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Tom Schreiber: a profile in athletic excellence

“It’s just been my path to play lacrosse.”

On Friday, Jan. 10, of this year, the Ohio Machine selected Princeton senior midfielder Tom Schreiber with the first overall pick in the Major League Lacrosse Collegiate Draft.

In a University news release, legendary Princeton attackman Ryan Boyle said of the midfielder, “He can dodge, shoot on the run, feed, has great vision.” Boyle, an ESPN analyst and current member of the Boston Cannons, was the second pick in the 2004 MLL draft and is the all-time point leader for the league.

Only eight teams play in the league. Founded in 1999, it is the lone professional organization for the field sport known as “the fastest on two feet.” The number of clubs is down from 10 in 2008 but up from six in 2011. Average attendance during the 2013 season was 6,356, a count one order of magnitude less than the NFL’s and just a fraction of other, older associations.

The Machine has finished in last place the past two years, putting together consecutive 2-12 seasons. A number of young stars feature on the Columbus side, however: Marcus Holman of UNC, Steele Stanwick of Virginia and Chad Weidmaier of Princeton, among others. When he takes to the field this summer, Schreiber will likely be the brightest. It is no stretch to say that he will make an immediate positive impact in terms of quality and image for both his team and the MLL as a whole.

Flashback four months before the draft to Sept. 3, 2013. Three days of tryouts yielded 44 cuts from the U.S. lacrosse men’s national team, as head coach Richie Meade and his staff culled an initial field of 96 to 52. A thin margin separated even the most accomplished veterans from the younger aspirants. Schreiber was one of those who aimed to be on the field come the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships, which will take place July 10-19 in Denver. On that Tuesday in September, the Tigers’ co-captain was eliminated from contention.

“Like many Princeton students and student-athletes, we’ve had a lot of success in our lives,” he said of being left off the roster. “I’d never been cut from anything before.”

In self-evaluation, Schreiber is humble to a fault. While this failure to make the country’s top team did mark a rare shortcoming for the senior, it is not true that “Many Princeton students and student-athletes” have experienced as much success with such consistency as he has.

Hailing from East Meadow, N.Y., he attended St. Anthony’s High School and made a name for himself that resounds across Long Island. The Friars play in the Nassau Suffolk Catholic High School Athletic Association, which features some of the country’s finest lacrosse. In Schreiber’s senior season, the football and lacrosse teams he captained won their respective conference championships. Both team MVP honors went to Schreiber. He had become the pride of his hometown and the most sought-after recruit in the nation.

Baltimore Sun sports reporter Edward Lee gave some insight into the recruiting process which brought the superb midfielder to New Jersey. A February 2013 article noted that it was not current Princeton head coach Chris Bates who initially looked to make Schreiber a Tiger. Rather, it was his predecessor Bill Tierney. Skipper of the Princeton men’s program from 1988 until 2009, the Hall of Famer won six national championships over a nine year period. When Tierney left for the University of Denver following the 2009 campaign, rising-senior Schreiber was left, in the words of Lee, “in a bit of a limbo.”

Bates, fresh off his 10 year stint developing the Drexel men’s program, made sure to solidify a relationship with the young man who could, if the fates aligned, bring Princeton the success it saw under Tierney.

In four years at Princeton, Schreiber has scored 200 points, good for fifth all-time on the program’s career points list. Kevin Lowe, Ryan Boyle, Jonathan Hess and Jesse Hubbard sit above in the tally. All four of those star players were attackmen, a position that tends to equate with higher totals.

What has been particularly worthy of note throughout his career is his balanced offensive approach, reflected by the elite company he shares with four other Ivy Leaguers as one of five players in the conference’s history to record 100 goals and 90 assists in his career. As above, Schreiber is the lone midfielder in the stereotypically attackman’s club.

Accolades came early and often. He became the first Princeton freshman to lead his side in goals and assists with 16 and 13. A first-team All-Ivy selection and Ivy League Rookie of the Year, he started in every contest save one against Penn, which he missed due to broken ribs.

