February 17, 2016

After Losing Major Star Power to Graduation, PU Men’s Lax Focused on Basics as It Starts 2016


PASSING FANCY: Princeton University men’s lacrosse player Ryan Ambler prepared to unload the ball in a game last season. Senior star attacker Amber, the team’s leading returning scorer after tallying 51 points last season on 22 goals and 29 assists, will be counted on to trigger the Princeton offense this spring. The Tigers open their 2016 campaign when they host NJIT on February 20. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

For the first two days of preseason practice this year, the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team put away their sticks and balls.

Instead, the Tigers spent their first session doing running drills as part of “The Program,” which is designed to build teamwork, leadership, and accountability, and is run by no-nonsense combat veteran Sam Cila. On the second day of practice, the Tigers convened at the Dillon Gym pool at 4:40 a.m. for some  challenging swimming exercises.

Princeton head coach Chris Bates believes that the trial by fire will help steel his team for the challenges ahead.

“We thought it would be a little bit of a challenge obviously and any season is filled with adversity,” said Bates, whose team went 9-6 overall last year, tying for the Ivy League title but losing 11-10 to Yale in the league tournament final and failing to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

“To put our guys in a situation where that adversity is shared by all early, I just think is a healthy exercise. I really believe that our guys learned a lot about themselves and the challenge going forward is to not lose sight of some of that learning and have that be a foundation that we can refer back to and continue to build on.”

Before the season even starts, the Tigers are facing adversity with the graduation of record breaking offensive stars, attackman Mike MacDonald (78 points on 48 goals and 30 assists in 2015) and midfielder Kip Orban (52 points on 45 goals and seven assists).

“There will be some transition with two bona fide stars in Mike and Kip graduating,” said Bates.

“Those two are just as good as it gets so we will not be relying on that star power.”

Princeton will be looking to senior attackman Ryan Ambler, its leading returning scorer after tallying 51 points last season on 22 goals and 29 assists, to pick up some of that slack.

“Ryan is as good a quarterback of an offense in terms of his understanding as I have been around and that is high praise,” said Bates, whose team opens its 2016 campaign when it hosts NJIT on February 20.

“Ryan is as competitive as anybody but also as a leader on that end of the field. He has got a presence and all eyes go to him. He can net out in the same spot with his points but his value is not purely derived from how many points he puts on the board. He makes everybody better; he is a facilitator on the offensive end.”

Junior Gavin McBride (24 goals and 13 assists in 2015) and sophomore Riley Thompson (2 goals, 4 assists) will be playing with Ambler on the team’s top attack line.

“Right now it is Gavin and Riley Thompson with Ryan, those guys have a nice unit and are playing well together,” said Bates.

“The nice part is about how we play offense and specifically with those guys as well. We can bump guys around. All three of them can come from the box.”

Bates believes that he has a number of guys who can contribute offensively.

“There are no superstars at the end of the field; we are priding ourselves on sharing the ball and not caring so much about who puts it in the back of the net or who even assists but being a really great unit,” said Bates, noting that freshmen Carter Flaig, Emmet Corduroy, and Dawson McKenzie, along with junior Sean Connors (10 goals, 6 assists) and junior Adam Hardej (6 goals, 1 assist) will also see time on offense.

“I think we are going to get a lot of production out of a lot of different guys, that will be critical for our success. We are going to try to be unpredictable there and create some matchups. We are very much a work in progress but we like what we see in how the ball is moving and how the whole unit is operating together.”

The Tigers do boast a budding superstar in the midfield with junior Zach Currier (11 goals, 24 assists), a preseason second-team All-American.

“There are a lot more eyes on him and we are trying to simplify his half-field approach,” said Bates.

“His nature is so much of a playmaker. He always just wants to make a great play and we are trying to dial him back a little bit to help him understand how to fit more in a unit with five other guys and maybe instead of the first part of the possession at the end of a possession, making a great play at the end.”

Senior Bobby Weaver and sophomore Austin Sims (2 assists) will assume key roles in the Princeton midfield unit.

“The guys that will play both ways are Bobby Weaver and Austin Sims,” said Bates.

“We are very comfortable playing them both offensively and defensively, Bobby and Austin were shortstick d-middies last year but they are two of our better offensive threats as well.

Battled-tested senior Austin deButts (26 groundballs in 2015) will spearhead the defensive midfield.

“Austin deButts is our prime shortstick middie,” said Bates. “He, along with Zach, Bobby, and Austin will get the lion’s share of d-mid time and then two freshmen, Mike Morean and Strib Walker. We are very pleased with their development, they are guys who can play and they will play early.”

As for the face-off spot Bates believes sophomore Sam Bonafede (109-for-232 face-offs in 2015) can have a big year.

“Sam is our primary guy and you hope that he gained some experience and takes next steps,” said Bates.

“Waiting in the wings are Jack O’Brien, who has had a really good year to date. Zach (55-for-123 face-offs) is always an option there. We prefer not to use Zach on a lot of reps because he does so much elsewhere but if called upon and you need him, he is ready.”

On defense, the Tigers return some players who have seen a lot of reps in the career in junior Bear Goldstein, junior Mark Strabo, junior Alistair Berven, sophomore Will Reynolds, and junior Sam Gravitte.

“If we stay healthy we feel like we are growing up on that end of the field,” said Bates.

“We have two cornerstones at close which will be Mark and Bear with Bear being a captain and an all-Ivy guy. We have good experience with Alistair Bergen and Sam Gravitte, who can play both close and up top. Will looks great, he is a prime time kind of kid and he has a really good head for the game. He is very skilled but also thinks the game very well.”

In goal, Princeton is looking at sophomore Tyler Blaisdell (10.44 goals against average in 10 appearances in 2015) and senior Matt O’Connor, who saw just 7:54 of action last season.

“The final decision hasn’t been made, both have played well so we are letting that play out here for the rest of the preseason,” said Bates.

“Tyler has steadily improved throughout this year and Matt is really playing as well because he has really worked hard, he is dialed in. We feel comfortable with both. We hope not to juggle, we hope to pick one and go with it.”

In order to be successful this spring, Princeton needs to be dialed in at face-off and in goal.

“I think we need to be steady at face-offs and in the cage; you need to be strong up the middle,” said Bates.

“You need the ball and you need to save the ball. Those guys need to be solid there, not to say that we need All-Americans, we just need solid consistent play.”

Bates is also looking for some solid play around the goal. “Offensively, we need to play within ourselves and find ourselves,” said Bates.

“On any given day, different guys are going to step up. I think if we can embrace that and really share the ball, manage the game, and be smart and opportunistic, we can be better than folks might expect.”

While Princeton will be looking to pick up as many wins as possible before it gets into Ivy play, Bates is emphasizing getting better over the long haul.

“We have a healthy respect for our opponents but we have to focus on our unit development,” said Bates.

“There are some early tests. NJIT is developing, Hofstra is always tough, and then we are thrown to the wolves with Hopkins and Maryland. I think that is good. It is going to take us some time to figure ourselves out and hopefully we can focus on our fundamentals and be successful. We also have the long view in mind and that has got to be key for us. It is a marathon, we can’t worry about the sprint.”