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A look at Notre Dame Men’s Lacrosse versus Virginia in the Final Four on Saturday

A rare, third in-season matchup gives the Irish a chance for our first win over the Cavaliers this year

Notre Dame versus Virginia on Saturday at 2:30 PM EST
Photo Credit: Fred Assaf

The old adage in sports is that it is tough to beat a team three straight times in a season. On Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, we will find out if that is true as the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will take on the Cavaliers of Virginia in the second semi-final matchup of Championship Weekend. The winner of our game will have the chance to play for glory on Memorial Day against the winner of Duke versus Penn State.

Let’s take a look at Notre Dame and Virginia, our first two matchups and what could decide the game for our Irish on this upcoming Saturday afternoon.

First Matchup at Arlotta on March 25th - Virginia 15, Notre Dame 10

This was Notre Dame’s first loss of the season as we came into the matchup ranked #1 with a 6-0 record. We wrote a lot about what took place this day between the two teams, but this game was a showcase of Connor Shellenberger and Xander Dickson as they each had seven points on the day (8 G, 6 A). The Irish did not have an answer for the UVA pick game in front of the crease and they were able to pull away starting at the ten minute mark of the third quarter. While Pat Kavanagh, Chris Kavanagh and Jake Taylor accounted for six goals, it was an otherwise quiet day for our midfield as they were held mostly in check during the afternoon matchup.

Second Matchup at Klockner on April 30th - Virginia 12, Notre Dame 8

This game was more evenly matched than the first and the Irish made some defensive adjustments and were able to hold UVA to just four goals at the half. We did a much better job on Shellenberger in this game as he accounted for four points, but Dickson once again got the better of us with four goals and an assist. Midfielder Thomas McConvey was a difference maker for the Cavaliers as he scored three goals and played a great game. ND’s scoring was well distributed during the game, but the Kavanaghs were held largely in check as they only had five total points (1 G, 4A).

What do we know about the Cavaliers

Virginia is a beast. There is really no other way to put it as Lars Tiffany has recruited at a ridiculous level and their team is stacked with talent. They are a physically imposing team with not a lot of weaknesses. Focus on their attack and they can beat you with their midfield. Focus on Xander Dickson and Payton Cormier will hurt you from inside. Have a bad day at the faceoff dot and Petey LaSalla will make you pay. And none of this looks at their defense which is led by Cole Kastner and Cade Saustad (who are 6’7’ and 6’5” respectively), or their goalie Matthew Nunes who has played lights out against the Irish.

But boil things down to UVA and it starts with and ends with Connor Shellenberger. He is a complete attackman who can beat you from the wing with hard shots, he can dodge you from up top, he can take you to X and beat you to either score on his own or feed one of his teammates. He is unselfish, he is technically sound and he has lived up to his hype as the #1 player coming out of high school. There is a reason he is one of the five finalists for the Tewaaraton Trophy which will probably come down to him, Pat Kavanagh and Brennan O’Neill, with the winner more than likely being whomever is hoisting the championship trophy on Monday afternoon.

In our two games against UVA this season, Shellenberger has accumulated eleven points (3 G, 8 A). He was a feeding machine in our first game as he constantly found his teammates open in front of Entenmann for easy goals. In our second matchup, he again was a feeder and he facilitated and led their offense to twelve goals. In last weekend’s quarterfinal matchup against Georgetown he had ten points (6 G, 4 A) which proved his dominance in May (again). He is the focal point of the Virginia offense and everything flows through him as he is one of the best attackmen to play the game.

Virginia’s defense has had our number this year. With our ten and eight goal totals in our two games against them, they are easily our two lowest goal outputs of the year. In the coaches pre-game zoom calls earlier this week, I asked Coach Tiffany about why UVA has been so successful against Notre Dame from a defensive perspective, and while he did not go into specifics, he did talk about Kastner and Saustad’s heights and how that might allow them to get their sticks more on our attack’s hands. He also commented about how well Nunes has played against ND.