The first of his 106 collegiate goals, though technically at an away site, came on somewhat home turf.

Feb. 26, 2011, was the date of Princeton’s season opener, an away matchup against Hofstra. Schreiber had often seen the Pride in action growing up, and the Long Island side became his opening day opponent all four of his college years. Hempstead’s James M. Shuart Stadium provides one of the finest venues for the sport and is located about 20 minutes from St. Anthony’s High School. A solid crowd of 2,180 was eager to watch the local wunderkind take his play, which had captivated local fans, to the next level.

Schreiber did not disappoint. In fact, with his very first touch of the ball, he insisted that the college lacrosse world respect his game. A pass came to him about five yards outside the top of the box, and the rookie midfielder backed up a few more yards. About halfway between the two sidelines, he faced his short stick defender, split-dodged from right to left and sprinted a solid 20 yards before firing a signature left-handed shot on the run. His attempt came about 10 yards out vertically from the goal and nine yards out horizontally, a look slightly longer than the ideal. But with requisite pace and perfect placement — the ball found the far bottom corner — it became clear that this young gun could get past opposing keepers from distance.

The crowd roared as No. 22 continued bounding to the far corner of the field in celebration. His combination of speed and power was something out of this world.

His sophomore campaign saw him tally 60 points on 32 goals and 28 assists, an effort that ranked among the top 10 all-time best Princeton seasons. He earned unanimous first-team All-Ivy League recognition and first team All-America honors. What’s more, he was named among a list of 25 nominees for the Tewaaraton Trophy, college lacrosse’s most prestigious award. The final game of Princeton’s season was at No. 8 Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Schreiber notched four points off two goals and two assists in a 6-5 loss. This team-leading performance began a streak of 26 straight games in which the midfielder would tally at least three points. No Division I player would match this sustained level of production, and opposing coaches began to concede that the Princeton star would best their defense at least a few times per contest.

Junior year would be the most productive for No. 22: 60 more points off 28 goals and 32 assists. At the beginning of the season, he was named a captain alongside senior defensive midfielder Chris White. A regular season conference title came for the Tigers, but nemesis Yale managed to frustrate Schreiber and company in the Ivy League Tournament final by a score of 12-8.

While postseason success continued to elude the orange and black, their star man maintained his elite status. First-team All-America and All-Ivy honors came for a second consecutive year. The Tewaaraton Trophy went to Cornell’s unstoppable attackman Rob Pannell, but Schreiber was the presumptive runner-up. Instead, the Princeton co-captain won the Lt. Donald C. McLaughlin Award, which honors the top midfielder in Division I.

It’s a tall order to expect a repeat of such success. Indeed, Schreiber’s senior season has represented somewhat of a regression. Preseason speculation assumed that the Princeton midfielder and his midfield unit would be the nation’s best. 2014 had potential to be the year of the Tiger. Once again a co-captain, Schreiber paced his team in points with 51. All-Ivy and All-America honors will come in due time. Still, a certain emptiness characterized this final season. Not only did the Tigers not earn an NCAA Tournament bid, but they did not even feature in the Ivy League postseason.

Postseason disappointments have marred even the greatest legacies. Yet, there’s more to an athlete than wins and losses.

One off-beat question, borrowed from my classmate and fellow sports writer John Bogle, is “Would you be salt, pepper or oregano? And why?” It’s a casual but funny way of tapping into how an individual perceives him or herself.

Schreiber, taken aback, hesitated then gave his response: “Probably salt, just because it’s the most common, I guess.”

“You’re hardly the most common, Tom,” I replied.

“Well,” he rejoined with a light sarcasm, “I try to mix in with the crowd, I guess.”

Schreiber’s character is of the highest order. The NCAA’s Senior CLASS Award is billed as “The Nation’s Premier Award for NCAA Senior Student-Athletes.” Princeton’s brilliant midfielder is a finalist for the 2014 honor. Broken down into the four alliterative sub-headings of Classroom, Character, Community and Competition, the depiction of Schreiber as a candidate is deeply moving.

