Over the last two years, the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team has been on the verge of adding to the program’s storied tradition of postseason success.
The Tigers have advanced to a pair of Ivy League championship games and have played in the the opening round of the NCAA tournament but came up short in all three contests.
As the 2014 season gets underway on February 22 when 9th-ranked Princeton hosts Hofstra, the squad’s group of 15 seniors is looking to go out with a bang.
“It is a senior laden group, they came in with high expectations and some goals have remained unmet,” said Princeton head coach Chris Bates, whose team went 9-6 overall last season, ending the spring with a 12-8 loss to Yale in the Ivy title game.
“It is their last go-around so there is a sense of urgency. We have gone through the rigors together; they have a good perspective. They know things are not going to happen overnight, it is a long season.”
The Tigers have a midfield unit that can make things happen, led by two-time first-team All-American and senior captain Tom Schreiber, the team’s leading scorer in 2013 with 60 points on 28 goals and 32 assists.
“We are actually trying to dial him back, he can dominate practices,” said Bates.
“He has such a skill set and he is playing with so much confidence. He has an edge to his game and that has a ripple effect on the rest of the team. He makes everyone else better. But we know people are going to try to take him out of the game and the others will have to be better and take the next step.”
Bates is confident that junior Kip Orban (27 goals, 7 assists in 2013) and sophomore Jake Froccaro (24 goals, 10 assists) can make defenses pay if they focus too much on Schreiber.
“Orban’s confidence has grown; he is adding layers to his game,” said Bates.
“He is working on his off-ball game. He has put in a lot of goals for us and I would be surprised if he doesn’t replicate that. Jake has a broken finger and we hope to have him for Hofstra. He gives us a different dynamic, he makes us a tough matchup there. He will need some time to get his wind and get his legs under him.”
The return of seniors Tucker Shanley (20 goals, 8 assists in 2012) and Forest Sonnefeldt (17 goals, 6 assists in 2012) from injury should make the midfield even tougher to contain.
“Shanley is back, it is nice to have depth,” said Bates. “We need to merge him into the first group. He needs to make better shot decisions and make good plays, it can’t be feast or famine. Forest Sonnenfeldt is back from injury, he is a big body and can set picks and he can really shoot it.”
On attack, junior Mike MacDonald has emerged as a top shooter, scoring a team-high 43 goals in 2013.
“Mike is a tough kid and he does more than finishing,” said Bates of MacDonald, who added 16 assists last spring.
“He is pretty athletic and pretty fast but he likes to lay low. He can dodge and he has a really good understanding of what we want to do on offense. He is finishing my sentences.”
Bates is hoping that sophomore Ryan Ambler (11 goals, 17 assists) and junior Will Rotatori (2 goals, 3 assists) can show a good understanding of the offense as they join MacDonald on the top attack line.
“Ambler is bigger, stronger, and is more confident,” said Bates. “He is finishing the ball really well. I think he is going to take a nice jump this year, he knows his role as a sophomore. Rotatori will be the third guy on attack. He is quick, tough, and fearless. He distributes the ball well. He is used to carrying the ball and we don’t need him to do that as much. He needs to find the right spot off the ball. He needs to figure out how to complement the others.”
At the key face-off spot, Princeton will be looking for junior Justin Murphy to have a big year.
“Murph is the guy we are going to live or die with,” said Bates of Murphy who went 111-of-218 on face-offs in 2013.
“Jack O’Brien is a freshman who did some nice things in the fall. He is another option. We have two other athletes, Sam Gravitte, a longstick, and Zach Currier, who we could use.”
Princeton features some blue-chip athletes as shortstick defensive midfield in a trio of seniors, Jack Strabo, Nick Fernandez, and Hunter deButts.
“We have Jack Strabo and Nick Fernandez at short-stick middie, they are basically 4-year starters,” said Bates.
“They have grown as leaders and they are hard-working, athletic guys. They can really run the field. Hunter deButts has energy and athleticism.”
Senior Derick Raabe provides energy and skill at longstick midfield, leading the Tigers by picking up 73 ground ball in 2013.
“Derick is a natural there; he is great on ground balls,” said Bates, who also plans to use senior Brendan Bronvino and freshman Gravitte at LSM.
Youth will be served on defense as the Tigers will be relying on sophomore Mark Strabo along with a pair of freshmen, Will Reynolds and Bear Goldstein.
“Mark Strabo is back and healthier; he is a good solid cover guy and he is beginning to understand how to play defense at the college level,” said Bates, who will also be using 6’7 junior Alex Beatty on defense.
“Will Reynolds is pretty heralded and he is all of that. He is a big presence; he is calm and tough. He is a foundation player already; he gives us a sense of calm even though he is a freshman. He has an athletic IQ; he may get beaten once but not again. Bear Goldstein has good feet and can cover the ball well. He is fearless, he is a Texas football kid and will put his helmet in there. He has good stick control and we think he has a lot of upside.”
Bates isn’t quite sure what is up at goalie as senior Brian Kavanagh (8.50 goals against average in 2 games in 2013), junior Eric Sanschagrin (11.86 goals against average in 5 games), and sophomore Matt O’Connor (9.38 goals against average in 12 games) are all vying for the spot.
“That is the big question mark; it is a three-man race,” said Bates. “Brian Kavanagh has notched himself into it; he has looked good in scrimmages. Eric and Matt run hot and cold. Matt was a length ahead in the fall but not so much now. We want to have one step up so we can settle this. Brian is a mature kid and the other two have more game experience. We are going to end up with a good goalie.”
The Tigers will need to step up in order to top Hofstra (0-1) in the opener this Saturday.
“Hofstra is always ready for us, it is good test,” said Bates. “We have some guys playing their first game so it is interesting to see what happens when the lights go on. We need to be smart and manage the nerves.”
Paying attention to game management will be a key if the Tigers are to reach their goals this spring.
“The defense will need to grow up,” said Bates. “We need to be smart and manage the game on the offensive end. We can be pedal to the metal but we can’t just fire low angle or low percentage shots.”