Early in his lacrosse career, Justin Murphy seemed destined for obscurity.
“Basically in high school, I was a sophomore trying to make varsity and trying to get on the field any way I could,” said Murphy.
“I wanted to play but I wasn’t good enough. I was going to the Landon School (Md.) and there were a lot of good guys ahead of me.”
But Murphy discovered a talent that put him in the limelight. “They saw that I was small and undersized but they liked how scrappy I was facing off,” added Murphy.
“I was a backup second string and I got a shot to go out there and I started having success and it became the thing that I was going to work at. I decided to make it my goal to be a face-off guy and dedicate my time to that.”
Murphy’s dedication paid off as he joined the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team last year as a face-off specialist and he won 15-of-30 draws last year as he saw his first college action.
This spring, Murphy has emerged as a key performer for the Tigers, catching fire in mid-March when he won 12-of-16 face-offs in a 15-2 win over Manhattan.
The 5’9, 160-pound Murphy proceeded to go 15-of-22 in a loss to Penn and then outduel Yale’s Dylan Levings with a 13-of-22 performance in a 10-9 win over the Bulldogs.
Last Saturday, Murphy’s excellence on face-offs helped Princeton top Brown 15-8 as he went 9-of-11 in the first half as the Tigers seized momentum in the contest and led 7-2 at halftime.
In reflecting on his effort against Brown, Murphy credited his practice duels against Princeton’s three other face-off men with honing his skills.
“The good thing about going here is that everyone facing off has a different style,” said Murphy, a native of Vienna, Va.
“We have four different guys, we are all really even and they can throw any of us out there. So in practice I get three different looks with three different guys whether it is Bobby Lucas, Jake Froccaro, or Jeff Froccaro. Having that variety in practice enables me to adapt or change as the game goes on to see what other guys are doing because I have faced a lot of different styles in practice.”
Murphy, though, had to change his style earlier this season to emerge as Princeton’s primary face-off guy.
“After the first couple games, our group and me personally weren’t doing enough,” recalled Murphy.
“We weren’t doing our job necessarily and the coaches came over and said things need to change. So basically I took that and changed up my stance, I used to be going knee down early in the season. The coaches were saying that things need to change. From a coaching standpoint, they were looking at what we were doing so I tried changing my stance. I was accepting the fact that maybe I was being too stubborn so I am standing up now. I think that has actually helped a lot. I did that right before the Manhattan game.”
While Murphy and the Tigers struggled a little bit in the fourth quarter as Brown went on a 5-1 run to narrow the lead to 12-7, Princeton made a last stand and pulled away to the win in improving to 6-2 overall and 2-1 Ivy League.
“I didn’t do the best job in the second half but you can’t worry about the past, you need to focus on the next one,” said Murphy, who is now 60-of-105 on face-offs this season.
“The Ivy League is crazy and anything can happen. So even though we had a lead in the second half, anything can happen. That team has an explosive offense and they could get on a roll. Every game is a must win because we only play each team once in the season.”
Princeton head coach Chris Bates was thrilled to see his team hold off the Bears.
“It is good that we won this one,” said Bates. “We would rather control our destiny and if we can go get two more and if Cornell holds serve, then we have an opportunity to win an Ivy League championship. At the end of the day, that is the easiest way. We want to win our Ivy tournament and our Ivy championship. We control our own destiny and that’s all you want.”
Murphy’s emergence as a face-off star has helped Princeton take control of games.
“It has been the biggest difference for us clearly,” asserted Bates, referring to Murphy’s contribution.
“Early in the games, he has been strong. This week, we thought we would be effective facing off. Brown is not as strong as Yale or Penn. I think Murph was 9-for-11 in the first half and gave us a buffer, gave us an ability to generate some shots and it also gave us ball possession. For a relatively young defense, it is still the less you play, the better. If you are giving up face-offs and giving the defense too much time on the field, offenses at this level are going to score goals. It has been huge for us, he has been great.”
The Tigers got some great offensive production against Brown from the Froccaro family as senior Jeff scored four goals and had an assist while freshmen Jake had three goals.
“Jeff is a leader; he knows where we are supposed to be,” said Bates of the older Froccaro who passed the 100-point mark in his Princeton career with his output on Saturday.
Jake is a young guy; he has figured it out. Obviously he can play. He has got a great lacrosse IQ and puts the ball in the back of the net. I think it is good to have a big brother to help you along the way. Both of those guys can play. Jeff is having a good year, he has that knack and desire to put the ball in the back of the net; that’s what he does. Any time Brown got a little momentum today, Jeff stood tall and got one for us.”
The seventh-ranked Tigers have a big game this Saturday as they host No. 8 Syracuse (6-2) at Princeton Stadium in a contest that will be televised on ESPNU.
“It is an historical game; there is a tradition to the game that you can’t avoid,” said Bates.
“Even in the locker room the guys were saying it is ‘Cuse week and let’s get ready for it. It is one of those opportunities to get a big out of conference win at this time of the year which is unique. It fits right in our conference schedule which isn’t the norm so to have that opportunity, it is one we get excited for. They are a good team and they came off a tough loss. They rebounded and beat Canisius 17-5. It is big game for them for their playoff chances. I expect it to be a heckuva game.”
Murphy, for his part, is excited to take on the Orange. “Last year I was hurt and the first game that I was actually able to travel to with the team was the Syracuse game,” said Murphy.
“I got to go to the Carrier Dome; I didn’t get in or anything but it was a cool experience to watch. It is such a great rivalry. The first game I ever watched on TV was Princeton-Syracuse.”
Now Murphy will be getting watched by a national television audience as he looks to keep making an impact through his hard-earned face-off skill.