To quote, “He is universally respected for his sportsmanship and maximum effort.”

Among numerous charitable engagements, the CLASS Player Card recognizes his work in Uganda with Fields of Growth in “helping use lacrosse to promote education and economic independence and development.”

His friends praise his humility, which goes so far even as to quiet talk of his accomplishments.

His teammates acclaim his leadership while doing their utmost to adhere to the standards he sets. “He’s got the full command of his team and their respect,” Coach Bates said. “His voice goes a long way.” Freshman attackman Bear Altemus, who would occasionally find himself stunned by passes Schreiber fired his way in practice, noted that he felt inspired to “get on his level.”

Senior co-captain and long stick midfielder Derick Raabe, like a number of his fellow Tigers, carries himself with an air of professionalism not necessarily expected from a student-athlete. The defensive leader said of playing four years alongside Schreiber, “It’s been a privilege.”

“Having to defend him in practice every day is such a challenge, but it’s made me better,” Raabe explained. “You really just come to appreciate how high he sets the bar every day and his work ethic on and off the field. It’s an all-the-time thing with Tom. It’s not just when he steps on the field. It’s an all-the-time mentality.”

One more refrain often sung of Schreiber centers on his quiet yet abundant sense of humor.

“In high school, some people called him the Trampoline Wizard,” Raabe said, searching for humorous anecdotes. “I guess there are some funny videos of that. Some people call him Tim Schneider, because somebody messed his name up at one point. Tom definitely has a lighter side to him despite his tenacious attitude when it comes to lacrosse.”

As part of that exemplary character which earned him a CLASS Award nomination, Schreiber keeps his mind in the proverbially right place. Writing a thesis tends to throw every Princeton senior off-balance for a dark period of months.

“I never really struggled throughout the process,” the midfielder said of his final independent work, which discussed U.S. counter-terrorism policy from Nixon to the present. “But everyone who’s been through it knows that it’s just kind of hanging over your head. It’s good to be done.”

There does not seem to be a depth to this Tiger’s level of motivation. When asked to point to a player who has most inspired him as an athlete, Schreiber neither hesitated nor pointed to a contemporary standout.

“That’s 100 percent from my dad,” he said. “He played in the ’70s. He was Player of the Year. He won a national championship. It’s kind of been me and him my entire life. I mean, I had a stick when I was born. He was my coach in everything, and he’s been my inspiration and my biggest motivator. I couldn’t ask for more out of a father.”

Doug Schreiber is a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Honored by U.S. Lacrosse as “a truly great player,” the elder midfielder won the very same McLaughlin Award that his son now holds. His 1973 senior season as the captain of Maryland’s Terrapins saw him take home the ACC Most Valuable Player award en route to a national title.

I asked the younger Schreiber to discuss his preparations for a game. First, he referenced his coaches’ scouting reports and game plans. But most crucial was his elaboration of something quite familiar to a successful athlete.

“Going back to my dad, he’s always told me to get ‘an edge.’ That’s what he calls it. What are you going to do to separate yourself from everyone else? For me, that’s always been extra work. Whether that’s shooting or lifting or a little running. Whatever it is, it’s just kind of that edge that’s going to separate you.”

While this sort of mindset is necessary for any serious competitor, not everyone manifests their winning drive with the same quality as does Schreiber. There’s something remarkably pure about his process of finding a competitive edge. There’s nothing unrelated to the game about to be played. When asked if he does anything particular to get in a zone before a contest, he professed an avoidance of superstitions, which is in fact somewhat bizarre among top-tier athletes.

“I’m a little weird about that,” he said. “Because I’m never the same. Sometimes I like to be calm. Sometimes I like to be a little more pumped up. But I don’t really have a set emotion going into a game. I kind of let it dictate itself.”

The Dodge:

The completeness of his game is a reflection of this competitive drive. Step one in any successful offensive attempt is the dodge. In general terms, this act consists of trying to out-position your defender in order to create a scoring opportunity.

