PHILADELPHIA — With the specialization of faceoff men in college lacrosse, it’s a big deal when one scores a goal in a regular-season game, much less on the sports’ grandest stage in the national championship game.
For Virginia freshman Petey LaSalla, scoring twice in Monday’s 13-9 national title win over Yale took him back to his high school days. He manned the faceoff X at Rocky Point High School in Miller Place, New York, but he was also a full-fledged midfielder who played offense and defense and on the man-up and man-down units.
“When we recruited Petey, we saw him not allowed to leave the field, so he was a face-off guy who had to play offense, so he had offensive skills, so we were excited about bringing him to Charlottesville and fortunately he said yes, because he can create offense,” UVa head coach Lars Tiffany said.
At the top of LaSalla’s official bio on the Cavaliers’ website, Tiffany is quoted as saying “Perceptive of offensive opportunities and subtleties, this quiet, unassuming and hard-charging first-year faceoff man is proving to be more than just a specialist at the X.”
LaSalla finished his first season on Grounds with eight goals and one assist, and he led the team with 216 faceoff wins and 100 ground balls. In the future, Tiffany expects all of those numbers to grow.
“We’re going to expand his role over the next three years, and we’re going to and keep him on the field longer if he has the opposing offensive face-off man trapped down there,” Tiffany said. “We know he can score that goal; we just didn’t know he would be able to earn as many possessions as he did. There weren’t too many, but to do it against [Yale’s] TD Ierlan was a big deal for us.”
Ierlan finished the season as the top-ranked faceoff man in the country, and this spring, he broke his own NCAA record for ground balls with 282. He led the nation in ground balls, faceoff wins (375) and faceoff percentage (75.8). On Monday, Ierlan won 18 faceoffs to LaSalla’s four, but the Cavaliers’ faceoff man made his count.
LaSalla’s first goal was part of a 4-0 run that sent Virginia into halftime with a 6-2 lead. His second was part of five unanswered netters and put the Cavaliers’ up 10-4 in the third quarter. After his second, LaSalla stood on the field with his arms extended to each side. One by one, like moths drawn to a flame, his teammates arrived to celebrate.
“That was really awesome because those were a couple times I exited clean and their point defenseman didn’t slide, so I was like ‘all right I’m three yards out. Let me just fire it,’” LaSalla said.
In the third quarter of Saturday’s Final Four game against Duke, LaSalla was part of a spurt of three goals in 15 seconds. Following two from the Blue Devils, he won a faceoff and went straight to goal to cut the deficit to two and spark a 3-0 run by the Cavaliers. LaSalla won the game’s final eight faceoffs in Virginia’s double-overtime win.
With the Cavaliers trying to dig out of a five-goal hole in the fourth quarter the previous weekend against Maryland, he won 7-of-8 faceoffs down the stretch.
“He’s just a tough, hard-nosed Long Island kid,” Virginia junior Michael Kraus said. “He’s got good technique and he’s not afraid to get in there and scrap.”
In the fall, LaSalla struggled to adapt to the speed of the game, as Tiffany said most freshmen do. But it was clear to his teammates four of five games into the season that he had moved beyond the physical and was mastering the mental side of the game.
“Petey has been always quick on the clamp,” said senior Ryan Conrad, a faceoff wing who finished the year second on the team with 95 ground balls. “But what you see now is him understanding where his wings are and where to go with the ball when he exits.”
LaSalla came in this season and unseated an entrenched specialist in Justin Schwenk, who just last season set Virginia’s program record for faceoff wins in a season with 242.
“Coming in here, I wanted to play right away, but obviously, Justin was really good last year,” LaSalla said. “At the beginning of the year, it was who has the hot hand? It ended up being me, but you’ve seen that Justin is always ready and he’s a reliable faceoff man, too.”
The competition to control the Cavaliers’ X is only going to heat up in the coming years. Next season, Schwenk will be a senior and highly touted faceoff man Gavin Tygh is coming in with the 2019 recruiting class. Virginia also already has a verbal commitment from Jake Naso, who is the No. 1-ranked faceoff man in the country in the class of 2020.
That in-house competition is part of what Tiffany credits for the Cavaliers’ return to national prominence.
“We have a system and we believe in it,” Tiffany said. “Here, you’re going to earn your starting spot on Tuesday and Wednesday, and that competition is going to continue every week of the season.”