Cavalier Corner

February 2022

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Page 23 of 35

22 CAVALIER CORNER BY PATRICK BOLING I n 2020 when the Virginia men's la- crosse coaching staff and the nation's No. 1 high school recruit, Connor Shellenberger, collectively made the decision to redshirt the first-year at- tackman, many factions of college lacrosse were left puzzled. Perhaps from an outsider's perspective that enigma would be a rational one to critique, but in hindsight the algorithm that Shellenberger and his coaches formulated for success has had and still has all the right pieces falling into place at the right time. Coming off their 2019 national title run, the Cavaliers were loaded with offensive talent and experience entering the 2020 season. After Shellenberger's performance in practice during the fall of 2019 — his first semester on Grounds — was not up to his standards, the decision was made to hold him out of competition in 2020. This allowed the Charlottesville native some extra time to work on his craft, get acclimated to the demands of being a stu- dent-athlete at UVA and relieve some of the pressure that comes with being the most touted prospect in the nation. While the decision to redshirt Shellen- berger might have appeared to be a moot point once the 2020 season was canceled after just six games due to COVID-19, the move did indeed wipe the slate clean for Shellenberger mentally. "Over break, Coach [Lars] Tiffany and I met, and we looked at our options," Shellen- berger said. "The team was just so stacked that year, especially offensively with [Mi- chael] Kraus, Matt [Moore], Ian [Laviano] and Dox [Aitken]. "After talking to him, I felt like it made sense for me to take a step back and just have a spring to get better and learn from those guys, and I guess have more fun play- ing the game. It relieved a lot of stress for me, and it ended up being beneficial." While Shellenberger may have stepped back behind the curtain for the 2020 sea- son, which was ultimately cut short, he was very much in the limelight in 2021 thanks to his jaw-dropping offensive stats. In arguably the most impressive first-year season in NCAA men's lacrosse history, Shellenberger did it all, checking every box imaginable. Not only did he guide UVA to its second consecutive national title, but he did so while being the best player on the field when it mattered most. After amassing 24 points on 14 goals and a tournament-best 10 assists in the Cavaliers' four postseason victories, Shellenberger was crowned the 2021 Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. His point total during last year's NCAA Tournament tied for the most points by any player in the Big Dance and was the most by a Cavalier in program history. After shat- tering UVA first-year season records in both points (79) and assists (42), Shellenberger was also dubbed a first-team All-American by the United States Intercollegiate La- crosse Association (USILA) and USA La- crosse Magazine. Shellenberger's opening act in an of- ficial capacity in 2021 was just that, an opening act. There's no doubt that Shellen- berger, who was tabbed a 2022 Preseason All-American by USA Lacrosse Magazine, will be the focal point of opposing teams' scouting reports in 2022, especially with the departures of fellow 2021 USILA All- Americans in Kyle Kology (defense), Jared Conners (longstick midfield), Dox Aitken (midfield) and Alex Rode (goalie). But rest assured, he's up for the chal- lenge. Shellenberger understands the void left by his elite former teammates such as Conners, Rode and Aitken — just to name a few — but he believes the exponential value of the collective is what will pave the way for success for the Cavaliers in 2022. "It's really so hard to replace those guys from a production standpoint, but also the emotional value they brought to the team," Shellenberger said. "You're not able to repli- cate it or really re-create it. I don't think one person can do that. It's more like an offen- sive thing as a group, and defensive thing as a group, and the team as a group. "How can we re-create their energy, their leadership and all the little intangible things that they did? That's what made them so special outside of just their production. "Some of those guys are the best players to ever play here. It's going to be tough, and I think more of the stuff that not everyone could appreciate." In a jam-packed fall, the Cavaliers had plenty of opportunities to build and har- ness the communal energy that Shellen- berger embraces. In addition to the usual routine of practicing and lifting weights, last semester was highlighted by team activi- ties such as exhibitions against the Cana- dian and United States National Teams in Baltimore, the 2021 championship ring ceremony and Tiffany's team-building ex- ercises dubbed "Cultural Fridays," all while acclimating a new wave of first-year players to the program. A few months in with the 2022 squad, Shellenberger has been pleased with the attitude and effort he's seen from his team- mates so far. It's a temperament he believes will give the Cavaliers a chance to win their third consecutive NCAA title, an accomplish- ment that has only been achieved by three other men's lacrosse powerhouses in Johns Hopkins (1978-80), Syracuse (1988-90) and Princeton (1996-98). When asked how he could best sum up this year's team in just one word, Shellen- berger was assertive. "Driven," he said. "I think guys were work- ing harder this fall than I've ever seen be- fore. Guys like Cole Kastner. Literally, every off day his moped was at Training Grounds. "I think our younger guys are super hun- gry too and driven to get the championship. They witnessed the celebration this fall, and I feel like they want their own. Guys like [Matthew] Nunes and [Griffin] Schutz, they're shooting almost every day. I think everyone's really driven to go try to win an- other." THREE-PEAT? Led By Sensational Second-Year Connor Shellenberger, UVA Is Aiming For Its Third Straight National Championship

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