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Connor Shellenberger during the national anthem before Virginia's game against Johns Hopkins

Cover Story: Connor Shellenberger, Virginia's Selfless Superstar

April 10, 2024
Justin Feil
Olivia McLucas/UVA Athletics

This article appears in the April edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Not a member? Join our momentum.

Connor Shellenberger gave each of his Virginia teammates a pullover in February. They did not know he left NIL money on the table to do so.

“I definitely wear it a lot,” said Cole Kastner, the Cavaliers’ 6-foot-7 senior defenseman.

Shellenberger’s gifts came from the apparel company Rhoback. He’s a sponsored athlete.

“We already knew he was really charismatic and really selfless, and he was willing to take less base compensation as long as we were able to fulfill that simple request,” said Shalen Moore, athlete relations coordinator at Rhoback. “All he wanted was gear for his teammates.”

Shellenberger’s latest gesture — a thank you to his teammates, he explained — follows a pattern of acts done for the betterment of the program he grew up watching and now headlines. The fifth-year Virginia attackman from Charlottesville is fixated on the Cavs winning another national championship, and that includes relentlessly pushing himself to be the best.

“Connor is the most complete player I have ever coached,” first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Cassese said. “He is the total package. He is incredibly talented, committed at the highest level to being the best athlete and lacrosse player he can be, a passionate high-level leader, a selfless teammate, mentally and physically tough and as humble a human as I have ever met.”

Connor Shellenberger points to a teammate after scoring during Virginia's game against Johns Hopkins earlier this season.
Connor Shellenberger points to a teammate after scoring during Virginia's game against Johns Hopkins earlier this season.
Olivia McLucas/UVA Athletics

A two-time Tewaaraton Award finalist, Shellenberger took less scholarship money this year to make UVA more viable for others. He opted to redshirt in 2020 though he was the Inside Lacrosse No. 1 recruit out of high school. The next season, he agreed to play midfield for the first time in his career to help team chemistry. The last two seasons, he has played through injuries.

“Any time you’re playing with the best player in the country, there’s a perception that he probably carries himself a certain way,” Kastner said. “But that’s never been the way for Connor. He’s such a good teammate. He’s so dedicated to everyone else.”

Kastner teams with Shellenberger off the field for another NIL deal that pairs them with Yellow Door Foundation. They help move families into apartments and visit with them while their children undergo long-term treatment at UVA Children’s Hospital.

“It’s been cool to not actually just be handed the money and be able to do some meaningful work,” Shellenberger said.

Though Shellenberger recently launched his CS1 merchandise and clinic business, he isn’t looking for attention. His multi-faceted game follows his altruistic nature. He is one of the deadliest shooters in the game, having famously taken 1,000 shots per week in high school. He has studied the game’s best attackers and worked to adopt a variety of ways to get to goal using either hand, yet has never had more goals than assists in a season at UVA, often deferring to teammates. Duke’s Brennan O’Neill and Notre Dame’s Pat Kavanagh and now up-and-coming stars like Syracuse’s Joey Spallina and even UVA freshman teammate McCabe Millon have overshadowed Shellenberger at times despite his historic numbers.

“You have a great quarterback here,” Cavs coach Lars Tiffany said. “He’s consistent, extremely talented, unselfish, drives the engine… He’s not throwing as many bombs.”

Shellenberger is poised to become UVA’s first four-time first-team All-American. Eleven games into this season he has 20 goals and 33 assists. He's approaching 300 career points after eclipsing Matt Moore’s record 277 earlier this season — doing so in four seasons in a post-COVID era in which plenty play more games.

“It’s been something I’ve always dreamed of doing,” Shellenberger said.

Shellenberger’s ideal finish to the season would be a national title and a Tewaaraton, but if he had to win only one of them, he doesn’t hesitate with which would make him happy. “The title.” He’s been focused on another crown since earning the nickname “Mr. May” as the 2021 NCAA championship MVP. In nine NCAA tournament games, Shellenberger has 54 points.

