June 1, 2022

PU Men’s Lax Battles Valiantly in NCAA Semis, Falling 13-8 to Undefeated Powerhouse Maryland

RUNNING INTO TROUBLE: Princeton University men’s lacrosse player Alexander Vardaro, left, heads to goal last Saturday night against Maryland in the NCAA semis. Junior midfielder Vardaro scored a team-high two goals as the Tigers fell 13-8 to undefeated and eventual national champion Maryland at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. (Photo by Noel Valero)

By Bill Alden

After the start of its NCAA semifinal game against Maryland was delayed for four hours by stormy weather, the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team was greeted by blue skies as it hit Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., last Saturday.

Princeton, though, was seeing red about a half hour later as undefeated and top-seeded powerhouse Maryland built a 5-1 first quarter lead over the fifth-seeded Tigers.

But a scrappy Princeton team, which started the season unranked and clawed its way to the Final 4, didn’t flinch, narrowing the gap to 7-4 by halftime.

“We’ve kind of been there before, been through a lot of up and downs, been all over the place this season,” said Tiger senior goalie Erik Peters. “We had all the trust in the world in each other and just the next play. I think that kind of mentality let us get back in the game and keep going.”

Maryland kept going after the break, going on a 4-0 run, as the sun set on the Tigers with the Terps pulling away to a 13-8 run. Two days later, Maryland went on to edge seventh-seeded Cornell 9-7 in the championship game to end the spring with an 18-0 record.

While the loss to the Terps stung, Princeton head coach Matt Madalon was proud of what his team accomplished as it went 11-5 on the way to making its first Final 4 since 2004.

“Credit to an outstanding Maryland team, they capitalized on every mistake we made,” said Madalon. “It is a heck of a team, very well coached. Our senior class group that brought us back to this weekend. I am very proud for our program. Obviously it didn’t work out the way we wanted, but we’re very happy to be here.”

A critical sequence of the contest came late in the first half when Maryland was hit with a 3:00 non-releasable penalty for an illegal body check. Trailing 7-3, Princeton only managed one goal in the extended man-up opportunity,

“I think obviously very fortunate they ended up calling that three-minute and locking it in, kind of gave us an opportunity to claw back in it,” said Madalon, who got two goals from Alexander Vardaro in the loss with Alex Slusher, Chris Brown, Sam English, Christian Ronda, Coulter Mackesy, and Jamie Atkinson scoring one apiece.

“The field was kind of tilted at that point towards the Terps’ way. So we were able to punch one in, get a little momentum, a little slow out of the start and then we ended up taking it into the third quarter to avoid the face-off battle, start with possessions, see if we’d get something going. They defense did a great job, changed the shutoff, floating shut, so it is a very well-coached team.”

Senior star defender George Baughan, who spearheaded a gritty defensive effort by Princeton as it held Maryland to six goals below its scoring average and helped pressure it into 19 turnovers, credited the Tigers with showing a battling spirit over the last two years and for all 60 minutes on Saturday.

“I am just so proud of these guys; we fought through all the adversity with the pandemic, and it’s just a credit to our staff,” said Baughan, who had one ground ball and two caused turnovers against the Terps as the foes fought hard for possession with Maryland holding a slight 38-34 edge in ground balls.

“All of our upperclassmen, everyone staying together finding a way to get it done. When we came back in September we just committed to it, believed in each other. We were unranked. To come out and finish at the Final Four I’d say is a success.”

That success didn’t come easy as Princeton had to re-set after disappointing defeats to Harvard (19-16 on April 23) and Cornell (18-15 on April 30) in its two final regular season contests.

“I think one of the biggest things for us was those two games we lost to Harvard and Cornell,” said Baughan. “We came back, and we called it upgrade season. The coaches did a great job of getting us prepared. Coming back and just playing with a newfound intensity and physicality and just trusting that even though we lost those two games you’re going to come back and make a run. That’s something I look back on and just something really special.”

Madalon credited his players with adjusting well to the mixing and matching of the lineup.

“We were still kind of moving our pieces around; even early in the spring moving pieces around,” said Madalon.

“I don’t think we had a consistent lineup defensively all year. We really did move guys in and out. We had injuries here or there. Credit to our guys, our coaches preparing our depth guys. They did a really nice job.”

In Madalon’s view, the program’s long-awaited return trip to the Final 4 could turn out to be a harbinger of things to come for the Tigers.

“Hopefully the toughness and the leadership of this senior class that carried us for this opportunity to this weekend will really have a lasting impact on the program, and I think it will,” said Madalon.

“I think it does burn for those young guys, all those young guys walking off the field saying like, ‘hey, coach, we’ll get you back; we’ll be back here.’ For everyone to have this experience, I think it’ll continue to drive us forward, just trying to earn this opportunity for our guys again.”

As Peters heads into the sunset of his career, he will long savor the experience of the run to the Final 4 in his final campaign.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of little moments, between little things our strength coach did the day before to get us fired up or an injured guy putting up posters in every person’s locker before our first game,” said Peters, who made 13 saves in the defeat.

“Things like that I’ll look back to, will never forget. Just the support staff, the guys from the last guy on the depth chart to the first one were so bought in. It was incredible.”