Just as the sun sets this Friday evening, No. 14 men’s lacrosse (2-1) will take on visiting No. 8 North Carolina at 1952 Stadium’s Sherrerd Field. Both sides are coming off home losses to top-ranked opponents, with the Tigers looking to bounce back from a 15-9 loss to Johns Hopkins and the Tar Heels (3-1) trying to rebuild momentum after falling to Notre Dame in a tight 11-10 contest. Friday’s test will be the last non-conference meeting before the Tigers primarily turn their attention toward Ivy League play.
The most recent meeting between these two teams resulted in one of last season’s thrillers, a 16-15 shootout home win for UNC. Tied with just three seconds remaining, midfielder Chad Tutton beat Princeton’s then-freshman goalkeeper Matt O’Connor, who had tallied a dozen saves on the day. In the overall series, the Tar Heels have an 8-7 edge.
Senior long stick midfielder Derick Raabe looks to his defensive unit’s ability to push back against a high-powered offense as vital to its game plan. Raabe features in the team’s defensive rotation and ranks second on the team in ground balls with 13 to junior faceoff man Justin Murphy’s 18.
When asked for keys to the contest, he replied, “I would say faceoffs and defensive stops. Our faceoff play has been pretty good thus far. And if we win that matchup on Friday, that will give us more possessions and more momentum and get the balls in the net. And I think on defense, we need to just generate stops and generate turnovers. Because they’re a team that constantly comes at you. You can’t just weather the storm. You also have to take it to them and attack and get the ball to our offense.”
As expected, senior midfielder Tom Schreiber and junior attackman Mike MacDonald have been focal points of Princeton’s offense this year. A year ago, the all-America duo combined for 13 points on the day against UNC keeper Kieran Burke. Burke will again start in the cage for the Tar Heels.
The Tigers do not want for offensive depth, however. Sophomore attackman Ryan Ambler has demonstrated poise and vision in his second year, tallying a team-best nine assists. Classmate and midfielder Jake Frocarro has notched three goals on the year.
According to Raabe, maintaining possession will be vital against a strong offensive side. At times, the pace of play got away from the Tigers against Johns Hopkins.
“Carolina’s very athletic, like Hopkins,” he began. “So we definitely needed to make some defensive adjustments regarding picks and covering their attackmen. But I think for the most part, we prepare the same and we scout every opponent well. The coaches do a great job with that. So we don’t really adjust our game plan too much for anyone. We just go in confident and play.”
A pair of junior attackmen lead the way for the Tar Heels offense. Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey are on the smaller side, but their athleticism and skill level make them some of the country’s most dangerous scoring threats. For their sophomore efforts, Sankey was named third-team All-America while Bitter was an honorable mention. Raabe noted how the Princeton defensive unit will look to make some adjustments based on last weekend’s game film.
“Both of those guys are great players” Raabe explained. “Very athletic. Very quick. We’re definitely going to be more prepared to slide from the crease when necessary with the goal of getting the ball out of their stick and up into their midfield where they’re not as big a threat to score.”
Princeton has options in goal with a trio of O’Connor, senior Brian Kavanagh and junior Eric Sanschagrin. Kavanagh and O’Connor have split time thus far. Johns Hopkins managed to overcome their early season form in last Saturday’s game. While the decision remains with head coach Bates and his staff, Raabe said that that the three have played at high levels in practice.
Confidence remains high among this talented group of players, which deservedly earned national attention earlier its year for their impressive roster.
“We wanted to win that game, and that didn’t happen. It’s still early,” Raabe said. “It’s a long season. So I think kids are definitely still confident in our abilities. We know that we have a long ways to go all across the board – offense and defense. But I think everyone’s really confident going into this game. We’ve had a really good week of practice. Their team is very similar to last year. So we kind of know what we’re up against.”