OPENING ACT: Princeton University men’s lacrosse player Kip Orban eludes a defender in a game last year. This spring, senior captain and star midfielder Orban figures to again be one of Princeton’s top weapons, having scored a goal in 26 straight games, the longest active streak in Division I. The Tigers open the season by hosting Manhattan on February 14, looking to improve on the 7-6 record it posted in 2014. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Coming off a disappointing 7-6 season last spring with five of those losses coming by a total of seven goals, the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team is getting back to basics.
“The focus is more on fundamentals; we have kept it simple and I think that will pay off,” said Princeton head coach Chris Bates, who brings a record of 42-30 into his sixth year guiding the Tiger program.
“There were some things that we assumed in the past. We have put fundamentals under the microscope. It is important that they understand every nuance. We are giving them a clear explanation for everything we are doing.”
Bates likes the response he is getting from his players to the new approach. “It is a pleasure to be around this team,” said Bates, whose team opens the season by hosting Manhattan on February 14. “There is a sense of purpose in this group. It started this summer with them taking the next steps.”
Senior midfield star, Kip Orban, the team’s lone captain, is setting a good tone for the group.
“It is Kip’s team in a lot of ways, he has broad shoulders and has handled it well,” said Bates of Orban, who tallied 21 goals and eight assists last season and has scored a goal in 26 straight games, the longest active streak in Division I.
“I like the leadership we are getting from top to bottom. The senior class has grown up and evolved in terms of discipline, they have made real progress. The junior class is a class in waiting; there is a lot of talent there. The sophomores and freshmen have fallen in line.”
While the Tigers have a void to fill with the graduation of All-American midfielder Tom Schreiber, the team’s leading scorer each of the last four years, Bates thinks Princeton will be more balanced.
“We miss Tom, both in terms of his competitiveness and talent,” said Bates.
“We have to redefine ourselves. We will be more dispersed, which I think will be good.”
Princeton features a good one-two punch on attack in senior Mike MacDonald (19 goals and 22 assists in 2014) and junior Ryan Ambler (24 goals, 19 assists).
“Mike and Ryan are our two stalwarts, they are two tried and true guys; I know what I am going to get from them,” said Bates.
“Mike had double hip surgery, that speaks to his commitment. It was a long summer and fall of rehab. He committed to doing everything possible to be better. I expect him to score like he did as a sophomore. Ryan has taken the next step. He has matured and really understands our system. We have told him to own this thing and to be a true quarterback. He has added layers to his game.”
Providing depth on attack will be sophomores Adam Hardej, Gavin McBride and Sean Connors along with freshmen Riley Thompson and Greg Merrill.
“The big guy, Adam Hardej (6’6, 225 pounds), is getting the first look at attack,” said Bates.
“It is a new position for him but he has such gifts and athleticism. We have great depth. Gavin McBride and Sean Connors are next in line. We have two freshman bookend smurfs. Riley Thompson is 5’5 140. He is as tough as they come and knows the game. Greg Merrill (5’8, 160) has great burst and is tough as well.”
Junior Jake Froccaro (27 goals, 14 assists) should provide toughness and production in the midfield.
“Jake is being relied on to face-off,” said Bates. “He will be playing a more defensive midfield and be more of a two-way player. He will play half field after timeouts or in critical situations. We are going to spot him.”
Orban along with sophomore Zach Currier (6 goals, 4 assists), seniors Will Rotatori (5 goals, 1 assist) and Will Himler (1 goal) will be counted on for scoring in the midfield.
“Kip will draw the pole, he is athletic and has prepared so well,” said Bates of the 6’2, 200-pound Orban.
“Zach Currier is going to make an impact. He was coming on at the end of last season. He did well in the fall and has been stellar. Rotatori and Himler are two seniors, they have experience playing in the system. We are going to mix and match with midfield and attack.”
As shortstick midfield, junior Austin deButts could emerge as a standout.
“He has been very good, he played behind three seniors last year but did well whenever he got on the field,” said Bates, who will also look at a trio of freshmen: Austin Sims, Sam Bonafede, and J.T. Caputo in that spot.
“He is not the biggest or fastest but has a good lax brain. Sims is a heralded, athletic kid, he will log minutes. Bonafede and Caputo are both athletic and tough.”
In Bates’ view, the addition of new assistant coach Dylan Sheridan, who worked with former Princeton head coach Bill Tierney in Denver, should help the Tiger defense be tougher.
“Dylan is a very good teacher of defense, this is the third defensive coordinator in three years but upperclassmen understand the system,” said Bates.
“It is the tried and true Coach Tierney Princeton defense. The older guys know the basic tenets. The guys have adapted well. It is a more experienced team. Last year we had a first year defensive coordinator with a lot of inexperienced guys and that was tough.”
The Tigers are more battle-tested at the defensive end, as key performers sophomore Will Reynolds, sophomore Sam Gravitte, junior Mark Strabo, and sophomore Bear Goldstein all saw plenty of time last spring.
“Will Reynolds will be at longstick midfielder,” said Bates. “Dylan suggested that; we think he will blossom there with his stickwork and athleticism. He is a prime time athlete. Sam Gravitte will back him up, he played well last year. Mark Strabo is back on close defense, he is a good on-ball defender. He and Bear Goldstein are bookends and both tough cover guys. The third spot is up for grabs.”
At goalie, the Tigers will be going with senior Eric Sanschagrin (10.47 goals against, .533 save percentage in 2014) as the starter at the outset.
“It is Eric’s job and he will get every opportunity to keep it,” asserted Bates.
“We think he is well suited to play 60 minutes. Matt O’Connor (10.91 goals against, .464 save percentage) has experience. The freshman (Tyler Blaisdell) is good and is nipping at their heels. Everyone has settled into their roles. The team is comfortable with Eric back there.”
The Tigers are comfortable coming into the season under the radar, not being ranked in the preseason Top 20.
“The vibe and chemistry feel good,” said Bates. “We have evolved, it is a good group that is definitely hungry. They look around and see the publicity that everybody has gotten and they are OK with that. There is a ton of work to do. At Princeton, we set a compass of Ivy playoffs and beyond.”
In Bates’ view, his team must work smarter at the offensive end of the field to have a big season.
“We need to manage the game offensively, we have shifted how we play,” said Bates. “We need to grind it out more. We have to realize on the offensive end that we are also playing for defense and the whole team. We could pressure you immediately on a possession but that became counterproductive at times.”
Looking ahead to the opener this Saturday against Manhattan (0-1), Bates is anxious to see how the shift in focus plays out.
“It is a week early for us, we just started preseason on February 1 so there are only two weeks to prepare,” said Bates. “The focus is on us and playing our own game. We have to figure ourselves out. We have questions about our rotation and we have to figure out who we are.”