BALTIMORE — To watch the sideline during a Virginia men’s lacrosse game is to watch energy in motion. Go ahead: Try to keep track of Coach Lars Tiffany.
For his first game as Virginia’s coach, Tiffany tried to make it easy Saturday at Loyola: Amid a mass of navy- and orange-clad players, he was the one wearing a clean, gray, crew neck sweater and crisp khakis that recall his Ivy League pedigree: four years at Brown as a player, then a decade there as head coach before taking over Virginia in June.
Once the game begins, Tiffany leaves onlookers dizzy. He watches each faceoff in a crouched defensive stance, hands clasped but legs spring-loaded as if he were going to pounce on the groundball himself. Then he is off and stalking the sideline with urgency, barely pausing to watch with his hands on his hips until . . . boom, Virginia scores and he is smacking a high-five with an assistant coach and welcoming the scorer back to the sideline. When Tiffany talks to his players, he pulls them close, almost in a headlock, then fires out instructions or encouragement and taps their chests with his free hand — one, two, three, four, five times — before shooing them back onto the field.
“We’re not trying to win games 6-5,” Tiffany said, the words tumbling out of his mouth at a brisk clip. “We’re trying to win games 16-15.”
Tiffany’s first season at Virginia is all kinetic energy and no time to rest. When the university unceremoniously parted ways this spring with longtime coach Dom Starsia, the man who built Virginia into a national powerhouses with four national championships in 24 seasons, they hired his protege to revive a sputtering program that went 1-15 in ACC play over the past four seasons and missed postseason play in 2013 and 2016. Tiffany played for Starsia at Brown from 1987 to 1990 and had since built a reputation as a head coach on the back of a run-and-gun style he is trying to implement in Charlottesville.
Virginia’s season opener at No. 5 Loyola, a team that made it to the NCAA Division I semifinals last season, proved to be progress on that front. The 15th-ranked Cavaliers won, 16-15, in a game that featured 83 shots, 92 groundballs and 39 turnovers, the latter nothing more than collateral damage in a system as blisteringly fast as Tiffany’s.
“I’m fortunate to follow Dom Starsia, because the ethos of hard work is here,” Tiffany said. “We didn’t have to have a complete overhaul of the Virginia lacrosse program; we just needed to change the way we play.
“If we have an agenda, it was to change the mind-set of how we compete and how we play this game. When the game’s over, we want our opponents to say, ‘That is a fast-paced Virginia lacrosse team.’”
Brown ended the 2015-16 season under Tiffany with the best scoring offense in the nation, averaging 16.3 goals per game (Virginia averaged 10.6 goals, 26th in the nation). They were by far the most productive offense in the country, taking 859 shots in 19 games — 98 more shots than Maryland, the nation’s second-most productive team, which beat Brown, 15-14, in the national semifinals last year.
Getting Virginia up to that speed started with the coaching staff. Tiffany brought two assistants with him from Brown: goalies coach Kip Turner, who graduated from Virginia in 2007, and Sean Kirwan, who ran Brown’s offense for the past two years and helped develop 2016 Tewaaraton Trophy winner Dylan Molloy.
Together, they set about changing the mentality of the team. Forward motion was key.
“Coach has really been stressing running all day,” sophomore midfielder Ryan Conrad said. “Our practices are like three games in one practice.”
“Mistakes are okay,” Tiffany said, “we’re going to make mistakes — forget it, next play. You can say that as a coaching staff, but you have to enforce it. You can’t talk about the turnovers at the end of the quarter. You can’t talk about it at halftime. You can’t say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Next one, next one — we believe in you.”
But for all of Tiffany’s dedication to looking forward, the first-year coach has taken care to acknowledge Virginia’s past after an uncomfortable transition of power. In May it was reported that Starsia, the winningest coach in Division I history, would not return to coach in Charlottesville. Days later it was reported that Virginia was offering the coach a contract extension. Finally, on May 23, the Cavaliers officially announced “a change of leadership.” Tiffany was hired June 21.
The new coach remains close with Starsia, whom he calls his inspiration and mentor as a lacrosse coach, but he walks a fine line in front of the team.
“We talk about Dom a little bit, but it’s a touchy subject,” Tiffany said. “I talk to Dom all the time, personally, and I want Dom to be a part of this program when the time is right. To me, he’s almost like the godfather, and I’m the consigliere out there doing the work, you know, but he’s still overseeing us a little bit. His footprint, his handprint, is all over this program.
“It’s not an overhaul,” Tiffany concludes without pause. “It’s just us breathing new life into it.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that Virginia missed the last two postseasons.