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Coming off consecutive home losses, men's lacrosse hosts Penn in opening of Ivy League play

In the second part of a men’s and women’s doubleheader at 1952 Stadium, No. 16 men’s lacrosse (2-2) will take on No. 12 University of Pennsylvania (3-1). Rankings are taken from the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Coaches’ Poll. This marks the first in-league contest for both sides. From here on out, Princeton will play six of nine remaining regular-season games against Ivy League opponents.

Head coach Chris Bates explained how his side will look to differentiate itself in the imminent slate of conference play.

“As we grow up and develop here, I think we can be as good as anybody,” he said. “There are no easy games, and everybody’s competing at their highest level. It’s a process. We’ve got some guys with experience and high aspirations. I think it’s a matter of continuing to minimize our errors.”

Four of the seven Ivy League teams are ranked among the country’s top 20, with Brown and Harvard just outside. While not quite on the same level of dominance as the ACC — the conference features six of the top 10 sides — the Ancient Eight, minus non-varsity Columbia, boasts some of the nation’s best lacrosse.

“It’s exciting,” Bates said of the level of competition. “It makes the league competitive week in and week out. The natural rivalries are clear. And there’s that much more on the line when you’re playing folks who have earned top 20 rankings.”

While the weather of late has featured bizarre swings in temperature, last year’s showdown with Penn featured a full range of the elements, including heavy snow and lightning. Princeton was on the losing end of an 11-10 back and forth contest, after a late rally failed to bring them level. Then-sophomore attackman Mike MacDonald registered a game-high six points (4g, 2a). Now a junior, MacDonald ranks second for the Tigers in points with seven goals and eight assists.

The Tigers are coming off a pair of two consecutive home losses to now No. 2 Johns Hopkins and No. 4 North Carolina. In spite of a losing streak, there can be no shame in competing with and falling to top five teams.

As was expected, the two Tigers on the Tewaaraton Trophy watch list — the award presented yearly to the country’s top player — have led the way on offense. MacDonald and senior midfielder Tom Schreiber have 15 and 19 points, respectively. Next on the scoring list is sophomore attackman Ryan Ambler. Skilled at finding open teammates, the lefty has tallied a team’s best 10 assists in his quarterback role.

The end of the UNC contest saw sophomore starting midfielder Jake Froccaro perform spot work at attack in an effort to add another dodging and scoring threat. Froccaro came into the program at attack, but his coach believes he’s found his calling as a middie.

“We prefer Jake at the midfield,” Bates explained. “But Jake’s got enough talent and he’s earned enough respect that teams will potentially bump a long pole up from attack.”

A young defensive core for Princeton has found success against down opposing attack units with its technique and sheer athleticism. Sophomore Mark Strabo is the most senior close defender of the three, lining up alongside freshmen Will Reynolds and Bear Goldstein. Senior long stick midfielder Derick Raabe has been outstanding on faceoff support and on the defensive side. He has a team-high seven created turnovers and ranks second to faceoff specialist junior midfielder Justin Murphy in ground balls with 19.

Although the defense has been impressive beyond its level of experience, the talented Blue Jays and Tar Heels had the better of Princeton’s guard in the last two matchups. Bates pointed to a need to shore up team defense moving forward.

“A young defense tends to be concerned about their job individually,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of sliding and supporting matchups that can potentially end in a goal. Hopefully, we learned that lesson a little bit last week.”

Bates added that the Princeton personnel arrangement is not yet set in stone. “We’re going to mix and match our lineup a little bit,” he explained, “based on what Penn does and how our guys are playing on the day.”

At this point in the season, sophomore goalkeeper Matt O’Connor appears the putative starter. However, his position in the crease is not entirely secure, with varied success through four contests and two fellow goalies — senior Brian Kavanagh and junior Eric Sanschagrin have seen time in goal — competing for the position. O’Connor, for the first time this season, was given an opportunity to play out a full 60 minutes last Friday night against UNC.

On whether or not the sophomore has earned a starting spot, Bates offered, “It’s tough to say. Matt hopefully grew up here a little bit. He had a pretty solid game, and we’re happy for him. He’s got to remain consistent. Matt knows that he’s got to play well to earn a second half and earn another game. It’s a tough position. You’ve got to have a short memory. If you let one in, you’ve got to save the next one. There were some really good signs, I thought, last week, and we’re hoping that continues.”

The Quakers are coming off a pair of remarkable wins. A much-hyped No. 6 Denver team visited Penn’s Franklin Field two weekends ago. With a three-goal run in the middle of the final period, Penn held on to edge out the Pioneers by a score of 12-10. An unanswered five goals to close out the game gave Penn a 12-11 edge over local rivals Villanova last Saturday.

A pair of senior leaders for the Quakers has returned from first team all-Ivy seasons: goalkeeper Brian Feeney and midfielder Zack Losco. The two, along with classmate and defenseman Maxx Meyer, were tagged by Inside Lacrosse as preseason honorable mention All-Americas.

Feeney and Losco have certainly lived up to the hype. The former ranks just outside the top 20 nationally in saves per game and save percentage, while the latter ties for the team lead with nine points and adds the team’s second-most ground balls with 10.

“Penn manufactures goals, in a way, with no superstar there,” Bates said of the Quakers’ offense. “There’s no three-time All-America. But if you look at their scoring, it’s distributed pretty evenly over six or seven guys. I think they take pride in that.”

Brian Feeney’s twin brother, Danny, handles the faceoff action for his side. However, Princeton’s Murphy appears to have the edge in this matchup. This season, Murphy has won 42 of 75 battles while Feeney has won 32 of, coincidentally, 75. In last year’s matchup in Philly, the Princeton FOGO went 15-22 against Feeney’s 5-14. Faceoff wins equal possession, and if Murphy and company can get the ball to the offense at a higher rate than their current 50 percent, Princeton will be able to dictate the game’s pace.

Speaking of brothers, Princeton’s junior Will Rotatori, who has started at attack of late, is the younger brother of Penn’s midfielder Brian Rotatori. The elder Rotatori has seen very little action, while the younger has contributed four goals for the Tigers with sneaky play around the crease.

The winner of the Ivy League regular-season battle most importantly earns home-field advantage for the Ivy League tournament. While the 2012 campaign saw the Tigers take the regular-season crown, the last Ivy tournament championship came in 2010, Bates’ first year at the helm. No current Princeton players were on the roster at the time.

Asked whether or not his team faces a greater sense of urgency moving into conference play, Bates replied affirmatively, noting that league games in such a competitive season are doubly important. However, he stressed that the postseason is still a ways away.

“To some degree, there is [a greater sense of urgency],” he began. “But the flip side is, where the college lacrosse game is from a selection standpoint, you really need to peak in your Ivy League tournament. Everybody’s got talent and can win on a weekly basis. The nice part about the strength of schedule is that, if you beat Penn, it’s a top 20 win in addition to an Ivy win. I think they work in conjunction. At the end of the year, we want to be in a position to win the Ivy League tournament, and if we happen not to win that, we want to have a record with strength of schedule that can get us in as an at-large.”

While the season has not quite lived up to the expectations for this talented roster, Bates believes that improvement will come with time.

“We’ve got to defend home field, for sure,” Bates explained. “We’re not happy that we’re 0-2 in our last two. We’ve got a big matchup, and I think we respect Penn, as we should. I think this team understands it hasn’t played its best lacrosse, so there’s certainly a confidence there.”

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