Another regular season of Princeton lacrosse is coming to an end this weekend. For the men, it’s likely the end of the line. For the women, a strong showing could at once solidify their position as one of the country’s top teams and propel them into the postseason.
Ivy League’s top rivalry renewed in Bethpage, N.Y.
The No. 20/19 men’s lacrosse team will close out its regular season this Saturday against No. 12/11 Cornell. Bethpage High School, located in the heart of Long Island, will host the so-called “Battle at Bethpage.” In a year that has seen lofty expectations go unfulfilled, a sort of redemption could come for the Tigers in the form of a win over the Big Red.
Rankings have been taken from Inside Lacrosse and US Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Coaches polls.
There’s something special about this particular series. Ivy League lacrosse knows these two teams as the conference’s traditional powerhouses. Combined, the two schools have 53 Ivy titles. Of late, it has been very difficult to separate their top-flight reputations. Cornell compiled nine consecutive regular season championships from 2003 to 2011. However, the Ithaca side shared a number of these season crowns with Princeton by virtue of drawn records.
First facing off against the Big Red in 1922, the Tigers lead the series 39-34-2. Matchups of late have seen the teams trading wins back and forth, with Princeton coming out on top in a 14-13 overtime playoff win in the 2013 Ivy League tournament semifinals just one week after a 17-11 thrashing at the hands of Cornell.
Senior long stick midfielder and co-captain Derick Raabe noted the extraordinary feeling of that victory over his program’s long-time rival.
It was a special memory, he explained, “Especially coming off the MetLife Stadium game, where they kind of embarrassed us. It wasn’t really that close. To go out and beat them that following week was some redemption for us, especially at Cornell under the lights,” he said.
In that win, now-junior midfielder Kip Orban had a game-clinching goal. His classmate and goalkeeper Eric Sanschagrin had a dozen impactful saves. Then-freshman defenseman Mark Strabo played strong defense against the generally unstoppable Rob Pannell. At least this level of performance will be required if the Tigers wish to repeat the excellent finish they managed against the Big Red.
For the first time since 2011, the Tigers will not be participating in the four-team Ivy League tournament. While Saturday’s Long Island showdown will not have an immediate impact on Princeton’s postseason chances, it could serve to determine whether Cornell or Harvard earns home-field advantage in the playoffs. Should the Big Red win and the Crimson lose, the conference’s final four would be in Ithaca for the second consecutive year.
The prospect of an NCAA at-large bid remains for head coach Chris Bates’ squad. College lacrosse, like any collegiate sport, has a complicated means of determining who sees the postseason field. By virtue of wins over Hofstra and Penn, two top-ten teams in terms of Rating Percentage Index, Princeton’s case could become quite strong with a win over Cornell, currently sixth in RPI. But mathematics as well as overall perception can change wildly in the course of a week.
“Beating Cornell would definitely put us in the mix,” Raabe explained. “I’m not that optimistic about it, but I’m definitely trying to have some hope.”
When Princeton’s senior midfielder and co-captain Tom Schreiber and Cornell’s middie Connor Buczek square off as their teams’ respective stars, it will be a battle between two of the top Ivy League players and two of the most dangerous threats in college lacrosse. Both were unanimous first-team all-leaguers last year.
“I think we’re evenly matched, pretty much across the board,” Raabe said. “We play each other at least once every year, so I don’t think we’re going to be surprised by them on Saturday. They’re physical and aggressive. But we know that. It’s a very even game on neutral turf. We’re just excited to play.”
On the whole, very little separates these two teams. Princeton is replete with athleticism and skill. Schreiber, Orban, senior Tucker Shanley and sophomore Jake Froccaro comprise the midfield core for Princeton. To a man, they are some of the nation’s best dodgers and scorers. The attack unit features the offensive prowess of junior Mike MacDonald and sophomore Ryan Ambler.
Cornell likewise boasts firepower throughout their offensive lineup. Buczek has rattled off 111 shots, 16 more than Schreiber, who is second on the Ivy League list. Just behind Schreiber’s league-leading 50, attackmen Matt Donovan and Dan Lintner have compiled 45 points each.
“They definitely have some dangerous guys on offense,” Raabe, the team’s defensive leader, noted. “I think we’re going to have to play very strong on-ball defense when those guys are dodging. Communication is going to be extra important, in terms of off-ball defense. They love to jam it inside to Lintner, and Donovan’s a great dodger. They have a lot of great players, so I think we just have to communicate well.”
Facing off, the importance of which should not be undervalued, the sides are about equal. Princeton’s in-conference FO winning percentage sits around 45, very close to Cornell’s 48 percent.
