CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Virginia men’s lacrosse team overwhelmed Notre Dame in virtually every meaningful statistical category to win the ACC tournament championship game Saturday, a major benchmark in Coach Lars Tiffany’s reboot of the storied program.
Yet as much as the top-seeded Cavaliers staged a commanding performance defensively in their 10-4 triumph, Tiffany spoke even more glowingly about the off-field dedication that helped produce the school’s first ACC tournament crown since 2010.
“The power of belief,” Tiffany said following the trophy presentation at Klockner Stadium, where Virginia (13-3) held the third-seeded Fighting Irish (8-6) without a goal for a span of 42:12.
Tiffany brought up “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, a book that chronicles nine rowers and their journey to the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where they beat host Germany. He and his players discussed the bestseller in depth on “Cultural Thursdays”; instead of working on groundballs, slides and faceoffs, the players bonded over the message of overcoming long odds with unwavering trust in one another.
“Maybe we should have been working on our man-up, and if you’ve seen our man-up percentage, we probably should have been,” Tiffany said. “But we’ve really been working on that culture and believing in each other. We dove deep into that, and this group said, ‘We’ll go in on you, Coach, and see what happens here.’ ”
What unfolded Saturday was mastery of an opponent that routed the Cavaliers, 17-7, in last year’s ACC tournament title game, leaving many members of this season’s team seeking atonement. Virginia left no doubt, rolling to a 9-2 lead by the end of the third quarter in front of an announced crowd of 4,489. The NCAA tournament field will be unveiled Sunday.
Goalie Alex Rode, a sophomore, had one of the most resilient showings in his brief career by making 11 saves on 15 shots on goal.
“It’s just polar opposite, I’d say,” said tri-captain Ryan Conrad, a senior midfielder. “We came out [last year], and we really didn’t have the best game, and we were just kind of happy to be here. . . . Coming out here and performing the way we did this year, we just played so well from top to bottom.”
Junior midfielder Dox Aitken was vocal about settling the score from last season. He did his part by scoring a game-high three goals, including the final tally of the first half for a 5-2 lead in a game the Cavaliers never trailed. He also scored the opening goal of the second half on an extra-man opportunity after Notre Dame midfielder Drew Schantz was penalized for holding.
Conrad, voted the tournament’s most outstanding player, and Aitken joined junior defenseman Jared Conners and sophomore attackman Matt Moore on the all-tournament team.
“Redemption game for us because they beat the poop out of us last year and it didn’t feel good at all,” Aitken said. “We kind of remembered how that felt all week long and just preached we didn’t ever want to feel like that ever again.”
With 104 goals in his career, Aitken has been a centerpiece in Virginia’s return to being a national championship contender. He holds the school record for goals by a midfielder and reached 90 goals quicker than anyone at the position in Virginia history. Included on the list of Cavaliers luminaries Aitken has eclipsed in career goals in less than three full seasons is Chris Rotelli, the only Virginia midfielder to win the Tewaaraton Award, which honors college lacrosse’s top player.
“This is something I’ve dreamed about as a little boy, and this is something our whole team has dreamed about,” Conners said. “That’s something we used to motivate us coming into this game. Last year’s effort obviously wasn’t enough, so we weren’t going to fall short this year.”
Tiffany has overseen the rebuild. He replaced Dom Starsia, who in 24 seasons in Charlottesville transformed the Cavaliers into a national power, winning four national championships on the way to logging the most victories in Division I history. But the last four seasons under Starsia yielded a 1-15 record in the ACC as the team twice missed the NCAA tournament, among the reasons then-athletic director Craig Littlepage dismissed him in May 2016 — a move that brought to the surface divided allegiances among program supporters.
But this year’s upswing injected unity and heightened interest, particularly given the Cavaliers’ strong showing in the conference. Virginia’s 3-1 record during the regular season were its most wins in the ACC since 2002 and earned the Cavaliers the right to host Saturday’s championship game.
“We talk about scars,” Tiffany said. “Do you go into a game hiding your scars? Or do you show off your scars — like I’m proud of the losses I’ve had, and I’ve learned from the losses? You know the scar is tougher than flesh.”