March 25, 2020

Tiger Men’s Lax Showed Togetherness, Skill, Saddened as 5-0 Season Halted by COVID-19

MARCH SADNESS: Princeton University men’s lacrosse head coach Matt Madalon, center, instructs his players during a game this spring. Madalon had guided Princeton to a 5-0 record and the No. 3 ranking in the Inside Lacrosse media poll before the rest of the 2020 season was canceled earlier this month due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For Matt Madalon, making a deep postseason run as a senior goalie with the Roanoke College men’s lacrosse team in 2006 stands as a highlight of his life.

“I remember my senior spring; every day I think about it,” said Madalon.

“I have a such a wonderful memory of making a Final Four run with my Roanoke buddies. We lost to Salisbury but I remember everything.”

This spring, Princeton University men’s lacrosse head coach Madalon was hoping to see players enjoy a similar experience as the Tigers had started 5-0, beating perennial powers University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins on the way to getting ranked No. 3 nationally in the Inside Lacrosse media poll.

So when the rest of the 2020 season was canceled earlier this month due to the COVID-19 outbreak and his players were deprived of seeing how far they could have gone this spring, Madalon felt their pain.

“It was heartbreaking, there was a bunch of sobbing,” said Madalon, recalling the team meeting held after the announcement of the decision to cancel the rest of the campaign.

“The guys were really sad and heartbroken. Guys weren’t sure how to feel, everyone was just so sad. It is just such an abrupt end; devastation, shock was most of it.”

In reflecting on what his team accomplished before that abrupt end, Madalon was most proud of the togetherness exhibited by the players.

“We were just really happy that we had the time to accomplish what we did; god forbid this happened a little while ago and we would not have even been given the season and it would be a different story,” said Madalon.

“What was so special for us and what we really wanted to try to bottle was the love for one another that our guys had. It was a team that truly enjoyed being together and hanging out together and spending all of their time together and working together. You work your tail off as a coach behind the scenes to hope that you get guys to develop that.”

Before the Tigers even took the field to start regular season action, Madalon sensed something special about the 2020 squad.

“We never got ourselves prepared physically, mentally to make that early run and I think that is what was so impressive about our group,” said Madalon.

“We did things a little differently and our senior leadership really owned the offseason just a little differently. We have always had great senior classes but with this one as we worked our way through December and January, it just felt a little different.”

Madalon won’t soon forget his Class of 2020. “The seniors are awesome, all of these guys are all great,” said Madalon, whose senior group included such battle-tested performers as Michael Sowers, Connor McCarthy, Arman Medghalchi, Phillip Robertson, Nick Bauer, Jon Levine, and David Sturtz.

“These guys have played a lot of valuable minutes. I am heartbroken for those guys because for me it is so important to know when that last time you put on the jersey, even if it is in a conference semifinal game. You know if you win, you get one more but if you lose, you know it could be your last. Even if you are 0-13 and it is the final regular season game, you know that it is your last. That is a hard pill for me to swallow for our seniors.”

It is an especially hard pill to swallow for superstar attacker Sowers, the program’s all-time scoring leader with 302 points on 121 goals and 181 assists who had already tallied 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 2020 to mark himself as a frontrunner for the Tewaaraton Award, given to the top player in college lacrosse.

“Of course we are sad for him, but I can’t be more sad for him than I am for any of the other guys,” said Madalon.

“He is such a good kid and he is such a great representation of a Princeton student athlete. He plays the right way, he lives his life the right way. He does the right things on the field, he does the right things off the field. That is what makes me sad. He brought our team together; he is obviously such a big person in the sport of lacrosse but it never felt like that in our locker room.”

With the NCAA having announced that eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports, Madalon is hoping that Sowers and his classmates may get the chance to return to the field for Princeton.

“I feel for our sophomores, I feel for our juniors, I feel for all of these guys, and the freshmen only got five games,” said Madalon.

“This is their life with their families from traveling around and putting all of this into it. There are a lot of people that want to see this through so there are a lot of folks that want to come back and finish their senior year. The Ivy League has to figure this out quickly — how they can help not only the seniors, but how they can help all of their student athletes maintain and have their true experience at Princeton. These kids didn’t come here to graduate in another jersey, they came here to graduate in orange and black.”

While not being able to finish the 2020 season is painful, Madalon believes his players can gain some valuable perspective from having the game taken away from them.

“We all wanted to see this year through and have them gain so much more experience,” said Madalon.

“This experience alone will help you cherish things; there is so much to be learned and gained from this. I hope we don’t have harder times ahead. In terms of the foundational piece, it will go back to what the seniors did over December and January, showing the program how to work and how to prepare to put yourself in a position to be 5-0.”

In the meantime, Madalon, who has two young daughters, Waverly and Whitney, with his wife Ashley, will be cherishing other things as he hunkers down at home.

“We have got a lot of family time ahead,” said Madalon. “I think as the world slows down right now, it is a fine time to do it. I don’t think it ever slowed down for my parents’ generation. This is an opportunity to sit back and stay safe.”