate transfer Charlie Bertrand to the mix. He’s a left-handed attacker who starred at Merrimack.

Bertrand is expected to help fill the hole left by Kraus.

“We don’t want to just add to add,” Tiffany said. “It could be subtraction if it alters what we spent so much time and energy building and creating, so as a staff we were really torn. Do we go to the transfer portal or not?”

Virginia’s staff ultimately decided that Bertrand helped fill a hole on the roster while also adding to the locker room dynamic. Tiffany mentioned that other programs might have looked to add four or five transfers, and while Tiffany and the coaching staff spoke to multiple potential transfers, the fit with Bertrand was the best for both parties.

When it comes to future recruiting additions, Tiffany expects to make a larger commitment to film study. While he doesn’t show up completely unprepared to watch recruits live, Tiffany believes there’s an opportunity to better study video before heading to high school events.

“If you have a great year, you play into late May and recruiting starts in June, but I think we got to do it,” Tiffany said of increased film study of high school prospects. “We’ve got to find the time. I can’t just be going out to these events a bit blind.”

2020-21 outlook

Jared Conners returning does wonders for the team’s defense. The team’s defense needs to develop a bit around Conners and Rode in goal, but the team should be one of the better defensive teams in the country.

Offensively, if Aitken’s plan goes smoothly, expect a dominant attack. Moore and Laviano are both electric attackers, and Bertrand adds yet another element offensively. Players like Connor Shellenberger, just a redshirt freshman, add even more weapons on attack.

The Cavaliers are still the defending national champions, and they’ll have as good a shot as any team to win the national title in 2021.

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