The Tewaaraton Finalists are announced. For better or worse, it’s all attackmen: Duke’s Brennan O’Neill, UVA’s Connor Shellenberger, Cornell’s CJ Kirst, Notre Dame’s Pat Kavanagh, and Georgetown’s Tucker Dordevic.
The field is tight. Tight meaning, it’s really hard to tell right now who should win. There’s a strong case for each player on the list to be made. Nobody feels like a stone lock. In past years, that hasn’t always been the case. Last year, it would have been surprising if Jared Bernhardt didn’t win. I’d argue the same for Pat Spencer before him. The 2018 season was closer as Reeves beat out Trevor Baptiste, Justin Guterding, Connor Kelly, and Spencer as a junior, all of whom felt worthy. But go back to 2010 and look at how often you really thought there were more than two, at most, players you expected could win. It's not often.
In 2023, it’s a tougher call. Each candidate has put their stamp on a Tewaaraton kind of year. There are cases to be made for, and maybe even against, each finalist. To be clear, the case for any of these players to not win it is razor thin. Splitting hairs, and then taking that split hair and splitting it again. All five players have had special seasons worthy of this special recognition. The cases for each:
Brennan O’Neill, Attack, Duke. 44 goals, 36 assists, 5.33 points per game
WHY HE’LL WIN IT: The weapon on a roster full of weapons. Dyson Williams, Andrew McAdorey, Garrett Leadmon, young stars like Charles Balsamo, there’s plenty of players that need touches on the Blue Devils. But when the rubber meets the road, when Duke absolutely must have a goal, absolutely must find a spark, need something to get going or secure a win, everyone defers to 34. He has one just one game all year with less than three points. He is shooting 36% on 122 shots, an outstanding mark. Against the ACC, he has 30 points in six games. Five points per game in one of if not the toughest conference in the country. A few games stand out to me really for him. First, early in the year, the OT winner against Denver to win it. The goal was just sheer will. Takeover mode from O’Neill. Starting up the right side, rolled back at the island, pinged a low corner. Clinically good when his team needed it. The same was true against Syracuse in March. The Orange hung around in that game all day, pushing it to OT. But wire to wire, O’Neill was a monster. Four goals and two assists on 14 shots. Blue Devils hit post after post, took blow and blow from Cuse. The Orange had a 10-7 lead in the third quarter, and Brennan put a stop to that. Unassisted goal, followed by assist to Williams, followed by another unassisted goal. Tie game with 4:30 left, just like that. His fingerprints are all over Duke’s biggest moments of the year.
WHY HE WON’T: There isn’t much of a case, but to dig a bit. Going game by game, Brennan has zero total assists in Duke’s two losses. The only other game he didn’t have an assist was against Loyola, and that game was decidedly in hand for Duke by half time. Against Jacksonville and Notre Dame, no helpers for him. That one game with less than three points? The Notre Dame loss, where had just one goal. Chris Fake and Troy Hettinger were big parts of that, so really, you need a PLL defenseman to stop him, and even then you usually can’t. One knock next to his peers on the finalist ballot: O’Neill has 24 turnovers, more than everyone else.
Pat Kavanagh, Attack, Notre Dame. 20 goals, 45 assists. 5.42 points per game
WHY HE’LL WIN IT: I’m not sure there is a player who’s style better fits the team he plays for than Kavanagh. Notre Dame came into this year looking like a team that would be going scorched earth. Destroy all comers. Take all the anger from how 2022 ended, and unleash it on the field. Kavanagh is leading that charge. He is out there fighting for every last blade of grass on the field to make sure no doubts are left every week. His 45 assists are the most in the country, and he’s had multiple assists every game. He’s had six assists in a game four times this year (Marquette, Cleveland State, Michigan, UNC). He’s had eight or more points three times (Cleveland State, Michigan, Duke). His 34 ground balls are evidence of just how hard he works; he’s second on the team behind lead faceoff specialist Will Lynch. Kavanagh’s 65 points are the lowest of the candidates, but it’s so much more than points to his game. They don’t award points for ride backs. Or for back breaking plays. One goal is one goal, but when it happens it can change a game. Kavanagh makes the hard crucial play when it’s needed, whatever the play is. He had four caused turnovers in a game against UNC this year, no other Notre Dame player has had four CT’s in a game this year. At any position. When the stat book tells you Kavanagh is a step below the others, the tape puts that notion to bed real fast.
WHY HE WON’T: Like Brennan, in the losses, you can notice Kavanagh’s absence in the scoresheet. The Irish have two losses, both against UVA. In those games, Kavanagh has a total of seven points. In wins against some of the best teams, he’s had his quieter games, ala just three points in the Georgetown and Maryland wins. It’s not a pattern, he put up eight against Duke, but it’s eye catching. The goal total is lower than the other finalists, although on a PPG basis he’s right there. Kavanagh also is shooting just 29% on only 69 shots this season, although his role on the team is not necessarily to be primary scorer. That said, goal scorers tend to win the Tewaaraton. As noted above, Kavanagh makes up for being behind the others in ways that don’t show up in the stat book. He is the best riding attackman in the country, he has caused nine turnovers this year and picked up 34 ground balls, but if those stats were weighted like points are, more defenders would win the Tewaaraton.