“If you don’t win the national championship at the end of the year, it’s a hard reality of the game,” Shellenberger said. “Everything feels like a waste to some standpoint and kind of a failure.”

The national-title-or-bust pursuit fits another of his traits. He is rarely satisfied with any performance. More than any other elite player Tiffany has coached, Shellenberger always asks how to improve — almost to the point of obsession.

“Maybe foundationally he’s not as cocksure as some,” Tiffany said. “The swagger doesn’t drip off him. He’s always challenging himself because there isn’t so much self-absorbed confidence. He always thinks he could have done better and could have done more.”

Shellenberger, though, seems to have done just about all that he could to develop his game. He grew up making the 20-minute drive to Klöckner Stadium. He idolized Steele Stanwick for the way he played, so similarly to his own game.

“It just seemed like he was making decisions that were best for the team,” Shellenberger said. “And if the moment called for it, he would take things into his own hands. I just loved how unselfish he was and team-oriented.”

Shellenberger was in grade school when a teacher got Stanwick to sign his spelling homework. Now Stanwick admires his protégé.

“I didn’t realize who I was signing it for at the time,” Stanwick said. “Some article came out six years later saying, here’s the No. 1 recruit in the country.”

He's not as cocksure as some. The swagger doesn't drip off him. He always thinks he could have done better.

Virginia coach Lars Tiffany

Virginia lacrosse player Connor Shellenberger in action earlier this season
Shellenberger is poised to become UVA's first-ever four-time All-American and eclipsed Matt Moore as the program's all-time leading scorer earlier this season.
Olivia McLucas/UVA Athletics

Shellenberger was in fifth grade when his parents began driving him two hours or more each way to Washington D.C. to attend Madlax’s bi-weekly club practices. They needed something more competitive than they could find near home.

“None of us wanted to do that. I would be white-knuckling up there because I’m not used to that kind of traffic,” said his mom, Stephanie. “We told him as long as he’s having fun and he enjoys it, we’d support that.”

Between late nights and lots of Chick-Fil-A meals, Shellenberger started setting goals. He wrote them on a whiteboard in their basement, and he started to keep notebooks of drills, diet and anything else that could help. His first year with Madlax, he wanted to score 100 points. He did. Shellenberger still keeps a journal chronicling his training and play and writes his goals on a single notebook sheet.

“He’s always felt like he’s accomplished some things, but he’s always felt like he could accomplish some more,” said Scott Shellenberger, Connor’s father.

Shellenberger attributes his work ethic and goal setting to his parents. His mother was always organized as a teacher who then went into real estate. His father is a mortgage professional whom he describes as process-driven and an avid golfer.

Shellenberger golfs now, as well. It’s his getaway from lacrosse. A diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, he gave up a promising football career as quarterback to pour his energy into lacrosse. Madlax president Cabell Maddux knew he had a star in the making, and others quickly followed Shellenberger to Madlax to play with him.

“He was an elite dodger and shooter,” said Maddux, his first coach there. “He was an average feeder and passer as a youth player but he just got better and better. He worked hard on that and now he’s the best feeder in college. His vision is unreal.”

Being IL’s top-ranked Class of 2019 player was a reward for shooting for hours with his dad and working on his game. He never shied from the expectations that came with it, though he wasn’t happy when Madlax first gave him jersey No. 1.

“I was losing my mind,” Shellenberger said. “I hated it because I thought only the cocky players wear that. I was super mad about it.”

Shellenberger committed to Johns Hopkins at the end of his eighth-grade year at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville. Half the basement is still painted blue. But Shellenberger watched the 2016 final four in awe of Tiffany’s up-tempo Brown offense, and two weeks after de-committing from Hopkins, he turned down Duke to stay home and give Tiffany and offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan their first top recruit at Virginia.

“At the end of the day it seemed too perfect not to go to UVA,” Shellenberger said.

Outsiders wondered about commitment issues when he left STAB after his sophomore year following the graduation of his closest friends Joe and Phil Robertson, won an Interstate Athletic Conference title at Bullis School (Md.) as a junior while playing with Madlax teammates and living with another friend, then returned to STAB for his senior year to be closer to home. His moves lit up message boards.

