Featuring a lineup stocked with freshmen and untested upperclassmen, Chris Bates knew that he had to exercise some patience as his Princeton University men’s lacrosse team opened its season at Hofstra last Saturday.
“We reminded ourselves as coaches to stay calm and not start barking at guys; we needed to stay composed,” said Princeton head coach Bates, who started four freshmen on Saturday and unveiled a totally revamped defense.
“There was so much uncertainly with new faces, more on the defensive end. You don’t know how that is going to jell and how the guys are going to do with the nerves of a game.”
After trailing 3-1 in the first quarter, Princeton jelled, scoring four unanswered goals in the second period on the way to a 10-7 victory before a crowd of 1,556 at Shuart Stadium.
Showing composure, Princeton was not rattled when it fell behind early. “I didn’t think Hofstra did anything that we didn’t expect,” said Bates.
“We didn’t play well offensively, we had some turnovers. I give everybody credit, everybody stayed true to what we were trying to do.”
After a Mike MacDonald goal made it 3-2, it became the Ryan Ambler show for Princeton in the second quarter as the precocious freshman tallied a goal and two assists to help the Tigers take a 6-3 halftime lead.
“The fourth goal was Ryan’s, we exhorted him from the sidelines to be more aggressive and he sped right by his guy and fired it in,” said Bates of Ambler, who got another assist in the fourth quarter and was later named the Ivy League Rookie of the Week.
“He doesn’t turn the ball over and he shares the ball, he gets assists by getting to people at the right spot at the right time.”
Senior midfielder Bobby Lucas came through at the right time for Princeton, winning six-of-eight face-offs in the second half.
“We had a man up to start the half and we seemed settled in defensively,” said Bates.
“They get a goal and it is 6-4; you are never comfortable. We weren’t doing well on face-offs to that point. In the third and fourth quarter, Bobby Lucas was the change. He really gave us life, he controlled the face-offs.”
Junior star Tom Schreiber helped Princeton control the fourth quarter, tallying a goal and an assist as the Tigers outscored the Pride 3-1 over the last 15 minutes of the contest.
“Schreiber gave us some goals and he controls the game with his energy,” said Bates of Schreiber, who had two goals and an assist on the day with sophomore Mike MacDonald chipping in three goals. “He got some ground balls and did things that don’t show up on the scoresheet. He settles you down.”
The new-look Princeton defense settled in nicely, giving up four goals over the last 51:18 of the game after yielding three goals in the first 8:42 of the contest.
“They started to play better as a unit, they got more confidence,” said Bates, in assessing the defensive effort.
“Jack Strabo and Chris White gave us veteran leadership at shortstick middie. That is the most underrated position, it is thankless. They played so well that we didn’t need to slide as much. Derick and Nick settled down, Alex Beatty and Mark Strabo also played well. Greg Raymond (assistant coach) did a good job of preparing them; we were ready for what Hofstra does.”
Freshman goalie Matt O’Connor appeared to be ready for prime time, making six saves in his college debut as he follows in the footsteps of four-year starter Tyler Fiorito.
“One of the reasons we recruited him is that he has such high character; he is unflappable, he doesn’t get too high or too low,” said Bates of the former Lawrenceville School standout.
“He had a good week of practice. I think he is going to get better and better. He is a gamer, he always gives you his best. He just has to be consistent, he doesn’t have to be brilliant like Tyler was at times.”
Leaving Hofstra with a victory was a major high for the Tigers. “We are excited to get out of there with a win, it is a tough place to play,” said Bates.
“The weather was brutal, it was raining sideways and it was cold. It affected our stickwork. If we had gone up to Hofstra and come out with a loss, we might be doubting ourselves. It was great to get a win in that environment, Princeton hadn’t won up there in six years.”
This Friday, 12th-ranked Princeton heads into another hostile environment as it plays at No. 3 Johns Hopkins (3-0) in Baltimore.
“As Greg Raymond said, Hopkins is Hofstra on steroids,” said Bates. “They are a very seasoned team, they have upperclassmen everywhere. They are playing with a lot of confidence, they are feeling pretty good about themselves. They play with a lot of energy and they have no weaknesses.”
Bates promises that Princeton will bring plenty of energy into the annual showdown with the Blue Jays.
“We have to be opportunistic and play smart,” said Bates. “We can’t turn the ball over and we have to face-off well. I can tell you that the guys will be excited to be playing at Homewood Field, this is always an important game for us. It is a going to be on national TV and there is going to be a buzz. We have got to withstand their early barrage, we know they are going to try to knock us out. We have to bob and weave and counter punch.”
If the Tigers can build on their effort at Hofstra, they should have a puncher’s chance against Hopkins.