CJ Kirst, Cornell, Attack. 63 goals, 18 assists, 5.79 points per game
WHY HE’LL WIN IT: Big Red playing for the Big Red, Kirst is the nation’s leader in goals coming into the NCAA tournament. He also has the highest points per game mark on the list. Kirst is shooting 38% on 167 shots this season, somehow better than the insane bar set by Brennan O’Neill. His lowest shooting percentage in an individual game is .346. He’s been over 40% five times in 14 games this year, and that’s taking at least 10 shots in each of those games. The only team to contain Kirst was Army, who it looked schemed their whole defense around sending help defenders to him the second he touched the ball, and that’s even with AJ Pilate guarding him. More than half of Kirst’s points have come against conference opponents, as no one in the Ivy had a prayer against him. His lowest game total in conference was five points, which he did against Yale twice and Harvard. His ground ball total is, like Kavanagh’s, impressive at 35, although Kirst had two more games than Kavanagh did. Coming into the year, pundits expected a lot from Cornell on the offensive end, with a balanced amount of scoring and threats on the roster. What they’ve gotten is CJ Kirst dominance. He by far leads the team with 81 points, next is Billy Coyle with 51, and nobody else has more than 23. The offense in many ways goes as Kirst does, and he has proven to be more than capable of carrying it. 30% of Cornell’s goals this year have been scored by CJ Kirst.
WHY HE WON’T: It’s not a lacrosse case, but Kirst is a junior. Seniors tend to get some favor for the Tewaaraton. No basis there in the stats, just how it is. It takes truly special years to buck that trend. The assist total is also quite low. This doesn’t always mean a ton. Jared Bernhardt won the award with just 28 assists on the season and 71 goals, which is very Kirst-ish. The only other knock here is some of the competition. Kirst scored 49 of his points against Albany, Lehigh, Hobart, Dartmouth, Harvard, Marquette, and Brown, who all basically spend the entire year outside of the top 20. A few exceptions in there, but mostly the "also considered" type. 11 points in a game is wildly impressive, but it came against Hobart. He balances these with other crazy games, like his seven goals against Penn, but it’s worth mentioning.
Connor Shellenberger, Virginia, Attack. 19 goals, 43 assists, 4.77 points per game
WHY HE’LL WIN IT: He’s the QB of arguably the best offense and best team in the country. Similar to O’Neill, Shellenberger rises above the rest on a roster that’s packed with playmakers. If their NCAA tournament game comes down to a tie with one possession left, the play is getting drawn up for Shellenberger to run it, and that’s what every player and coach on the team wants. That’s what’s compelling. Shellenberger is a mainstay at the top of the college lacrosse offensive player discussions. The latest in a line of all time great UVA QB’s, when his career is over, his name will be there with guys like Stanwick, Moore, Watson, Ward, Gill, and others. This has not been his best season in terms of production, but it doesn’t have to be. UVA is about team production. Dickson, Cormier, whoever’s turn it is, does the scoring. What separates Shellenberger is he is ALWAYS the person who drives the bus. It’s his show. Even an offense this loaded would have to adjust in a major way to a long term absence from him. He can play anywhere, do anything, at an elite level. UVA demands a level of versatility and malleability from their offensive showrunner. It is not a job for someone who needs to park at X and dodge to feed. It’s a job for someone who can be the best on the team at everything. And that’s Shellenberger.
WHY HE WON’T: The point total is very low, just 62, the lowest of the finalists. No need to write what I wrote about Kavanagh again, but the same caveat applies here for Shellenberger. He’s shooting .292 this season on just 65 shots. Shellenberger did miss a game for UVA, which is important too. Wild speculation is coming so be warned, but he looks like he’s been playing banged up most of the season. Some lacrosse fans thought Xander Dickson should have been the Tewaaraton nominee instead of Shellenberger. I disagree, but the larger idea there is that Shellenberger's support may be split a bit because he plays on an offense with another player of Dickson's caliber.
Tucker Dordevic, Georgetown, Attack. 57 goals, 13 assists, 4.67 points per game
WHY HE’LL WIN IT: The Cuse transfer was the prize of the portal this past offseason. When he went to Georgetown, fans were all set to book their trips to Philly for Memorial Day Weekend. Dordevic has been the trigger man for the Hoyas all year, and has been an exceptional goal scorer. He’s shooting .350 on 163 shots, of this group only Kirst has taken more shots this year. He is maybe the most electric dodger in the country. He changes direction without slowing down, and explodes out of his split and hitch dodges like he’s shot out of a cannon. He absolutely caught fire once April hit. From April 8th through today, he hasn’t had less than four goals in a game once. That’s a seven game streak during conference play, when he was needed most. Dordevic is a game changing player, because there just aren’t many players who can cover him one on one. You can probably count who can on one hand. Defenses need to scheme slides just for him. He's doing all this while playing attack, even though his natural position is midfield. He came to Georgetown as the player charged with the offense not just at a top level program, but at a program that added multiple number one type players from quality programs across the country via the portal. In the course of the season, he's been up to the task, which is a unique challenge - he's the only finalist to have to handle something like that. While his stats and production are lower than others, the way he changes defenses just by being on the field is right there with everyone else on the list.
WHY HE WON’T: Georgetown got out to a slow start, losing three straight. Even once they righted the ship, they had some weeks of winning ugly. Wins are wins, but when it comes to the Tewaaraton, stars need to shine. Dordevic was productive in every game, scoring at least two points in every game, but also played some hero ball at times. He took single digit shots in just two games all season. In the first half of the year, the Hoyas forced it at times, presumably as their transfer players, Dordevic included, still got used to each other. His production is a step below the other scorers on the list.