Coming into its season opener Saturday against visiting Hofstra, the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team was looking to its highly touted offense to set the tone.
But it was an unheralded defense, featuring two freshman starters and a senior making his first career start, that kept ninth-ranked Princeton close in a first half that saw the Tigers commit 10 turnovers and trailing 6-4 by intermission.
Junior attacker Mike MacDonald acknowledged that the Tigers misfired in the crease area.
“I am not sure what it was, maybe first game jitters,” said MacDonald. “We knew at halftime that we were costing the team the game at that point and we needed to step up. The coaches said they are not winning the game, we are losing the game.”
Things got worse for the Tigers in the third quarter as they fell behind 8-4 and took a timeout with 7:34 remaining in the period.
“Our captains, Tom Schreiber, Jack Strabo, and Derick Raabe talked before the coaches and they said listen guys, we are going to be fine, no one panic,” said MacDonald, recalling the message during the break.
“I think we just looked at each other and decided that we needed to step up, it was our time. The defense was doing everything that they could. When they got stops, we weren’t getting them goals at the other end.”
Princeton started getting goals in bunches, scoring four unanswered goals to knot the game at 8-8. After Hofstra scored a goal late in the quarter to regain the lead, the Tigers answered with a 4-0 run in the fourth quarter and never looked back in a 12-10 triumph before a crowd of 1,231 at Class of 1952 Stadium.
“I think we made better shooting decisions,” said MacDonald, in reflecting on Princeton’s comeback which saw him assist on the seventh goal and then score the first two goals of the fourth quarter. “It started with Tom Schreiber making a big play and we just built off of that.”
MacDonald is looking to build on the promise he has shown in his first two years with the Tigers.
“This year, I just think I have a little more confidence with the ball to start the season,” said MacDonald, who scored a total of 65 goals in his first two seasons, the third highest total in program history coming into a junior campaign.
“Last year, I was a little bit timid. I am not as quick to just pass it to the next guy and let him do the work. I want to contribute a little more.”
The 6’1, 190-pound native of Georgetown, Ontario, enjoys working with sophomore Ryan Ambler, who had five assists in the win, including two on MacDonald tallies.
“Ryan and I have a very good connection, we are both lefties so we share that side of the field a lot,” explained MacDonald, who ended the day with four goals and an assist.
“We are pretty much interchangeable with what we do. He can go down low and I can go on the wing. It works out really well; we have a lot of chemistry.”
Princeton head coach Chris Bates pointed to MacDonald as a key catalyst in the Princeton rally.
“I said to my assistant coach, we have to get Mike into the flow,” said Bates, who also got three goals and two assists from senior star midfielder Schreiber.
“We were trying to initiate below goal line with Ryan and Will [Rotatori] a little bit. We changed our offense completely from the first half to the second and it was a point of emphasis to try to get him the ball because he is such a playmaker. He’s a gamer, he’s tough, he scored some big goals and we started to loosen up as a result.”
Bates credited his trio of defensive middies, Jack Strabo, Nick Fernandez, and Hunter
deButts, with igniting things.
“We needed some big ground balls and I think that was the difference,” said Bates.
“Jack Strabo played a really good game, he is just so unsung. Nick Fernandez and Hunter deButts also did well. Those guys give us a very good look and then we got uncorked offensively.
The goalie rotation, which saw senior Brian Kavanagh make his first career start and sophomore Matt O’Connor coming on in relief to handle the second half, looked good.
“I have great faith in Brian, he played great,” asserted Bates, who got 10 saves from Kavanagh in the first half as he faced a barrage of shots from Hofstra.
“He has earned the right to face 27 shots and he stood tall and the team rallied around him and he played as we expected. Matt earned the right to play the second half and I thought that made sense. Those guys are great, they root for each other. They understand the coach’s perspective. At the end of the day, those were the first two guys we gave a shout out to.”
By the end of the game, the Tiger close defense, which included freshmen Will Reynolds and Bear Goldstein along with sophomore Mark Strabo, made strides.
“I said it last night at the team dinner, you guys are going to make mistakes, let’s understand that is the nature of this,” said Bates.
“Part of it came from not communicating, which is to be expected. Hofstra is well coached and they are smart inside and we didn’t switch, that means you are not communicating. That comes from nerves, from lack of experience. They settled in and I thought we kept our composure and poise which was huge for us. Those guys grew up a little bit and they had a good second half.”
All in all, the comeback win over the Pride was a good first step for a Princeton squad that is facing a major challenge when it welcomes seventh-ranked Johns Hopkins (3-0) to Class of 1952 Stadium this Saturday.
“Hofstra is a hard team to play, they are tough, they are physical,” said Bates, whose team was slated to play a mid-week game at Manhattan on February 25.
“They have something to prove every time out. I have coached against coach [Seth] Tierney and Hofstra for years and years. They lost a game last week that they didn’t want to lose so we knew that we were going to get a team on fire. We let them be on fire a little bit but we handled that. At the end of the day, I think we grew up. I got a few more gray hairs and it wasn’t an easy one but I think it was a good one for us. We grew up as a result and we became a little closer, a little tougher.”
MacDonald, for his part, believes that overcoming Hofstra was a key growth experience for the Tigers.
“That game turned out exactly how we needed it to,” said MacDonald. “We faced some adversity and I think that is the best thing that could have happened to us. We know that we can battle back now if we are down. We are not going to get down on each other and we are just going to keep going.”