“I told him if you’re going to read them, use them as motivation,” Scott Shellenberger said. “They wouldn’t be talking about you if they didn’t think that you were something.”

STAB was thrilled to get him back. He scored 121 points for them as a sophomore, and he finished with 100 points in his senior season.

“He was always about the team and the team concepts and making our team better,” STAB coach Bo Perriello said. “It’s part of why he was able to so seamlessly transition to college. He’s always been a student of the game. It wasn’t just about how many goals he could score. It was about how to maximize offensive opportunities for your team, and to win.”

Virginia lacrosse player Connor Shellenberger pictured before the Cavaliers' game against Johns Hopkins
A two-time Tewaaaraton finalist, Shellennberger took less scholarship money so teammates could receive more.
Olivia McLucas/UVA Athletics

Shellenberger joined UVA after the Cavaliers won the 2019 national title but went through probably the toughest stretch of his career. He struggled with living up to his own lofty expectations and finding time with Virginia’s full house of attackmen. As frustrating as it was to sit out, he chose to redshirt before the start of the 2020 season that then was cut short by the pandemic.

“Looking back on it from a developmental standpoint, it was really beneficial,” Shellenberger said. “But it was tough in the moment, watching the games. That’s something I’d always dreamed of, being at Klöckner. It was a different role than I imagined with the iPad in my hand.”

Tiffany saw a much more relaxed Shellenberger in practice following his decision, and Shellenberger burst onto the scene with 79 points in his first college season. He did so while playing more than 60 percent of the time as a midfielder, which gave him lots of space to operate in and a new perspective to operate against defenses.

“I was still getting time down at attack even if I wasn’t necessarily starting down there,” said Shellenberger, crediting then-offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan for putting him in positions to succeed. “I figured if this is what’s best for the team, this is what’s going to help us win the championship and this is what Coach Kirwan thinks — that guy knows what he’s talking about, so I’ll just listen to him.”

Shellenberger was instrumental in Virginia’s run to the national championship. He returned to attack and has continued to post big numbers yearly with a career-best 54 assists last season despite missing the North Carolina game due to a hamstring injury he sustained before the opener. It was the lone game he missed.

“In all honesty, he just figures out a way to make plays regardless if he’s hampered a little bit with something,” Kastner said. “He just makes plays always. It’s so impressive.”

Shellenberger is as healthy as ever thanks to a renewed focus on his overall health managed by UVA trainer Rebecca Vozzo with input from strength and conditioning coach Steven Cuccia and dietician Courtney Kawamoto. Part of the new plan limits his extra shooting and practice, something that runs counter to his constant drive to be the best.

“It’s a little draining at times,” Shellenberger said. “Nothing ever feels good enough in that perfectionist mindset. But there’s always room to get better, whether you’re the No. 1 recruit or not. There are always people out there better than you.”

Twice now Shellenberger has left Washington D.C. disappointed when someone else won the Tewaaraton Award. He was one of the final cuts in December 2022 from the U.S. Men’s National Team that won the 2023 world championship last summer in San Diego.

“The individual disappointments — Team USA and not winning the Tewaaraton — those are definitely motivating for sure,” Shellenberger said. “But I don’t think I think about those the most.”

No, it’s the 2023 NCAA semifinal loss to Notre Dame that he’s replayed hundreds of times in his head. It followed a disappointing 2022 NCAA quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Maryland when Terps players chirped at Mr. May after he was held scoreless.

“You get that feeling of what it’s like to win, and then that feeling of what it’s like to lose is 100 times worse,” Shellenberger said. “That’s probably the most motivating thing.”

Another title has driven Connor Shellenberger like nothing else in his final year with the Hoos. The NCAA crown is the one thing he would love to deliver to his teammates once more before he explores a career in the PLL and a shot at the 2028 Olympics.

The pullovers bearing the UVA logo are nice.

A national title would be better.

“I’ve had some incredible players,” Tiffany said. “I’ve never had an elite player this unselfish. It’s amazing.

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