Jim Barlow will tell you that there is not much difference between first place and the cellar in Ivy League men’s soccer.
“We know how even the league is,” said Princeton head coach Barlow, who is bringing a 119-115-42 record into his 17th season at the helm of the Tigers. “All eight teams believe they can win.”
In 2010, the Tigers’ self-belief proved justified as they went 7-0 in league play on the way to the third Ivy crown in Barlow’s tenure.
Last fall, Princeton’s propensity for ill-timed defensive lapses caused the Tigers to plummet almost all the way to the Ivy basement with a 1-5-1 league record and seventh-place league finish.
“We were just a few bounces away,” said Barlow, in reflecting on the 2011 campaign which saw the Tigers post an overall record of 5-10-2 after going 13-4-1 a year earlier in its championship campaign. “We had high hopes but it didn’t go as we had hoped.”
As the Tigers get ready for the 2012 season, Barlow sees the hunger in his players to bounce back from last year.
“I think a lot of guys were frustrated last year after going to the NCAA tournament the previous two years,” said Barlow, whose team opens the season with a game at Seton Hall on August 31. “The guys made a point to get back into it over the offseason and be focused.”
So far, that focus has paid dividends. “We have a long way to go but we are cautiously optimistic,” said Barlow.
“We are ahead of where we were last year at this point. We are getting good leadership from the seniors. They are pulling the team along; they are ready to push.”
The Tigers will be looking to get a good push up front at forward from sophomores Julian Griggs (3 goals in 2011) and Cameron Porter (5 goals, 2 assists).
“Both Julian and Cameron have talent, athleticism, and a nose for the ball,” said Barlow, noting that freshmen Nico Hurtado and Thomas Sanner will also see time at forward. “They both are a handful for the other teams.”
Senior star and co-captain Matt Sanner could lend a hand at either midfield or forward.
“We still have options with him,” said Barlow of Sanner, who scored a team-high seven goals last fall on the way to earning first-team All-Ivy honors.
“We have him playing midfield. He has done well there in the past but we can move him up top. He had foot surgery after the season last year so he is just getting back into things.”
The Tigers boast two key veterans in the midfield in junior Lester Nare and senior Patrick O’Neil.
“Nare and O’Neil were both starters for us in 2010 when we won the title,” said Barlow, who believes that a trio of freshmen, Jack Hilger, John Kendall, and former Peddie standout Brendan McSherry could make an immediate impact in the midfield. “Lester wasn’t with us last year; he’s back and doing very well.”
In Barlow’s view, the midfield unit could emerge as a strength of this year’s team.
“We feel much better about the midfield than we did a few months ago,” asserted Barlow. “We didn’t know how Nare would look after his layoff and we weren’t sure about the freshmen.”
Barlow feels good having senior co-captain and three-time first-team All-Ivy performer Mark Linnville anchoring his defensive corps.
“Linnville will be leading us in the center of the backline,” said Barlow. “We are also using Andrew Mills, Billy McGuiness, and Alex Wetterman who all have experience. Josh Miller, a freshman from Oregon, has been looking good.”
At goalie, Princeton has three good options in senior Max Gallin, junior Seth MacMillan, and freshman Ben Hummel.
“All three are looking solid; Max stands a little ahead right now,” said Barlow. “Max played a lot in the beginning last year and then MacMillan played at the end. We could have a rotation but if one gets a hot hand, we won’t be taking him out.”
Barlow is hoping his team can get off to a hot start as it looks to put last year in the rear view mirror.
“If we can get some wins in the first part of the season, that will give us confidence,” said Barlow, noting that his team is opening with five straight games against Big East foes, taking on Seton Hall, St. John’s, Rutgers, Georgetown, and Villanova in succession.
“It will help us prepare for the Ivy League even if we lose; playing some of the best teams around has got to help us.”
Princeton will have to be at its best to get off on the right foot in its season-opening contests at Seton Hall and St. John’s.
“St. John’s and Seton Hall are two teams that we have played a lot,” said Barlow.
“St. John’s beat us last year with a goal in the last second of OT; they beat Boston University 3-0 in their opener last week and BU is always a good team. Seton Hall is in its first year without Mannfred [Longtime head coach Manny Schellscheidt] so we don’t know what they are going to look like. It is always a tough game.”
If the Tigers are going to regain their spot in the upper echelon of the Ivy League, they will have to exhibit toughness all over the field.
“We gave up a lot of soft goals last year against the run of play and on counters,” said Barlow.
“We scored enough goals to win the league so we need better team defense and goalkeeping. We need to be playing better when the ball is in front of our net. We have a little more depth than we have had in the past. I think we can play a high energy game and play a few more players.”