February 22, 2023

Midfielder Vardaro Starts Senior Season With a Bang, Tallying 7 Points as PU Men’s Lax Tops Monmouth

ALEXANDER THE GREAT: Princeton University men’s lacrosse player Alexander Vardaro races upfield last Saturday as Princeton hosted Monmouth in its season opener. Midfielder Vardaro started his senior campaign with a bang, tallying a career-high five goals along with two assists as Princeton defeated Monmouth 22-9. In upcoming action, the No. 3 Tigers were slated to host Manhattan on February 21 and defending national champion and No. 9 Maryland on February 25. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For Alexander Vardaro, taking a gap year from Princeton University in 2020-21 resulted in some soul-searching and led him to change his perspective on things.

“It was pretty big for my mindset to understand what my priorities were in life and in lacrosse,” said Vardaro, a midfielder for the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team. “Going in that year after COVID, you think about how much time you really have here.”

The year away from school also allowed Vardaro to develop physically as he spent time in Park City, Utah with a group of teammates before they headed south to Texas.

“We were training every day, sometimes twice a day. I was in some of the best shape of my life there,” said Vardaro, reflecting on his experience in Utah where the players were working out in the mountains at an elevation of 6,890 feet. “We went down to Austin, Texas, after that. It was a different environment. We were basically on the college campus, so we got to see what that big rah-rah school is like compared to here, but I still do appreciate what Princeton has to offer.”

Returning to action for the 2022 season, Vardaro was a changed player for the Tigers as they advanced to the NCAA Final 4, tallying 26 goals and 15 assists after totaling 23 goals and seven assists in his first two college campaigns.

Last Saturday as Princeton hosted Monmouth to open the 2023 season, senior star Vardaro picked up where he left off last spring, scoring a career-high five goals along with two assists, helping the Tigers roll to a 22-9 triumph before a crowd of 1,081 at Class of 1952 Stadium on a blustery afternoon.

“I feel good, I am healthy, confident,” said Vardaro, a 5’9, 195-pound native of Woodmere, N.Y., reflecting on his opening day performance. “A lot of them were assisted goals. I have got to give it to the guys giving me the ball — all I had to do was just put the ball in the net at the end of the day.”

Playing on midfield line with fellow seniors Christian Ronda (1 goal, 2 assists against Monmouth) and Sam English (2 assists) gives Vardaro additional confidence.

“It is good to build chemistry with those two,” said Vardaro. “We started pretty much every game last year together and we are trying to take another step this year by engaging more chemistry stuff.”

The Tigers collectively have developed a special team chemistry.

“A big part of that was the trip we went to Barcelona this fall together the whole team, that was big,” said Vardaro. “We are all really good friends to begin with. It is really easy to work and play with these guys. Those are some of my best friends.”

In the wake of the run to the NCAA semis last year, Princeton’s first appearance in the final weekend since 2004, Vardaro believes that the team has potential to go even further this spring.

“We are going to try to improve in a lot of aspects, there are some question marks,” said Vardaro. “We lost some good guys in Chris Brown, Andrew Song, Jamie Atkinson, and George Baughan who were senior leaders. Trying to fill in those footsteps is pretty crucial. But it is similar goals. We want to make it to the Final 4 again and win it this time.”

While the Tigers were a little ragged at times in the win over Monmouth, Vardaro saw it as a step in the right direction.

“We were coming off of a few scrimmages, it is good to play a game,” said Vardaro. “We haven’t played in a while. You flip the switch when it comes to games. You put on the jersey, you represent the P. It means something more than just scrimmaging. It was good to play.”

Princeton head coach Matt Madalon was happy to see his team back in action.

“It was just good to get out here and get the season going,” said Madalon. “These guys are so hungry. Coming off of last year, a lot of sacrifices have been made. People are just ready to get going. I think perspective-wise last year’s run helps but these guys know it is a fresh start. We have to earn everything.”

The Princeton attack didn’t take too long to get rolling on Saturday as the Tigers jumped out at a 5-1 first quarter lead and went into halftime ahead 12-3.

“Our offense is always going to be predicated on sharing the ball and a lot of off-ball movement,” said Madalon. “I think those guys just took a minute to get going but they got going right off the bat. We were happy.”

Vardaro benefited from that ball movement. “He keeps getting better and better, he is a really talented young guy,” said Madalon of Vardaro. “He does it off ball, he does it with the ball. He is really just a great teammate and a great line mate too. He is the beneficiary of some good lacrosse.”

The team’s attack unit got a spark from sophomore Braedon Saris as he tallied six points in his first career start. Senior Alex Slusher chipped in one goal and two assists while sophomore Coulter Mackesy contributed four goals and two assists.

“To get his first start and go three goals and three assists, the guys are behind him,” said Madalon of Saris. “He came in and put in a lot of work over the fall and the offseason. He had a good summer in box lacrosse. He was coming in confident and he has done a nice job. Slusher and Mackesy are constants. They are doing a good job of bringing Braedon along and helping that chemistry.”

At the defensive end, the Tigers looked solid. “All in all, it was pretty good; we were happy with it,” said Madalon. “We would love some of those back. I am sure the goalies would love one or two of those back but it was good defensive play. We are still learning and growing at this point of the season. Pace [Billings] coming out and taking the kid he was covering, No. 2 (Cade Stratton) who we felt was a heck of a player. [Ben] Finlay and [Colin] Mulshine did a good job at the pole position. Michael Bath got his first start, Luca Lazzaretto did a really nice job. As usual, our defensive midfield crew did a heck of a job.”

The team’s two veteran goalies, senior Griffen Rakower and junior Michael Gianforcaro, looked sharp as Rakower had six saves while Gianforcaro made five stops.

“We have two great goalies in terms of Rakower and Gianforcaro,” said Madalon. “Griffen settled in the first half nicely; Michael made some great saves in the second half.”

After hosting Manhattan on February 21, Princeton, now ranked No. 3 nationally in the Inside Lacrosse Media Poll, will welcome powerhouse Maryland, who topped Princeton in a regular season meeting last season and then knocked the Tigers out of the NCAA tourney.

“Maryland is the defending national champs and the team that ended our season so it is always a great opportunity,” said Madalon, looking ahead to the February 25 clash.

Vardaro and his teammates are relishing the opportunity to have a rematch with the No. 9 Terps.

“It is a quick turnaround; we have some justice to pay,” said Vardaro. “Maryland is a terrific team, coach [John] Tillman runs a tight ship there. They are going to be playing us with their best ability and we are going to come after them.”