May 17, 2023

In a Microcosm of Up-and-Down Campaign, PU Mens’ Lax Falls to Penn State in NCAAs

FOR THE RECORD: Princeton University men’s lacrosse player Coulter Mackesy looks to elude a foe in a game earlier this season. Last Sunday night, sophomore attacker Mackesy tallied six goals but it wasn’t enough as Princeton fell 13-12 at fifth-seeded Penn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Mackesy’s six-goal outburst tied Jesse Hubbard and Chris Massey for the most goals in an NCAA tournament game by a Tiger. In addition, the performance left him at 55 goals this spring, breaking the program’s single-season goals record, one better than Gavin McBride’s 54 in 2017.  The Tigers ended the spring with an 8-7 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University men’s lacrosse team saw a bit of everything that encompassed their season in their first-round NCAA tournament game at fifth-seeded Penn State last Sunday night.

There was the Tigers quick-strike offense highlighted by Coulter Mackesy that enabled them to bolt out to a 7-1 lead. The sophomore finished with six goals to set a new Princeton single-season record with 55 goals.

There were contributions from young players like Andrew McMeekin, who likely wouldn’t have played much this season if it weren’t for a season-ending ACL tear to potential All-American Tyler Sandoval. McMeekin, a freshman, went 18 for 28 at the X against Penn State.

And there were plenty of players like Sandoval and another All-American talent, Sam English, along with standouts like Luc Anderson and Christian Ronda, who were sidelined due to injuries for a team that has been plagued by the injury bug.

And unfortunately for the Tigers, Sunday also marked another heartbreaking loss. The 13-12 season-ending defeat was the fourth one-goal loss (the previous three all came in overtime) of the year. Princeton was 1-4 in one-goal games this year. Penn State rallied to cut the Princeton lead to 9-6 by halftime, then used a 5-0 third-quarter edge to build a lead it would not relent though the Tigers fought back to tie it before Penn State tallied the game-winner and held off Princeton’s final rushes.

“As a coaching staff, that’s why we were so proud of this group and so impressed with this group all year,” said Princeton head coach Matt Madalon, whose team posted a final record of 8-7. “Playing from behind, backs against the wall, getting up, losing a lead, it was a group that stayed pretty tough and consistent. I’m not saying that we were surprised that we came back, but it was another example of that crew just battling.”

The Tigers overcame some significant injury losses this year to qualify for the Ivy League postseason tournament, then won a pair of games to capture the tournament and a spot in the NCAA tournament. They jumped all over Penn State with four different players helping Princeton build a 7-1 advantage barely 20 minutes into the game.

“It’s obviously good to get out of the gate and good to play up, but really we just capitalized on some good plays early on where I think Penn State was just trying to get going,” said Madalon. “They were pretty consistent with how they attack and we were able to get some good stops early. Obviously we were fortunate to get off to a good start.”

Penn State switched to a zone defense that seemed to spark the hosts and slowed the Tigers. The Nittany Lions scored five of the next six goals to narrow the gap to 8-6 before Mackesy scored his fifth goal one minute before halftime for a 9-6 edge at the break. Princeton wouldn’t score again until midway through the fourth quarter. By that time, they were trailing, 12-9, while trying to solve the zone.

“I think it was definitely effective,” said Madalon, who guided Princeton to the NCAA semis last season. “We found a groove early just playing man-to-man and those are just good schemes in terms of playoff lacrosse and in terms of being able to change and make adjustments. They did a really good job. They found a package that worked and we kind of struggled to adapt to it. We’ve had some unfortunate injuries, and it’s no excuse, but as you get guys up there and new combinations of guys are playing together, I do not think we handled it as well as we would have liked.”

Mackesy’s sixth goal snapped a 6-0 Penn State run, then Jake Stevens and Alexander Vardaro followed with goals that tied the game, 12-12, with still six minutes left. Almost two minutes later, Penn State scored the game-winner as the Tigers could not find the equalizer again despite opportunities thanks to McMeekin’s good work on face-offs.

“Our young guy did a good job at the face-off X,” said Madalon. “He was giving us a chance to stay in there possession-wise, even though we weren’t capitalizing every time offensively. We earned enough opportunities to figure it out, and we got some good looks down the stretch and we were able to close it. We got a good look in transition.”

Princeton held the face-off edge as well as a 46-35 shot advantage and won the turnover battle, 17-12. Junior goalie Michael Gianforcaro made eight saves for the Tigers, and Vardaro, with a pair of goals, was the only other Princeton player beside Mackesy to score more than once. Lukas Stanat dished out a pair of assists. The game was the latest test of the Tigers’ depth, and Princeton was forced to use a lineup that was far different than preseason expectations due to injuries to a team that returned a solid number from last year’s final four squad.

