It's been almost 51 weeks since the Princeton men's lacrosse team left for Dartmouth for the second-to-last game of the 2008 season. The Tigers had just knocked off Cornell and needed a win in either of their last two games to win at least a share of the Ivy title and earn the Ivy's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
And then? Thud. Followed by thud. Princeton lost to Dartmouth and then lost to Brown the following week to finish 2008 7-6 overall and 4-2 in the Ivy, good for third place. The Tigers missed the NCAA tournament for only the second time in the last 19 years.
Fast forward to this morning, and Princeton is the No. 1 team in both the USILA coaches' poll and the Inside Lacrosse media poll, the program's first No. 1 ranking since the final regular season poll of 2001. Of course, the first game for Princeton as No. 1 won't be easy, as the Tigers head to Ithaca to take on Cornell (ranked No. 4 in one poll and No. 5 in the other). Again, this game matches the last two Ivy unbeatens, with Cornell at 4-0 and Princeton at 3-0. Brown has one league loss, while Harvard has two; those two meet Wednesday in Cambridge.
So how did the Tigers get from where they were at the end of 2008 to where they sit this morning? And more importantly, does it really matter?
Let's start with the first part. Princeton has gotten from where it was to where it because of five reasons:
1) the trip to Spain/Ireland last June, which got the bad taste of the end of the 2008 season out of the team's collective mouths
2) the infusion of a talented freshman class (more on this in a second)
3) the willingness of the coaching staff to adapt after many years, which has led to a loosening of the offensive reigns
4) an eight-member senior class who all make significant contributions; this includes Josh Lesko, who went from being a pretty good offensive midfielder to one of the best defensive midfielders in the country
5) a starting attack and first midfield unit that features six players who have all raised their games significantly from last year, especially midfielders Mark Kovler and Rich Sgalardi
Most of that list speaks for itself. The trip to Europe, for instance, enabled Princeton to get back on the field, play some good games against a tough opponent (the English national team), travel as a team and basically recharge.
As for the freshman class, it's been an interesting situation. Princeton's Class of 2012 came in with great hype, as nine players made the Inside Lacrosse list of the top 100 recruits, including eight of the top 50. Right now, Princeton uses basically two freshmen, goalie Tyler Fiorito and defenseman Chad Wiedmaier. Those two have been ridiculously good, especially in big spots. Longstick midfielder John Cunningham was on his way to having the same kind of impact before he broke his jaw in mid-March. Beyond them, Princeton has seen Alex Capretta play a limited role in the second midfield. The rest of the class hasn't played much, due to injury (A Mike Grossman, M Mike Chanenchuk) and the fact that the same group of 20 players has dominated the playing time.
Princeton got to No. 1 by virtue of its three Top 10 wins and five Top 20 wins. The Tigers won back-to-back 10-9 games last week, against a Penn team (in overtime) that would go out and knock off then-No. 11 Brown in Providence in its next game and Harvard. Tommy Davis scored the game-winner against Penn; Wiedmaier and Fiorito preserved the win over Harvard when each made a huge play in the final 35 seconds.
The real question is whether or not being No. 1 right now matters. You could make a much better case that Princeton deserves to be ranked No. 1 today than you could that Princeton is the NCAA tournament favorite.
Virginia was No. 1 for most of the season (Syracuse was in one poll for two weeks before falling to UVA) before a loss to Duke Saturday. For much of the season, it seemed like those two were the class of Division I until Princeton chopped down Syracuse in the Big City Classic and then Duke polished of the Cavs. Looking ahead a few weeks, the tournament could see any of these teams in the Final Four:
* Virginia - still obviously loaded, but has played a bunch of close games
* Syracuse - defending champ, lots of tournament experience, always plays best in May
* Notre Dame - undefeated, but getting little respect because of schedule; doesn't mean the Irish aren't good, though
* Cornell - an offensive machine; when the D plays well, no team in the country is better
* Hofstra - the only team to defeat Princeton, the Pride have only one loss as well, to Hopkins
* UMBC - Princeton saw the Retrievers early, but UMBC hasn't lost since
* Hopkins - do you want to count them out? Ever?
* Duke - not what they were talent-wise in recent years, but confident after beating UVa and emerging through a tough schedule
Could someone come from nowhere beyond those teams? Sure. North Carolina. Navy. How about Brown, if the Bears get in, with their senior goalie? Maybe Maryland.
In other words, being No. 1 right now is nice, but it's no guarantee of anything for Princeton. The Tigers came into the season ranked 12th in both polls but have spent much of the time in the Top 5. There's no doubt that Princeton is the surprise team so far, from where it was at the end of last year to now. Princeton is also a lock to be in the tournament, no matter what happens in its last three games.
So enjoy being No. 1 now. It's an amazing accomplishment for a team that has answered all challenges to date.
The biggest ones start now.