They were a trio of stars who not only formed the backbone of the defense for the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team but also helped the proud program make it back to the NCAA tournament.
The Big 3 of defenseman Chad Wiedmaier, longstick midfielder John Cunningham, and goalie Tyler Fiorito earned All-American honors and helped spur a bounce-back season for Princeton in 2012 that saw the Tigers go 11-5 after a nightmarish 4-8 campaign the year before.
Although Wiedmaier, Cunningham, and Fiorito have graduated along with 10 classmates, their influence will be felt this spring.
“The senior class was so strong on the field and off the field,” said Princeton head coach Chris Bates, whose team went 6-0 in Ivy League regular season play in 2012 and ended the spring by losing 6-5 to Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“We have vowed to them to build on that foundation. It is not going to happen overnight. We have some holes to fill and kids need to get game experience in those areas.”
The Tigers do boast a nice foundation at attack where they welcome back senior Jeff Froccaro (27 goals and 12 assists in 2012) and sophomore Mike MacDonald (22 goals and eight assists).
“Jeff is playing well and Mike’s game has developed,” said Bates, whose team opens its 2013 campaign by playing at Hofstra (1-0) on February 23.
“Ryan Ambler, a freshman, is the third attacker. He is really doing a lot for us. He is going to give us 60-minute games. He complements the other guys real well; I think we have a chance to be really good there.
Bates has some other good guys who should provide depth up front in sophomore Will Rotatori and senior Luke Armour (three goals and three assists).
“Will Rotatori is the fourth guy; he played well in the fall and is doing well so far this spring,” said Bates, who is entering his fourth year at the helm of the Princeton program and has a 26-18 record guiding the Tigers. “Luke Armour is another option there; he is a veteran.”
Princeton’s top offensive option figures to be All-American junior midfielder Tom Schreiber, who scored 32 goals and 28 assists last spring, the first Tiger to hit 60 points since Ryan Boyle in 2004.
“Schreiber is a captain as a junior, it is his team,” said Bates. “Tom brings something different when he is out there. Day in, day out, his competitive nature shines through. It is great when your best player is your hardest worker. We want the other guys to grab hold of that.”
Bates also wants Schreiber to spread the wealth, when necessary. “We are trying to help develop his game,” said Bates. “He doesn’t have to be Atlas with the players we have around him; there are days when he is going to be neutralized and he has to be a facilitator.”
The Tigers have some skilled players around Schreiber in the midfield. “Kip Orban (eight goals and three assists) ended up being on the first line last year; I think he is going to blossom into a prime-time player,” said Bates.
“He is a big, strong kid with a great shot. Hunter DeButts (two goals and four assists) needs to cut down on his turnovers and be smarter on his shots. He is very hard to cover so he could be good. Jake Froccaro, Jeff’s brother, has helped on extra man. He is skilled and savvy like his brother; he is going to get better and better.”
Princeton will feature two savvy veterans in the defensive midfield in junior Jack Strabo (four goals and one assist) and senior Chris White (two goals and four assists).
“Jack is ready to take the next step; the fact that we moved Nick Fernandez to close defense shows the confidence we have in him,” said Bates.
“Chris White is a captain and he is doing a really good job with that. He is playing really, really well; he is very steady and understands our defense.”
At longstick midfielder, lanky sophomore Alex Beatty is trying to fill the big shoes left by Cunningham.
“Alex Beatty is at long pole; he is 6’7 and he is a nemesis to Tom [Schreiber] everyday in practice; he is pretty athletic.”
In order to shore up the depleted defense, Bates has moved one of his most athletic players, junior Fernandez, to close defense from the midfield.
“Fernandez is so athletic and so mobile; he has picked things up very well,” asserted Bates.
“He has been working very hard with the pole. There are going to be a lot of eyes on him. He needs to direct our defense.”
The defense will feature a bevy of new faces with juniors Derick Raabe, Rob Posniewski, and Brian Reilly together with freshmen Mark Strabo and Brian Pickup in the mix.
“Derick Raabe has been good,” said Bates. “It is a new world for those guys. It is going to take some games for those guys to pick everything up. Mark Strabo is tough as nails; he has been playing very well. Rob Posniewski, Brian Reilly, and Brian Pickup should also help.”
At goalie, Princeton faces the daunting task of replacing Fiorito, who started from day one as a freshman and posted a goals against average of 7.07 last spring. In a case of what goes around, comes around, Bates is leaning toward installing freshman Matt O‘Connor as the starter over sophomore Eric Sanschagrin and junior Brian Kavanaugh.
“Matt O’Connor is ahead of Eric by a nose,” said Bates. “Matt is a strong lefty. He saves a lot of balls; he has a commanding presence. Eric is a pure stopper, he reads the ball so well. We have confidence in all three guys. We want one guy to emerge; we don’t want to have anyone looking over their shoulder.”
At face-off, Bates has confidence in several guys. “Bobby Lucas is the prime guy,” said Bates of the senior who won 91 of 164 face-offs last season.
“Justin Murphy (15-of-30) is a dedicated, hard worker. The Froccaros are very streaky; when they are on, they can get three in a row and you can pick up a couple of goals.”
Bates acknowledged that Princeton is going to need to score a lot of goals to keep its head above water as the new defense takes shape.
“The schedule is pretty unforgiving, Hofstra, Johns Hopkins, and North Carolina in the first few weeks,” said Bates.
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. It is going to be a roller-coaster. We can score goals and I am confident the defense will jell. Greg Raymond [assistant coach] does a great job with the defense, they are coming along.”