Schreiber’s speed makes this facet of the game almost too easy. What’s more, he can attack a defense equally with either hand. Preferring to dodge from the wings, the top corners of the offensive zone, Schreiber described his favored means of attack: “You have a lot of vision to feed while being able to shoot at the same time. I think it’s a hard place to slide to from the defense’s perspective.”

When discussing his performance at the U.S. National Team tryouts, he said, “I didn’t really have any problem beating anyone.”

Even against the country’s top talent, Schreiber’s explosive speed and sharp understanding allows him to dodge to just that right spot. His teammates say that his 40-yard dash time drops by tenths of a second whenever he gets angry. He might say “determined.”

Perhaps the most impressive win of the 2014 season came for Princeton over No. 20 Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks brought their three-game winning streak to Sherrerd Field. What they left with was a double-overtime, 10-9 loss.

Lehigh, leading 9-8, held possession out of a Princeton timeout with 1:10 left in the final quarter.

Hope was fading for the desperate Princeton side. In response, sophomore Matt O’Connor — he replaced junior starter Eric Sanschagrin for this particular play — left the crease to join coverage. This allowed for a Princeton double on Lehigh’s Kurtis Kaunas, who had scored the lead-yielding goal just seconds prior. With aggressive play, freshman defenseman Will Reynolds caused a turnover and picked up the ground ball.

After a clear, Schreiber had what appeared to be a high-quality look at goal, but, as it had gone all day, Lehigh keeper Matt Poillon rejected the attempt.

Schreiber chased down the clearing Jimmy Cahill of Lehigh whom Poillon had hit with the outlet pass. At that moment, those watching came to understand that No. 22 would simply will his way to victory, if all else failed. His pace, unmatched on the field that day, allowed him to make up Cahill’s 20-or-so yard head start.

“It was at the end of regulation, and I saw the kid who was covering me was the guy who they outleted it to,” he explained. “I saw the pass was a little short. It one-hopped to him. So I figured I could catch up to him. With the sense of urgency by that time at the end of the game, I didn’t really care if I was tired or if I was going to pass out or anything.”

The eventual overtime win over Lehigh — Schreiber had the sudden-victory score — came against head coach Kevin Cassese, an assistant coach for Team USA.

“I know we played a couple of the teams that had coaches as evaluators,” Schreiber said. “I didn’t forget that. I don’t have any personal vendettas against them or anything. It’s just something that naturally becomes a motivator. It’s been in the back of my mind this year.”

When asked postgame to describe the hustle play by his co-captain, Bates was quite literally speechless, which is a rare phenomenon for a man as seasoned as the Princeton skipper. “He’s such a competitor,” he explained. “And I think that’s starting to rub off on us. I think our team is starting to witness his effort. He’s a special kid and a special player. A team owes it to a kid like that to, as best you can, mirror that effort.”

The Assist:

His senior season, like his career, has sparkled with displays of brilliance. There’s a narrative trope in epic known as an aristeia, etymologized to the word arête meaning excellence. The term describes the moment when a warrior becomes more or less unstoppable in battle. While the attribution may be hyperbolic in a sense, those watching his side’s showdown with the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers witnessed an athlete’s moment of excellence.

The second quarter was coming to a close. The score was Princeton 7, Rutgers 6. After a relatively slow start, the Tigers were looking to establish dominance over their Piscataway rivals. Consecutive shots from midfielders went wide: first sophomore Jake Froccaro’s, then junior Kip Orban’s. Just 13.6 seconds remained in the half. Coach Bates called for a timeout to decide the best means of attack.

Schreiber walked to the endline and took the ball in his stick behind the cage, drawing the on-ball attention of Rutgers captain Nick Contino. Out of a wide receiver’s starting stance, he dodged once hard to the goal line, then cut on a dime back to the “X” after receiving a check. Almost casually, he passed over the cross-bar of the goal into the stick of MacDonald, his long-time partner-in-crime. The Canadian standout had just made his move to get free, and Schreiber saw him coming off a Froccaro pick. This assist landed perfectly in the pocket of the attackman, leaving him only to pull back and hit his mark against the helpless Rutgers keeper.

