(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)
Whitney Hayes will never forget what he felt when he hit the field for the Princeton University men's lacrosse team at Baltimore's M &T Bank Stadium for the 2004 NCAA Final Four.
"There's no feeling like playing in front of 45,000 people," said Hayes, a junior midfielder with the Tigers and a former lax great at Princeton High. "You feel like you're in the NFL or something. I tell the younger guys how much fun it is and that it's something you really want to do."
Last Saturday, Hayes showed how much he'd like a return trip to the Final Four as he fired in two goals and added an assist to help lead seventh-seeded Princeton to an 11-8 win over UMBC in an NCAA opening round contest before 2,107 at Class of 1952 Stadium.
The win earned the Tigers a date with second-seeded Maryland next Sunday at Towson in the NCAA quarters. The winner of that contest will advance to the NCAA Final Four on May 27 at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Hayes, who hadn't scored a point in Princeton's previous four games, was ready to seize the moment as the Tigers played in their first NCAA game since that 2004 Final Four.
"In these games, there is always more on the line," said Hayes, who came into the game as Princeton's top active player in NCAA tournament points with six on three goals and three assists. "You're definitely more excited for them; more pumped up. You just come out here and if the opportunities are here, you want to take advantage of them."
Hayes didn't waste any time taking advantage of his chances Saturday as he scored Princeton's first goal with 10:18 left in the first quarter and then assisted on a Scott Sowanick tally six minutes later in the period.
"It's always huge to get out to an early lead," asserted Hayes. "In the games that we've really played well, like Penn and Rutgers, we got out to a big lead at the start. We stuck our first couple of shots and that's always important."
Although Hayes wasn't happy to be mired in a personal scoring drought, the important thing was how the team backed him up and came together.
"When you take shots and you don't make them, that's always going to be frustrating," said Hayes, who last appeared on the Princeton scoring sheet when he contributed a goal and an assist on Princeton's 9-7 win at Harvard on April 15.
"Everybody's been real supportive; they said keep shooting. But it is the whole team concept that is important. When one player is a little off, someone else is going to step up. We had been playing really well."
As the resident lacrosse hero, Hayes was buoyed by the cheers he got from the PHS contingent on hand last Saturday.
"It's always fun playing here, particularly toward the end of the season when some of my friends are home from school," said Hayes. "I could hear Josh Miller and coach [Peter] Stanton; it's nice to get the local support."
Princeton head coach Bill Tierney was happy with the support he got from Hayes and his classmates Sowanick and Peter Trombino.
"To be honest, I don't think those guys have played their best lacrosse this year," said Tierney, whose team improved to 11-4 with the victory.
"I think that they did today. Whitney Hayes, Peter Trombino, and Scott Sowanick played the smartest game they have played since freshman season. I can't say enough about Pete and Scott for doing what we asked them to do, controlling the ball yet going very hard. Coach Metzbower put in an amazing offensive game plan and we got what we wanted to get."
Trombino scored two goals and had two assists while Sowanick added a goal. The Tigers also got some good work from their young guns as freshman attacker Tommy Davis returned from a shoulder injury to fire in three goals while classmates Josh Lesko and Mark Kovler chipped in a goal apiece.
With Princeton having the best-ever winning percentage in NCAA games at .805 (29-7), Tierney is hoping that his club can follow the program's history of peaking at the right time.
"The years we've been in the playoffs, we've been able to play well towards the end," said Tierney, who has led Princeton to six national titles and two second-place finishes. "I think the guys get a little bit of academic relief. We don't play year round so the sticks are finally coming. I think they're starting to understand all the stuff we throw at them."
Tierney understands the significance of getting a NCAA win after having missed out on the tournament last year for the first time in 16 seasons,
"It's great to be back," said Tierney, who has a 5-0 record against Maryland in NCAA play including wins over the Terps in the 1997 and 1998 NCAA championship games. "A year ago right now, I was the NCAA rep at the UMass-Syracuse game, I was miserable. It's great to be back; it's great to have this opportunity and to see what happens next week."
Hayes, for his part, is confident that Princeton can make some good things happen against Maryland.
"We've always had a big rivalry with Maryland," said Hayes, who scored two goals to help Princeton top Maryland 9-8 in overtime in the 2004 NCAA quarters.
"A lot of the guys on Maryland are friends with guys on our team. We play similar styles; we had a scrimmage with them in the preseason and we did well. We'd like to keep that going."
If Hayes can keep up his hot play in postseason, he could find himself once again hearing the cheers of about 45,000 or so come Memorial Day weekend.
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