STICKING IT OUT: Princeton University men’s lacrosse player John Cunningham heads up the field in action last spring. Senior longstick midfielder Cunningham brings intensity to a Princeton program that is looking to rebound from a rough 4-8 campaign last spring. The Tigers open their 2012 season when they host Hofstra on February 25. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
This Saturday, the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team will christen brand-new Sherrerd Field at Class of 1952 Stadium when it hosts Hofstra in its season opener.
For the Tigers, playing on the sparkling FieldTurf surface emblazoned with a striking Princeton logo in the middle of the field symbolizes the fresh start sorely needed by a program that endured a nightmarish campaign last spring.
Coming off an inspiring 2010 season that saw the Tigers win the inaugural Ivy League tournament and go 11-5, Princeton stumbled to a 4-8 mark last year with 16 players sidelined by injury at some point in the season.
Princeton head coach Chris Bates believes his players are excited to get rolling in their new digs.
“They are fired up and ready to go,” said Bates, who is starting a new chapter in his personal life, dealing with personal tragedy as his wife, Ann, died last November at age 43 after three valiant fights against cancer.
“It is nice to be out there on the new field; we never practiced on the old one so that shows you what we thought of it. The new one is soft and it will give us a rise. It is nice.”
There is nothing soft about a Princeton defense that features three senior All-Ivy performers and co-captains in goalie Tyler Fiorito, defenseman Chad Wiedmaier, and longstick midfielder John Cunningham.
The rock of the Princeton defense is goalie Fiorito, who has been a starter since his first game as a freshman.
“It is a luxury to have a senior goalie like that,” said Bates of Fiorito, who posted a 7.53 goals against average in 2011 and ended the season with a sensational 20-save effort in a loss to Cornell.
“He gives everybody a sense of confidence. It can be a double-edged sword, he bails you out when you are not playing good defense. There is no secret as to how good he is. We want him orchestrating the defense and being more vocal on the field. We need him to be more of a presence and get out of his comfort zone in the crease.”
Senior defender Wiedmaier is known for closing down foes when he zones in on them.
“As captain, people look to him not just for his skill set but for his preparation,” added Bates, whose team is ranked 14th in this week’s Inside Lacrosse media poll.
“People feed off of that; he is a high energy guy. You can leave him on an island and that allows the defense to slide to other players. He can take the best attacker and neutralize him.”
Cunningham brings a high level of intensity to the mix. “On and off the field, his motor is always running and by that I mean he is always dialed in,” said Bates.
“He elicits the best effort from teammates; he not afraid to bark at them. He is very intense. He has good stick skills and is really good on the ground. On face-offs, he gets the ball for us. He can handle the ball and shoot the ball. He has logged substantial minutes; he gives you good experience.”
The Tigers boast some good experience along the back line in sophomore Rob Castelo and a trio of seniors, Jonathan Meyers, Bill Coughlin, and Mike Flanagan.
“Rob is fiery and a very strong communicator,” added Bates of Castelo who got off to a promising start last season before suffering knee injury in the second game.
“He understands the game well. He has made great progress with his knee. He looks healthy, you can’t tell that he is coming off an injury. Meyers is very athletic; he has a big presence. He has become a good close defender; he anticipates plays well. Coughlin and Flanagan are two seniors who are seasoned. They are solid with the Xs and Os; they have a good understanding of our team defense.”
Princeton also figures to get some good work in the defensive midfield from sophomores Jack Strabo and Nick Fernandez.
“Jack is so smart; he’s got that energy like the Energizer Bunny,” said Bates, who will also be using Bobby Lucas, Chris White and Peter Smyth in the defensive midfield.
“We have high expectations for Nick. On a team of athletes he stands out; he is so fast. We want to tilt the field. We need to be more creative in transition and create more shooting opportunities. We need to use those athletes.”
One of the team’s stand-out athletes is sophomore midfielder Tom Schreiber, who led Princeton in scoring last year with 29 points on 16 goals and 13 assists, getting named as the Ivy League Rookie of the year and earning third-team All-American honors.
“We are trying to help him take the next step; he lived up to expectations last season,” said Bates.
“He comes into this year ranked as the No. 5 playmaker and is on the Tewaaraton Trophy watch list. That is a lot of stuff for a kid to shoulder; he needs to make other people better. There are times when he is unstoppable, we are trying to get him to relax. The challenge is to surround him with complementary parts. I think we can be good there if we play as a unit.”
Princeton has some good complementary parts in the midfield with Jeff Froccaro (13 goals, 3 assists in 2011), Tucker Shanley (5 goals), Mike Grossman (4 goals, 1 assist), Alex Capretta (3 goals, 2 assists) and Forest Sonnenfeldt (10 goals).
“We have Froccaro going between midfield and attack, he is so savvy around the cage,” said Bates.
“Tucker can be unstoppable at times; he shoots the ball well and has good vision. We are trying to get him to make simple plays instead of trying to make great plays. Mike takes good shots. Alex is a very good finisher. He has a shooter’s mentality and has had a phenomenal spring. We have Forest and him at midfield; he needs to get his hands free to shoot. He is not a ball carrier; he is a shooter.”
In order to generate more shots, Princeton needs to improve in the face-off area as it won 40 percent of its draws last season compared to 50 percent in 2010.
“Bobby [Lucas] and Peter [Smyth] will take the most, they are technically sound face-off guys with different styles,” said Bates.
“Jeff [Froccaro] can give us a look. If he has your number, he can dominate. Freshman Justin Murphy is out for another month; he is a face-off specialist. He may surprise us. He is so focused; he was a wrestler in high school.”
Bates is hoping Princeton’s attack unit will provide some pleasant surprises. “Luke Armour (9 goals, 5 assists) is looking real solid there,” said Bates, noting that senior playmaker Cliff Larkin (3 goals, 6 assists) is currently sidelined.
“Hunter deButts (1 assist) gives us a different look; he is so fast. He has spun around Chad in practice at times. You don’t get wowed by freshman Mike MacDonald but he has a really good lacrosse IQ. He can do the right things on the perimeter. Canadian players are typically good inside and he can put the ball in the back of the net. He has good vision and can carry the ball. ”
Princeton will get a good test on Saturday against No. 13 Hofstra, which opened its season last weekend by beating Sacred Heart 11-9
“It is going to be exciting; they have some knowns and unknowns,” said Bates.
“They lost three senior attackers so they might have a different look. They have been predictable on offense in the past but very good at it. Seth [head coach Seth Tierney] does a great job, it is a good program.”
Bates is confident that the Tigers can rebound from last year’s struggles to have a great spring.
“We think we can be as good as anybody but we don’t focus on the that,” said Bates, who is in his third season at the helm of the Tiger program.
“The focus is on today and getting each unit to be better. We need to play together at both ends of the field.”