By David Marcus ’92
Chris Bates was clear in early February about the challenges facing the Princeton men’s lacrosse team. The offense, which was very good last year, would have to be even better, the head coach said, because the squad had to replace a starting defensive unit that allowed a paltry 7.25 goals a game; there was bound to be a drop-off. There has been. Excluding a 15-2 win over Manhattan College on March 12, the Tigers have given up an average of 10 goals a game, putting them in the middle of the Division-I pack. But they’ve scored an average of 12.5 goals a game, up from 11.2 last year and tied for ninth in the country. Thanks in large part to that performance, Princeton enters Saturday’s game against Syracuse with a 6-2 record and a solid chance to defend its Ivy League title and return to the NCAA Tournament.
Princeton and Syracuse have played some of the sport’s most memorable games since they met at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field in the 1992 national championship, a game that the Tigers won 10-9 in double overtime. Ten of their contests have come in the NCAA playoffs, and this year’s regular-season game could have similar importance when the tournament selection committee meets the first weekend in May, since both teams have solid but not overwhelming résumés. Syracuse, also 6-2, has beaten Johns Hopkins and Virginia but lost to Albany and Villanova. Princeton has lost by a goal to North Carolina and Penn and defeated Johns Hopkins, Hofstra, and Yale.
“The Syracuse game offers a great opportunity to get a good win against a traditional rival,” said Bates, who added that the game’s playoff implications “puts pressure on both teams given where we were. It’ll have an air of a big-time game.” The teams are evenly matched, though Syracuse has more depth than Princeton, which in turn has done much better at facing off. The Orangemen have won only 42 percent of their faceoffs this year, while Princeton’s Justin Murphy ’16 is winning 57 percent of his draws, which means more possessions for a potent Tiger offense.
For two years, Tom Schreiber ’14 has been Princeton’s best player on that side of the ball, and he is again in 2013. A first-team All-American midfielder last year, he has 17 goals and 16 assists despite being the focus of every opposing team’s game plan. Schreiber leads the offense, but he hasn’t carried it. Jeff Froccaro ’13 has 20 goals, including four each in a 15-8 win over Brown on March 30 and a 16-15 loss at North Carolina on March 9. His brother, midfielder Jake Froccaro ’16, runs on the first midfield with Schreiber and Kip Orban ’15 and has acquitted himself well with 11 goals. Jake is part of a strong freshman class that includes four starters, among them attackman Ryan Ambler ’16, who is second on the team in assists with 12.
The breakout player on offense has been Mike MacDonald ’15, who leads the team in goals with 21, including the game-winner in a 10-9 win over Yale on March 22, a goal that showed his growth as a player. MacDonald grew up playing both box and field lacrosse in Ontario, and he has the excellent finishing skills typical of those who excel at the indoor version of the sport. But against the Elis, MacDonald beat his man and scored on a 10-yard shot, a move he probably wouldn’t have pulled off last year.
“We knew he had this skill set coming in,” Bates said of MacDonald. “As a freshman, he relied on staying inside, and we didn’t push him as much as we could have. We’ve also know he could dodge and get to the cage and distribute the ball very well. He’s a developing playmaker for us.”
Princeton’s one weakness on offense is a lack of depth; players outside the starting attack and midfield have scored only seven of the team’s 100 goals. Senior midfielders Tucker Shanley and Forest Sonnenfeldt scored 37 of Princeton’s 179 goals last year — 21 percent — but both suffered season-ending injuries. Both men have withdrawn from school and plan to play next spring.
Bates has improved a strong offense, but he and assistant coach Greg Raymond have had to rebuild their defense. Tyler Fiorito ’12, a four-year starter in goal and last year’s Ivy League player of the year, graduated, as did first-team All-American defenseman Chad Wiedmaier ’12, two-year starter Jonathan Meyers ’12, and John Cunningham ’12, the team’s best longstick midfielder. Rob Castelo ’14, the other starting defenseman in 2012, suffered a season-ending injury in the fall.
Bates and Raymond moved Nick Fernandez ’14 and Derick Raabe ’14 from defensive midfield to close defense and gave the third spot to Mark Strabo ’16, whose brother Jack ’14 is a defensive midfielder. The coaches chose Matt O’Connor ’16 as their starting goalie, and he’s saved a respectable 52.7 percent of the shots he’s faced. He’s also done a good job of clearing the ball and hasn’t flinched in big games. O’Connor had 10 saves in an 11-8 win at Johns Hopkins on March 1 and recovered from a poor first half against North Carolina to make eight saves in the second half, helping to keep Princeton in the game.
“He’s just a very steady, unflappable kid,” Bates said of his goalie. “He doesn’t get out of whack when he gives up a goal. He clears the ball well. You never feel like you’re going to get a bad game out of him. He has the ability to stand tall in difficult situations, and that translates into how you play the game.”
David Marcus ’92 is a frequent PAW contributor.