Although not often a behind-the-crease player, Schreiber doesn’t feel discomfort anywhere on Sherrerd Field. With the 8-6 lead going into the locker room and all the energy in the world, the Tigers had acquired enough confidence to power past this opponent.

Among midfielders, he tops his program’s assist tally. Often when orchestrating an attack, Schreiber appears a number of steps ahead of the opposing defense and, occasionally, his teammates.

The Goal:

On a particularly fair-weathered April Sunday, I found myself wandering into the Princeton Lacrosse Unlimited store. Not as an endorsement, it would be fair to say that the Hulfish St. branch is the go-to gear location for local players from the youth to collegiate levels. Tom’s sister and Rutgers midfielder Chrissy works there, as I was told by the guys on duty.

A freshman-in-high-school-looking kid was sitting behind the counter with a few coworkers. As he was toying with mesh and casually measuring out some neon-green sidewall string, I asked about his relationship with the University’s team. After learning that he would attend games with some frequency, I asked who his favorite player was.

“Tom Schreiber. He’s a very good lacrosse player,” he replied. And with a sort of overplayed sarcasm which masked an underlying sincerity, he added, “I guess you could say I kind of idolize him.”

According to the consensus of the four young men – all of them had a solid understanding of college lacrosse – the local support for the team is not particularly widespread. There’s the die-hard cohort of younger kids, and the stands usually see a local school or club team. But this isn’t Odessa, Texas.

Still, of those who follow the Tigers, each fan knows No. 22.

As a result, there’s a certain incumbency on the midfielder to not only play at a high level, but also to conduct himself in the right way.

After every home game at the Class of 1952 Stadium, a crowd of ambitious young laxers hang around the Princeton team room, looking to get different pieces of equipment signed or to pick up words of encouragement from their varsity idols.

I asked Schreiber what sort of advice he offers to those young fans after the game.

“They do ask,” he acknowledged. “Those kids are awesome. They’re always just as excited when we win or lose. But my biggest advice is to always be hungry; always be hungry to get better. A lot of these little guys think it’s about what stick you’re using. That’s kind of my main message: to keep working and never be satisfied with where you’re at, whether you’re having five goals a game or not scoring. Again, that goes back to my dad and what he’s instilled in me throughout my life.”

If there’s one particular scoring play which might end up being iconic of Schreiber’s college career, it’s his net-breaking marker against Yale in the 2013 Ivy League Championship, held at Cornell’s Schoellkopf Field.

Princeton had a 1-0 lead in the first period. With around 9:25 on the clock, Schreiber started his dodge from the top right (from his perspective) corner of the box. He exploded off the wing and left his long stick defender to throw a series of helpless trail checks.

From about the same location as where he scored his first career goal against Hofstra University, and in approximately the same manner, Schreiber let fly his lefty shot while on the run. The high-to-high rocket hit the very top right corner (again from his perspective) of the Yale goal. Eric Natale, the Yale keeper, hardly had time to move his stick.

The netting was not able to withstand the sheer energy on the rubber sphere. Natale looked for a ball that had already gone through his cage out the back of the endline.

This score represented what Schreiber calls his ideal shot attempt: “Coming over the top, trying to drag the goalie off the pipe then playing a little mind game of where I’m going to put it. Am I going to put it back where he came off the pipe or am I going to go far-pipe?”

With the pace capable of breaking a net, it appears the Princeton midfielder needn’t even play mind games. He can simply outmatch opposing defenders and keepers with his physical gifts.

In a Newsday article discussing his 2014 ambitions, Schreiber, always humble, talked about that particular goal. “It was exciting, and it was pretty funny, but I’m going to chalk that one up to the net having a little hole in it.”

