It’s time: the NCAA DI men’s lacrosse finals are upon us.
When the dust had settled on the quarterfinal games last weekend, we were left with the top four seeds all advancing. But after Saturday’s games, it wasn’t the top seeded teams (and ACC co-champions) moving on. Instead No. 3 Maryland beat No. 2 Duke in dominating fashion, 14-5, and No. 4 Virginia won its third meeting with top-seeded North Carolina, 12-11.
For Maryland, it’s looking to cap off the season at a perfect 16-0 by beating three-straight ACC opponents after a conference-only regular season. For Virginia, it’s trying to keep its title as reigning champs after having a two-year gap since it won it all in 2019. And while these two programs have a rich history together, their current forms are relatively new.
NCAA DI Men’s Lacrosse Finals Preview: Maryland vs Virginia
In terms of NCAA DI men’s lacrosse finals matchups, these two have only met once. Back in 2011, Virginia beat Maryland, 9-7, in what was John Tillman’s first year as head coach of the Terps. That was also while Maryland was in the ACC, where they did get the league championship and beat Virginia by five in the regular season.
But with long histories for both of these programs, especially with several ACC Tournament meetings, there have been plenty of chances for these two to meet. In fact, Virginia has played Maryland more than any other team. Over their 92 meeting, things are almost even, but Maryland has the slight edge, 47-45. But in recent history, the only time the two have met while Lars Tiffany has been in Charlottesville was in the 2019 NCAA Quarterfinals, where UVA won, 13-12, in overtime en route to its championship. And now we’re here.
Battle of the Ones
All eyes are realistically going to be on No. 1 on Maryland, Jared Bernhardt. In most years, the Tewaaraton Award tends to be a postseason award. And if that’s the case this year, it’s all Bernhardt’s. He is the only finalist left standing and has had a hand in ending the season of two other finalists to get to this point. In these games, he was no bystander. Against Duke, he notched seven points off of five goals and two assists. It was well known going into that game that he’s the engine that drives the Maryland offense, and even then, he’s virtually unstoppable.
On the other side of the field is No. 1 Connor Shellenberger. He leads the team with 73 points off 33 goals and 40 assists. Against UNC, his game-high six points were double that of any player on Virginia. And all of this from a player who was a redshirt for a shortened season and didn’t see playing time in his first college game until this year. He doesn’t need to be the go-to guy for Virginia to take home another title, but it sure would not hurt.
In this game, possessions will come at a premium. Even though Lars Tiffany likes to play with a mindset where risk taking is encouraged and turnovers are acceptable, that doesn’t mean having the ball is not important. Virginia’s Petey Lasalla may not be the top in the country in terms of faceoff winning percentage (he is 10th, though), but he tends to be a player who wins when it really matters.
For Maryland, there may be some work to do.
“We’d been good at times, but not necessarily maybe at the standard we’d love to be,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said after the Duke win. “But in big moments, we’ve actually had some guys come through. I thought Justin Shockey just gave us really great minutes today. Gets a goal, but more importantly, it just felt like we got possessions in that second quarter. And that was huge for us.”
While Lasalla is the favorite to win the overall percentage, the tables could turn in Maryland’s favor if Shockey is able to help fuel some runs for the Terps.
What the rest of the game will turn into is will likely be a bit of a chess match at the player level. Both of these teams are loaded with weapons on the offensive end, and they both have defenders who can match up with anyone.
“I think with this group, there’s a lot of versatile parts and flexible parts,” Tillman said. “We give them a lot of freedom, because there’s a lot of trust. There’s a lot of decisions to be made.”
The versatility of the Terps really is what has produced their undefeated record. While the eyes are on Bernhardt, Logan Wisnauskas, Anthony DeMaio, Daniel Maltz, Kyle Long, and Bubba Fairman are all threats on every possession.
Virginia will be tasked with handling all these weapons.
“Athletically, they’re like a UNC or a Duke where they don’t slide much,” explained UVA attackman Matt Moore. “They’re a really athletic team. We really need to dodge to the goal.”
What that will translate into is how well UVA can find its ideal matchups and see if it can force Maryland into slides to free up some inside looks. The Cavs have the personnel to do it, but no team has figured out how to turn that into a win over the Terps yet.