Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Look At Lax

Johns Hopkins defeated Princeton 14-5 at Homewood Field in 2004. This game is significant for two reasons.

First, it is the last time the home team won a game in the series. It's not as long a streak as it seems, since the teams played at M&T Bank Stadium from 2007-10. Still, that is still seven straight on-campus games that have gone to the visiting team, which seems pretty interesting at the very least.

And what is the other reason that the 2004 game is significant?

It's the last time Princeton played a men's lacrosse game that TigerBlog was not at. While Hopkins was winning on its home field, TigerBlog was 450 miles north of there, watching Princeton close out the 2004 Ivy League men's basketball championship at Dartmouth.

Since then, TigerBlog has been at every single men's lacrosse game the Tigers have played. That's a streak that reached 159 straight games with last Saturday's game at Johns Hopkins.

Going back before 2004, TigerBlog didn't have a streak quite that long, though he has never missed a game that Princeton has played at Class of 1952 Stadium, dating back to when it opened, in 1997.

In other words, TigerBlog has seen a lot of Princeton lacrosse, going back 26 seasons, to when he first started covering the team. That was 1990, or before any current player was born.

Princeton has played 372 men's lacrosse team since the 1990 season started. TigerBlog figures he's missed, approximately, 25 of those games, meaning that he's seen Princeton play somewhere around 340-350 times.

And he can tell you that, factoring out all historical context and just judging on the game itself, that last Saturday's 16-15 win over Johns Hopkins - keeping the visitors' streak alive - was one of the five best of all of them. Maybe even three best. Maybe even best.

Keep in mind that TB has been around for six NCAA championships, four of which went into overtime. Obviously, all of those games were bigger than last Saturday's.

But just in terms of a game to watch? The game last Saturday trumped everything.

Princeton ran out to a 7-0 lead. Hopkins erased all but one of those goals in a five-minute stretch. Princeton tried to pull away but couldn't. Hopkins went on its own 4-0 run to go up two in the fourth quarter. Princeton tied it. Hopkins went up again. Princeton tied it again - this time with seven seconds left, on a goal by Ryan Ambler, who then appeared to win it in overtime, only to have the goal disallowed by what may or may not have been a good call. Even the replay doesn't make it clear.

Ultimately, it was Gavin McBride who ended it, dropping in a cross-crease feed from Riley Thompson with 1:07 left in the OT.

The game also featured one of the single best individual performances TigerBlog has ever seen by a Princeton men's lacrosse player. Zach Currier, a sophomore middie, was dominant all game, with two goals, three assists, 6 of 8 facing off and eight ground balls. And tenacity and grit and the ability to exert his will over every facet of the game, all of which were more important than any numbers he put up. He was, in one word, incredible.

When it was over, Princeton had done more than just win a lacrosse game. It had won a one-goal lacrosse game, something that was problematic for the Tigers the last two years, when the team went 3-7 in one-goal games. Reverse that, and Princeton would have been in the NCAA tournament both of those years.

Here's one thing TB does not want to hear, and he's heard it and read it already: Do not tell TigerBlog that Princeton is better without Tom Schreiber, the three-time first-team All-America who graduated a year ago. Schreiber is the best Princeton player of the last decade, and he made every player around him better. No, Princeton isn't better off without him. 

So where is Princeton after three games? Well, first of all, it's not in Princeton, at least not for too many more games this year. The Tigers have played two of their five home games, and the game last weekend was the first of four straight on the road. Next up? At Maryland.

Right now, Princeton is ranked 10th in the media poll and 11th in the coaches' poll. Maryland is ranked one spot ahead of the Tigers in each.

And ahead of Maryland? Yale and Cornell. And just behind Princeton? Harvard. And a little further back? Penn and Brown. And in the receiving votes group? Future opponents Lehigh and Stony Brook.

In other words, the Ivy League is completely loaded this year and Princeton's schedule is tough.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing. Keep rooting for the league teams as they play non-conference games. Make sure that any league win is a good win. Clearly, Princeton is going to have a shot at some Top 10 and Top 20 wins, which are a huge part of the selections, should the Tigers need to get an at-large bid.

Princeton's offense is clicking, with goal totals of 14, 14 and 16 through three games, even though the temperature hasn't reached 30 yet for one second of those three games. Kip Orban and Mike MacDonald are Major League Lacrosse draftees, and Ambler is a proven veteran scorer. Even without Jake Froccaro - out the last two games due to injury - Princeton has gotten big production from McBride and especially Currier, who has opened up eyes all over the country the last two weeks.

This team shares the ball effortlessly, and it leads Division I in assists per game, which is a good stat in which to be No. 1.

Princeton has been without injured Mark Strabo and Will Reynolds, possibly the team's two best poles, and yet the Tigers have gotten contributions from any number of players on the defensive end, especially goalie Eric Sanschagrin.

And, with Currier and freshman Sam Bonafede, Princeton's face-off percentage has gone from 46% a year ago to 54% this year.

The next challenge is the Terps, who are the top defensive team in the country, allowing little more than five goals per game. And then Penn, the defending Ivy tournament champ, in the league opener. No Ivy game figures to be easy this year.

Still, through three games, there's a lot to like about these Tigers. They have gone from unranked to 20th to 18th to their current perch.

Where will they be at the end? That probably will be determined by how Princeton does in what figures to be several more one- or two-goal games.

That's how college lacrosse is now, with all kinds of parity and depth in Division I. Every game is tough.

The one last weekend certainly was. It was tough. And it was great.

And Princeton got a huge win out of it.

It was a great February for Princeton. March? Five opponents, four of whom are currently ranked.

It won't be easy. It'll definitely be fun.

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