The parallels are unmistakable: perilous deficits, improbable comebacks, riveting overtimes. But the NCAA championship won by Virginia men’s lacrosse—the program’s sixth—was no carbon copy of the men’s basketball title captured seven weeks earlier.
“It’s been a magical ride,” coach Lars Tiffany said on the eve of Virginia’s 13-9 victory over Yale in the tournament final on Memorial Day.
That ride included an ACC championship, a 7-1 record in one-goal games and a 5-0 mark in overtime.
Down 5 to Maryland with less than 11 minutes remaining in the quarterfinals, the Cavaliers advanced with a 13-12 OT victory. Matt Moore (Col ’21) scored the game-winner, Michael Kraus (Col ’20) the questionable equalizer (replays showed Kraus’ shot hit the post and almost certainly didn’t cross the goal line).
Down 2 to Duke with less than a minute left in the semifinals, UVA broke an 11-game losing streak against the Blue Devils with a 13-12 double-OT win. Ian Laviano (Col ’21) scored the tying and decisive goals, both on Moore assists.
The title game was far less dramatic, as goalie Alex Rode (Col ’21), voted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, flustered a Yale offense that had scored 59 goals combined in its previous three outings.
In short, the Cavaliers showed the combination of confidence, clutch play, stingy defense and good fortune that defined Tony Bennett’s basketball team in postseason. But the comparison made Tiffany cringe a bit.
“What Tony Bennett and his teams have done over the last decade in Charlottesville is fantastic, and the longevity and his ability to sustain that success is something that we have certainly not done. We are on the quest to build what he has created.”
The two coaches started their careers at UVA at different times and under different circumstances. Bennett landed at UVA 10 years ago to replace a fired men’s basketball coach, Dave Leitao, who had compiled an undistinguished record in four seasons. Tiffany’s arrival at Virginia three years ago to replace his own mentor and former coach was much more complex.
Lacrosse Hall of Famer Dom Starsia had coached the Cavaliers to four national championships in 24 seasons, and his 2016 divorce from Virginia was awkward and protracted. Two of his last four UVA teams finished with losing records, and none advanced in the NCAA tournament, a startling decline.
Enter Tiffany. He had played for Starsia at Brown. He even coached the Brown team that routed Virginia 19-11 in what would be Starsia’s last game.
But there was little unease between the Cavaliers and their new coach, as Tiffany embraced Starsia’s recruits.
“It’s been almost a flawless transition for Coach Tiffany,” said Kraus, a third-year attackman. “To be able to come in here [and] in year three have a championship is unreal. It’s a testament to them buying into us, not just taking this first three years to settle in. They attacked it from the start.”
And Tiffany has remained close to his mentor Starsia—saluting him immediately after UVA won the championship.
“The reason I’m a coach is because of Dom Starsia,” Tiffany said, “having played for him at Brown University in the late ’80s. When you go to Brown University, you graduate not thinking the world needs another lacrosse coach. Most of my fellow alums go off and try to save the world, whether it’s Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, nonprofits, other focused organizations. … What he did is he showed us that a coach can make a profound impact on being a better man.”
Tiffany found comfort in the fruits of that work with his team when his father passed away this year.
“I’m just really, really fortunate that the day I told the team that my father passed away, every one of them hugged me. Everyone came up and embraced me, and again it’s important for me as we develop men and develop leaders here at Virginia, part of that is can we grow emotionally? Can men share emotions with other men?
“The expression of love and saying it and doing it is part of that cultural development that I’ve been really fortunate to witness.”