There’s something unique about his shooting mechanics. A shot as coached requires a drawing back of the stick followed by a purposeful follow through. Schreiber compresses the motion into a terse rotation which reduces the time he spends setting up his shot to almost nothing, thanks to the massive torque he can generate in a short span.

Yet, having scored one of 17 attempts in the Team USA tryouts, Tom identifies his shooting as the part of the game that most needs improvement as he transitions to the professional level.

“Because the league is so small,” he explained, “it’s saturated with great goalies. I saw it at the USA tryouts earlier this year. It’s not as easy to get one by those guys. You really have to get a quality shot and hide your hands to bring the heat.”

You can hear the refrain: “Always be hungry to get better.”

His final score, goal No. 106 — this was also his 200th career point — came, like his first tally, on native soil. Bethpage High School is only a 15-minute drive from Schreiber’s alma mater. It served as the site of 2014 Ivy League marquee matchup and both teams’ regular season finale. With Princeton trailing Cornell by a score of 11-9 with short time remaining in the third period, a shot by sophomore attackman Ryan Ambler deflected off the goalpost and bounced out into the stick of Schreiber. With precision, he stepped down and fired from a dozen yards out past the helpless Cornell keeper.

The Big Red’s Christian Knight caught fire late and denied the Tiger offense the rest of the way. Schreiber’s last career marker would be the final Princeton goal of the game and the season.

He had come full circle, but his ultimate aspiration of a national title would elude him once again.

The title of the above Newsday 2014 season preview is “St. Anthony’s product Tom Schreiber feels only one void: NCAA title.”

A September 2013 Lacrosse Magazine interview tapped into the aspirations of the Princeton senior. In response to the question “What’s one thing you can’t live without?” Schreiber offered, “Lacrosse.” When asked what was on his “lacrosse bucket list” he said, “a national championship for the Princeton Tigers.”

With the 12-10 season finale loss to Cornell, Princeton was finally eliminated from postseason contention. There is a crushing pain in not living up to expectations, a pain made sharper by such slim margins of defeat. The Tigers were hailed as one of the country’s top contenders. Offensive firepower was the storyline. Folded into that narrative was the presumed monarchy of their senior midfielder and co-captain. But these notions were nothing beyond a series of educated guesses. Effectively, all of them missed the mark.

As is true of any team’s season, a confluence of factors tugged the Tigers’ fortunes in various directions. But it would be just as fair an evaluation of the 7-6 record to delineate every coaching error or failed execution as it would be to say that 2014 just wasn’t Princeton’s year.

But while the Tigers would not win that sought-after title, and Schreiber will be remembered as the greatest-ever to never see a successful postseason, his mark on his program and the game ought not to be tarnished.

The 2014 FIL Lacrosse World Championships will, unsurprisingly for the first time, feature the Ugandan National Team. Schreiber will be a part of the coaching staff.

When asked what his work with Field of Dreams has meant, he replied, without exaggeration, “Everything, really.”

On his team’s prospects for the July tournament: “I think they’ll surprise some people, for sure. They’ve been playing together three or four times a week for the last two or three years. So they’ve definitely built some team chemistry. We open up with Ireland, who have been around forever. So we’ll see how that one goes. But against other teams who are playing for the first time in the tournament, I think it’ll be really competitive. If we lose every game, it’ll still be a win for us.”

The cliché goes that winning is everything. Schreiber, as relentlessly competitive as he is, acknowledges the bigger picture, which for him can only be described as making a positive impact in everything he does.

There is an individual athlete’s play. Then there’s that athlete’s character. The relationship between the two can never be precisely pinned down. Does the style on the field inform their personality, or does their play reflect some off-the-field nature?

The confusion arises from evaluators trying to distinguish two indistinguishable things. The athlete is both what he does and who he is. Championships may have eluded the Princeton men during Schreiber’s time. But this midfielder will leave behind an enduring paradigm of leadership: an outstanding example and a selfless character.

Lacrosse is Tom Schreiber’s game and path. And his path follows that pursuit of excellence which ought to characterize Princeton.

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