As the ESPNU announcers introduced the television broadcast of the clash between the No. 10 Princeton University men’s lacrosse team and No. 13 Brown last Sunday, the focus was on offense.
Utilizing an uptempo, run-and-gun style, visiting Brown came into the day averaging 16.88 goals a game, second best in the country. Princeton, for its part, was scoring 12.57 goals a game with a shooting percentage of .370, the fourth highest in the country.
The announcers, who included former Princeton great Ryan Boyle ’04, were hyping the game as a shootout, predicting that the teams would both end the day in the teens in goals at least.
Nine minutes into the contest, that script was playing out as Brown raced out to a 4-1 lead before a crowd of 1,746 at Class of 1952 Stadium
But at that point, Princeton senior goalie Eric Sanschagrin and the Tiger defense huddled and decided to deliver a plot twist.
“They do a great job in transition so they got some quick ones in the beginning of the first quarter and after that we just talked as a unit and said this is it, we are going to start shutting this down,” said Sanschagrin.
With Sanschagrin finding a rhythm, making a number of big saves, the Tigers closed the door on the Bears, holding them to one goal the rest of the half. At the other end of the field, Brown goalie Jack Kelly was standing on his head as well but Princeton did get two past him to narrow the gap to 5-3 at halftime.
Our team was putting me in good spots to make saves, there were a lot of times that they were rolling (Dylan) Molloy inside and keeping him to a single shot and I was able to pick up some of those,” said Sanschagrin, reflecting on his first half effort.
“I was talking at halftime to one of our faculty fellows, I said I don’t know if the TV guys are happy that it is a battle of goalies but I think it was good TV.”
The rest of the contest made good viewing for the national audience as Princeton tied the game at 5-5 before Brown scored five unanswered goals to take a 10-5 lead. The Tigers responded with three straight goals to make it a 10-8 game with 3:54 left in regulation. Neither team scored after that as the Tigers dropped to 6-2 overall and 2-1 Ivy while Brown improved to 8-1 overall, 2-0 Ivy.
While the loss stung, Sanschagrin had no qualms with Princeton’s defensive effort on the day.
“We knew we had a big challenge at us this week but I think coach (Chris Bates) prepared us well; we had a good game plan,” said Sanschagrin, who ended with 15 saves, one short of his career single-game high.
“Brian Pickup absolutely did a phenomenal job in his matchup on Dylan Molloy. I don’t know if he had a single goal in the whole game. I was really impressed with that and proud of the way he played. But in any game like this when you lose a close one there are plenty of plays where you want stuff back.”
For Sanschagrin, who had made 10 starts in the previous three seasons, getting the chance to be Princeton’s top goalie this spring has been special.
“This is living the dream, this is something I have always looked forward to and I kept battling,” said Sanschagrin, a 5’10, 185-pound native of Carlsbad, Calif.
“This year is finally the first year I got to start the season from the beginning and it has been a lot of fun. This group of guys has grown pretty close together and it is special to have an opportunity to play here where decades of Hall of Fame level goalies have performed. It is great to be a part of that, I try to do my best not to embarrass myself out there.”
Keeping his nose to the grindstone in the offseason, Sanschagrin is making the most out of his opportunity.
“I worked hard this summer to get in shape; I saw a lot of shots,” said Sanschagrin, who is giving up 10.82 goals a game with a save percentage of .518.
“I try to be a better leader out there and clear the ball with poise. As a goalie you just have to be confident, that is something that is developed over the years.”
Sanschagrin’s play this season has earned the confidence of teammates and coaches.
“I didn’t play particularly well against Rutgers (a 12-11 win for Princeton) and they turn right back to me for the Yale game (an 11-10 win for Princeton),” said Sanschagrin.
“Things like that show that the team has confidence in you too. I can go out there and I can play my game and trust that if I don’t make a save on one I should, I am going to bounce back and make the next couple. It comes down to that mentality, you just have to say next shot and it is good when the team has confidence in you. Hopefully in games like this I can come up with a couple of saves and let us battle back in.”
Princeton head coach Chris Bates was proud of how his team battled through the ups and downs against Brown.
“We talked about it being a game of runs and the efficiency with their offense,” said Bates.
“We were mentally prepared for that. We knew whether we are going on a four-goal run or they are, we knew we would be able to take next steps. We talked about playing with poise all week and I think we did. I thought we stayed under control. We didn’t get too high or too low, which kept us in really because there were times they could have pulled away and we didn’t let them.”
Like many, Bates was a little surprised that the contest became a battle of goalies.
“Kelly was lights out for them, he was clearly a difference maker,” said Bates. “We got frustrated; we had 30 shots at halftime and three goals. If you want a story line, there it is. At the end of the day you have to put the ball in the back of the net. I thought our shot selection was OK. We generated a high volume of shots but they were not going in, that is the name of the game. Eric had a very solid day. Early on, we had a question or two but then he settled right in. He played with confidence, he gave us the game we needed to win it. Defensively we did a good job.”
The Tigers didn’t get the job done offensively, hitting a 20-minute lull after tying the game at 5-5 early in the third quarter.
“Face-offs were part of it, we didn’t have the ball and they were able to create some transition,” said Bates.
“We had some early offense opportunities but when they make saves on those and the ball goes the other way, it is the nature of the game they want to play, that up and down.”
While Bates liked the way his team fought after it got down 10-5, he acknowledged it was too little, too late.
“We took a little while to get ourselves going; we shot the ball but I thought we didn’t play with great energy,” said Bates, who got three goals and an assist from senior star Mike MacDonald.
“At that time of the game when you are down five with five minutes to go, you have got no choice. We stepped up and put the foot on the gas pedal a little bit. We can score, this is a team that can get on its runs.”
Sanschagrin, for his part, believes that Princeton is still in a position to make a good run this spring.
“We know we are going to see that team again; we are thinking down the line at the Ivy tournament,” said Sanschagrin.
“The lesson to take is that we have to be able to respond and keep battling in close games. There were plenty of plays that we executed well. We have just got to finish the play. You can’t have plays where you execute half and don’t finish. There were a lot of times where their goalie made big saves off what would have been big momentum type plays for us. It is not good when that happens but we try to battle through those.”