Virginia is deep and they are not afraid to play a lot of players as they have so much talent. And when it is late in May and the weather heats up, one or two extra players that you can access on your bench can make all the difference.

How does Notre Dame win

We are not going to take a look at what Virginia needs to do to win as they have already beaten our Irish twice. Here is what I think Saturday comes down to and how the Irish can be victorious. And while we don’t need to have all these go right, a combination of these working can lead to an Irish victory:

Eric Dobson needs to assert himself and do so early on. I am fine with him firing away at the beginning even if the shots get blocked or are off the mark. That is completely acceptable. In our last matchup at Klockner, Dobson had four shots all game and had zero points on the game. We need him to get going on Saturday as we all know that him scoring early will open up a whole lot more to our offense. We have discussed this at length with our good friends at 18stripes.

We cannot let UVA get quick restarts that then lead to unsettled situations. Not sure if there is a better team in the country that takes the ball after a restart, moves it quickly and sets up unsettled / advantageous situations that lead to easy goals. We need to be prepared in these situations to get our defense settled, not look to sub too quickly and not let this be the difference in the game.

Pat and Chris Kavanagh need to play their regular games. These two have not been at their best in the earlier matchups, and we all know that when they are on, we are pretty much an unstoppable freight train. So same as Dobson, getting them going early and getting them confidence that this Final Four game is different than the first two will be huge.

Rattle Nunes early. There is one First Team All-American Goalie on the field on Saturday, he is wearing Blue and Gold and his name is Liam Entenmann. Nunes has played lights out against us in both our games, but get to him early with some easy goals and we can change that narrative.

Replicate the Duke scoring line against UVA. In our game against Blue Devils this year, here is what our scoring looked like on the day:

This is the exact type of balanced offense that will propel the Irish to victory on Saturday. And while I know Duke is not UVA, we have proven in the past that we can play our best against the best. This weekend should be no different.

Limit Connor Shellenberger. It would be too much to ask Chris Fake to completely neutralize him, but replicate what we did against him in the first half of the second matchup (1G, 1A) and that will be championship winning lacrosse.

Get to 45% at the faceoff dot. Last week the Irish were at 33% and while we could sustain that against Johns Hopkins, we cannot do the same against an offense that is as lethal as Virginia’s.

Get goals / points from unlikely places. In the quarterfinal matchup last weekend, we got five total goals from Jack Simmons and Jalen Seymour. And in a game where Pat Kavanagh was limited to one point, seeing others step up was huge. Who will it be stepping up on Saturday for the Irish?

Don’t miss on man-up. These are chances that the Irish will need to score on in order to be victorious. I imagine we will not see a ton of penalties during the game, but if we get three chances on the man-up, we need to score on at least two of them.

Beat the ten man ride and make UVA pay. The Cavaliers are notorious for implementing a ten man ride, and when they do, we need to not only be able to clear the ball, but also take advantage of the possible unsettled situations that could arise from us getting the ball over the midfield line.

Final Thoughts

Our season has come to this, a chance to avenge our only two losses this year against a team that most in college lacrosse consider to be a juggernaut. Who could ask for more?!?! It is the biggest stage in all of college lacrosse and fans of the sport will be gathering in-person in Philly and in front of TVs all across the country. It’s a one game season and I can only imagine the mindset of the Notre Dame players and how they have been thinking these last few days. Not a lot of people will pick us to win this game, but I think that will only fuel the team more as we get ready to take the field on Saturday at 2:30 PM EST.

I am looking forward to it and am excited to be in Philly to watch how the team competes and watch how the team represents all the Notre Dame lacrosse players who have come before them. They will be playing for their fellow students at Notre Dame, the alumni of the university, the fans of the team, and lastly and most importantly....their own families. I think they will get it done, this team has been built for this moment and they will deliver. Let’s Go Irish, it truly is Time to be Great.

And I will leave you with this...