As Chris Bates reflected on how his Princeton University men’s lacrosse team fell 13-12 to Syracuse last Saturday, he felt a little like boxer Joe Frazier after he lost to Muhammad Ali in 1975’s bruising “Thrilla in Manila.”
“It was a 15-round fight and we took too many body blows,” said Princeton head coach Bates, whose team dropped to 6-3 with the setback.
“We got tired at the end. We didn’t face off well and we played a lot of defense. Our defense bent and we did break at times.”
Like Frazier, Princeton was valiant and entertaining in defeat. “It was a heck of a game from a fan’s standpoint, but it was tough to lose from a coach and player perspective,” said Bates.
“We were real proud of the team, they competed hard. I shook hands with coach [John] Desko and we agreed it was a great game; it was tough that someone had to lose.”
The Tigers faced an uphill battle as they fell behind the high-powered Orange 3-0 in the early stages of the contest which was played before a crowd of 4,610 at Princeton Stadium and a national TV audience on ESPNU.
“We had gotten off to a fast start against them the last two years but the three goals put us on our heels,” said Bates, whose team did claw back to knot the game at 5-5 at halftime.
Princeton outscored the Orange 4-2 in the third quarter and held a 12-10 lead with 6:57 remaining in regulation. But Syracuse won the next three face-offs and forged ahead 13-12.
The Tigers got the final face-off of the game and were able to generate a shot by Ryan Ambler that went just wide as time expired.
“It wasn’t really a possession, it was a frenetic transition opportunity,” said Bates, referring to the final sequence.
“Ryan got his hands free. We wanted to get the ball in Tom Schreiber’s hands and let him create something but we couldn’t get the ball to him.”
While Bates was happy with his team’s scoring output, he acknowledged that Princeton misfired at some critical junctures of the contest.
“If you had told me we scored 12, I would think we would have won,” said Bates, who got four goals from Jeff Froccaro with Mike MacDonald adding three, Jake Froccaro adding two and Schreiber chipping in a goal and three assists.
“We were pretty efficient but we didn’t get anything out of our first four possessions when they built a lead. We were up two goals and we had a short possession in the fourth quarter. We took the first shot which we didn’t need to do. I kick myself a little bit and I hope we learned something from that.”
With each of No. 9 Princeton’s three losses having come by one goal, Bates sees the setbacks as mixed bags.
“Carolina and Syracuse are in the top five or six in the country, so we are encouraged by playing close to them,” said Bates, whose team fell 16-15 to No. 6 North Carolina on March 9 and 11-10 at No. 16 Penn a week later before the loss to No. 7 Syracuse.
“It is tough not getting over the hump. The Syracuse loss stings, it could have NCAA implications if we don’t win the Ivy tournament.”
But since Princeton is at 2-1 in Ivy play, trailing only No. 2 Cornell (10-1 overall, 4-0 Ivy) who it plays on April 27, the Tigers are very much in the hunt for the league title.
“We have to move past it,” said Bates, referring to the disappointment after the loss to the Orange. “We told them all of our goals are still in front of us and we control our own destiny.”
With Princeton slated to play at Rutgers (2-9) on April 9 before heading north to play at Dartmouth (2-7 overall, 0-3 Ivy) on April 13, Bates is looking for his players to dwell on things they can control.
“We need to focus on ourselves and getting back to fundamentals and playing good lacrosse,” said Bates.
“If we do that, we will be fine. I told them we want two more wins in the bag after this week with two games to go.”