Virginia’s Kyle Kology (right) passes the ball against Loyola (Maryland) at Klöckner Stadium. Virginia beat Loyola, 12-9.

The defending national champions want to learn how to play with a lead.

Wait, what?

The Virginia men’s lacrosse team won 17 games in 2019, including the final eight of the season. The Cavaliers won 85% of the time, but most of those victories needed special efforts. Five wins came in overtime, including two in the NCAA Tournament.

They erased a 12-7 fourth-quarter deficit to beat Maryland in the quarterfinals before coming back from down 8-4 to top Duke in the semifinals. Both games resulted in overtime wins.

Facing a deficit made the Cavaliers comfortable.

In the 2020 season opener, Virginia (1-0) jumped all over Loyola (Maryland), leading 9-2 and 11-4. The Greyhounds rallied back, only falling 12-9 when the clock ran out.

Virginia struggled to put the game out of reach despite opening up a massive lead.

“It’s kind of funny,” junior attacker Matt Moore said. “We’re up by six or seven and we’re looking at each other like, ‘What is this? What does this feel like?’”

Both the attack and defense struggled in the second half, as the Cavaliers were outscored 6-3 in the final two quarters.

“I think we kind of rested on our laurels a little bit, figured we had the game in the bag,” junior defenseman Kyle Kology said. “We didn’t really feel that pressure because last season we were always down at halftime, so we always felt a sense of urgency coming out of halftime.”

The Cavaliers want to finish leads moving forward. With the talent the Cavaliers boast, they’re likely going to hold plenty of leads this year. They’ll need to adjust to playing from ahead.

“Not that we have to be losing at halftime,” Kology joked, “but we need that sense of urgency to come back out hot out of halftime.”

No. 18 Lehigh comes to Charlottesville on Saturday, giving the Cavaliers a chance to work on their mistakes from the Loyola victory. It’s another stiff test.

The Mountain Hawks opened their season with a 16-11 win over Utah. They finished strong, turning a 5-5 tie into a five-goal victory.

Sophomore Tommy Schelling scored seven goals in Lehigh’s win, which puts him in a tie for first nationally in goals per game.

Virginia counters with goalkeeper Alex Rode, who sits in a tie for first nationally in saves per game. He racked up 19 in the season-opening win over Loyola.

Offensively, the Cavaliers are among the best in the country. Head coach Lars Tiffany loves his returning threats, and he was glad to see newcomers contribute, too.

“The general pattern of thought around the 2020 Virginia Cavaliers is there’s a lot returning,” Tiffany said. “Well, what was exciting was seeing seven or eight first-years out there in key roles. I learned that our first years are ready to make contributions.”

Tiffany liked his team’s play against Loyola, and he liked the end result, but he’s a process-oriented coach. He didn’t love the second-half dip, and he felt the defensive effort had room for improvement.

“They’ve got to step up and play better in front of Alex because we can’t rely on 19 saves happening every game,” Tiffany said.

Even reigning national champions face problems that need improvement.

Whether it’s stepping up on defense or learning how to play with a lead, Virginia has room to improve heading into game No. 2.

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