“We definitely have a strategy going in,” Raabe said. “It’s going to be a three-on-three battle between wings and the faceoff guys. But now that Justin Murphy’s healthy, I trust that he’s going to do a good job. But it’s going to be a battle, so we have to incorporate everyone.”
Also on the schedule for Saturday is a 5 p.m. matchup between the women’s lacrosse teams of Long Island University Post and St. Thomas Aquinas College. The Division II schools both hail from nearby areas of New York.
As a result of the already dense Long Island lacrosse fan base, the fairly local matchup of both contests, and the marquee nature of the men’s tilt, it is likely that the venue will be packed. Based on past years’ numbers, it’s likely that the attendance will be three or four times what both Princeton and Cornell face on a given game day.
“I’m excited about it,” Raabe said. “I’m not from Long Island, but a number of kids on our team are. So I think it’s very special for them. For someone like Schreiber, it very well could be his last game, so it’s pretty cool that he gets to play on Long Island. But I don’t think it’s going to be a distraction.”
In the spirit of service which has, perhaps more importantly than on-the-field performance, defined Princeton lacrosse of late, coaches and players will be holding a youth clinic on Friday at Bethpage High School.
A career finale holds a great deal of emotional weight across sports. Raabe, who has been a consummate leader in his final season, discussed the practice of withstanding the potentially distracting feelings.
“It’s pretty emotional, honestly,” Raabe admitted. “Being a captain, I try to put on a good face, because other players look to you for motivation and support. So you definitely don’t want to be selfish and be down-and-out about it. But I’m excited. I don’t like to dwell on the past much. So I’m looking forward to play this game Saturday. If this is our last game, it will definitely be sad once it’s over. But I don’t think it’s going to affect me or any other seniors in terms of being in the moment and in the game.”
Princeton women look to finish season in style
To quote Steve Carrell’s brilliant Michael Scott, “Well, well, well. How the turn tables.” The idea is that this contest between the No. 19 (in both Coaches and media polls) Princeton women and No. 8/12 Penn State is in some ways a reverse of last year’s fixture.
Last year, the Nittany Lions could have been considered prohibitive favorites over the Tigers. They had won four straight against solid competition and appeared to be a solid choice for national title contenders – they made it to the third round of the NCAA tournament. While the College Park side has put together a solid season, this will be Princeton’s game to lose, considering the momentum behind the Orange and Black and the way in which the Tigers routed this opponent in last year’s 14-9 win.
Head coach Chris Sailer’s unit has, of late, found a form which appears almost unbeatable. The Tigers conclusively outmatched perennial powerhouse Penn in a 9-5 top-of-the-table showdown. But perhaps their most noteworthy performance came in the form of an 8-7 loss to No. 2 Maryland which saw Princeton lead until the final minutes of the game.
The low ranking of Princeton is, without a doubt, an oversight on the part of voters. A look at the Rating Percentage Index suggests the Tigers are the best team in the country. Even this is likely an underestimate.
Make no mistake: Penn State will not be trivial opponent for Princeton. They clear the ball at a very high rate of 90.4 percent, while holding opponents to a 79 percent success rate. Additionally, the tally of 84 assists indicates an offense which works well off-ball. 42 of those chances come from the attack duo of Maggie McCormick and Mackenzie Cyr.
By a similar evaluation, Princeton displays offensive and defensive efficiency. The large assist disparity of 73-34 suggests that their attacking players tend to find open teammates while Tiger defenders are not easily exploited by opposing offenses. The eye test supports this, as 1952 Stadium has seen some incisive passing and tight defense from the home side in recent games.
The Ivy League’s reigning Attacker of the Year Erin McMunn, now in her third year at Princeton, has continued to be the focal point of Sailer’s offense. Her 40 points on 29 goals and 11 assists lead the team.
But offensive talent surrounds her at attack, including sophomore Alexandra Bruno and senior Mary-Kate Sivilli.
Junior goalkeeper Annie Whoeling, after coming off the bench early in the season, has discovered a knack for winning. Her record of 9-1 is persuasive, but her tally of 18 ground balls is one of the highest on the team, demonstrating her tenaciousness.
Senior Colleen Smith took home this past week’s Ivy Defensive Player of the Week honors. She holds the backline alongside sophomore Liz Bannantine and freshman Madeline Rodriguez.
After this regular season finale, Princeton will look toward the Ivy League Tournament, which will be held at 1952 Stadium’s Sherrerd Field. They will enter the conference postseason as favorites.