CHARLOTTESVILLE — Three years ago, Lars Tiffany took over the Virginia men’s lacrosse program. Saturday, the team will play for its first ACC championship since 2010.
During the time in between, the course Tiffany plotted for UVA’s return to prominence had as much to do with a cultural shift as it did with ground balls and defensive slides.
Party less. Win more. Sacrifice for success.
“Something needed to change here,” fifth-year senior defender Logan Greco said this week. “I don’t know if it was the coaching staff, but something definitely needed to change. Lars has been a fresh jolt to the system.”
Virginia had lost 12 straight ACC contests when Tiffany left Brown to succeed legendary coach Dom Starsia after the 2016 season. It would drop its first six league matches under its new coach, missing the NCAA tournament in 2017 and exiting in the first round last year.
Saturday, the Cavaliers (12-3) — ranked fifth in the nation — host Notre Dame in the ACC championship match at 2 p.m. at Klockner Stadium. UVA beat the Fighting Irish 13-11 in March.
What Tiffany worked on hardest with his team was instilling a deeper dedication to the sport — and to each other. He divided his squad into “families,” grouping one senior with one junior, one sophomore and one freshman, and held “cultural days,” team meetings where players could discuss readings they’d been assigned, air grievances about team issues and take part in affirmations — “essentially man hugs,” Tiffany said.
“It’s taking a team that was a bit disjointed when we arrived, and it didn’t happen overnight,” Tiffany said. “Changing this culture, creating the mindset we wanted, took two years. It didn’t really feel like we’d gotten there until this fall.”
While Tiffany didn’t expressly discuss curtailing social outings, his players took that implied meaning from many of his talks. Sacrificing that part of college life would be necessary to experience winning at the highest levels.
“With any college-age team, that’s going to be tough,” junior attacker Michael Kraus said. “That’s something people expect to do when they’re at college. But I think we’ve got mature guys on this team and they’re willing to sacrifice whatever they can to accomplish our goals. It took a little bit but I think everyone’s bought in, and it’s paid off.”
Charlottesville doesn’t always make it easy.
The fabled “corner” has a cluster of about a dozen bars and restaurants in a four-block area, a favorite hangout for UVA students, including athletes. Add in the two dozen or so more options on the city’s downtown mall, mix in fraternity and house parties, and it isn’t hard to see how much of a draw the social scene can be for college-age athletes.
“Charlottesville’s a fun town,” Tiffany said. “It’s a big campus, 15,000. There’s a lot of fun to be had here and there’s a lot of distractions here. I don’t think I was surprised by that. We just had to get the men into sacrificing some of that fun for the month of May. We have a May because of those sacrifices.”
It isn’t the first time the Virginia program has attempted a culture shift. The 2010 murder of women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love by men’s player George Huguely had a somber and sobering impact on the Cavaliers, who went on to win the 2011 national championship.
Then, things fell off. From 2013 until the coaching change after the 2016 season, UVA went just 34-27, including a 1-19 mark in ACC play. It made two NCAA appearances in four years, exiting in the first round both times.
It was a less-than-fitting end to an otherwise wildly successful 23-year run by Starsia leading the program.
Starsia’s success is legendary in the lacrosse world. Under his stewardship, the Cavaliers captured six ACC championships and four national titles.
Tiffany played for Starsia at Brown, and the reverence he has for his former coach is evident in every answer he offers, especially in his discomfort when asked if Virginia lacrosse needed a change to get it back to being an elite program.
A major reason Tiffany said he’s been able to win so quickly at UVA is thanks to the talent Starsia left him — players like Kraus, Dox Aitken and Ryan Conrad.
Last season, that core helped Virginia and Tiffany snap the ACC losing streak with a road win over North Carolina. A tournament win over Syracuse had the team in the title game, also at home against Notre Dame.
The Irish won 17-7. Tiffany asked his team to remain field-side as Notre Dame celebrated.
“We stood there and we said, ‘Watch. Watch. They came here to win a championship and they’ve done it on our field,’” Tiffany said. “‘Watch this and remember this.’”
The players did, Greco said.
“That’s been motivation for the last 365 days,” he said. “I remember just sitting there and watching them all celebrate. Put on the hats. Put on the shirts. I have a vivid memory of that and I know a lot of guys on this team do.”
To have that moment for themselves, Virginia’s players made sacrifices — less nights on the corner for more wins on the field.
Saturday, they’re hoping that pays off with a title.