“Game experience is so important,” said Madalon. “So many of those guys — even still dealing with the COVID stuff and that lost season — you lose so many opportunities to play in these games and get experience. These young guys, for them to play in an Ivy League tournament and play in a first-round NCAA game and understand the grit it takes to earn these opportunities and then also understand and have that perspective of as much grit as we had to get there, we didn’t have enough to get it done. So you have to go back to the drawing board and understand how you work and prepare. I think that
experience for those guys and our program will be invaluable moving forward.”

Princeton is thrilled to have another two seasons of Mackesy, who built on a big freshman year with an even more impressive sophomore campaign. His six goals equaled the Princeton record for scoring in an NCAA tournament game, tying Jesse Hubbard and Chris Massey. His 55 total goals on the season was one more than Gavin McBride scored in 2017.

“It’s an incredible record to break,” said Madalon. “He needed to do that for us, especially when guys were going down around him. It kind of put more on his plate and he needed to take more opportunities. He’s an impressive young guy, and coming in as a freshman and the step he did take, that’s a testament to how he works. He’s an intense quiet worker and he just continues to get better.”

Mackesy was one of the steady pieces in the Princeton lineup that was retooled numerous times throughout the season.

Players went in and out of the lineup due to injuries that cut into the continuity that enables a team to grow week after week.

English and Ronda were the top goal scores in last year’s NCAA tournament last year, but were unavailable this year due to injury. The Princeton roster impressed the coaching staff with their resolve to push through it to earn an NCAA berth.

“Just an impressive kind of toughness from our crew to continue to battle as lineups changed,” said Madalon.“And you have to play throughout a season with different lineups. Guys go in and out of it, and guys do get injured, and it was just good resiliency. Moving forward, hopefully that sticks in our program. You always want to be a tough, resilient program that’s a tough out. I’m impressed with this crew, led by our 16 seniors.”

Princeton’s senior class helped to put the Tigers back on the radar as a national title contender a year ago, and they kept expectations high again this season. Seniors like Vardaro, Beau Pederson, Cathal Roberts, Ben Finlay, and Ronda were All-Ivy selections this year. Another senior, Jake Stevens, was a USA Lacrosse Magazine All-America.

“We lose a lot with that crew,” said Madalon of the senior class. “We lose incredible leadership, we lose a lot of toughness, we lose speed, we lose a lot of goals, we lose a lot of experience. As every senior class comes through, it’s the true impact they can have on culture and the off-the-field stuff and the work ethic and the culture of excellence — this was a group that cemented that into our program. I’m proud to see these guys graduate and finish their Princeton careers. It’s really impressive.”

Five 2022 All-Ivy honorees — Alex Slusher, Ronda, English, Stevens, and Pederson — were among nine Princeton seniors to put their name in the transfer portal, according to a November Inside Lacrosse report. These players are considering using their extra year of eligibility to play in college, but Princeton does not allow student-athletes to enroll beyond eight semesters. Entering the transfer portal does not guarantee that a player will finish their career elsewhere, but opens that avenue. The Tiger players would be playing as graduate students after finishing their Princeton degree this month, not as traditional undergraduate transfer players. Princeton will not name the players officially using an extra year until they commit to another school.

“There is a handful of them,” said Madalon. “They’re working through the process. They had wanted to get it done as early as possible. As they finish their Princeton careers, they have to get started on applications and sort that all out rather quickly. It’s a handful of guys.”

Princeton will return some top talent like Mackesy and Gianforcaro to lead at either end of the field. The Tigers have a strong recruiting class coming in as well, and now have a lot of players who gained experience because of the multitude of injuries.

After falling short of their lofty team expectations, there is plenty of motivation for the returning players to continue to show the resilience and drive that enabled them to win an Ivy title and play in the NCAAs again even as they had to use less experienced players to do so.

“As a coaching staff, we haven’t had much time to reflect, but those are proud moments,” said Madalon. “You always talk in your program about ‘next man up,’ and ‘you have to be ready for your opportunity and make sure you’re prepared.’ You want to make sure the young guys are developing and working hard. We take a lot of pride in our recruiting and development of talent. It was really nice to see young guys step up and guys went down. It was kind of plug and play and the next guy jumped in, they knew the systems and they understood their role and that’s how we were able to come together in that Ivy League tournament and earn an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. We were kind of hoping to keep getting hot and play well, but we ran into a really good Penn State team that did a really nice job.”