Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Go Tigers, Princeton And Texas Southern

The Texas Southern men's basketball team plays its SWAC quarterfinal game tonight, and what in the world does that have to do with Princeton's men's lacrosse game against Quinnipiac tonight at 7 on Sherrerd Field?

TigerBlog will get to that. Give him a second.

Texas Southern is 20-11 overall and 16-2 and the top seed in the SWAC. The Tigers host Alabama State tonight, and they hope to hold the trophy Saturday in Houston, with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line.

TigerBlog is rooting hard for Texas Southern. Why? Because of its associate head coach, Donnie Marsh.

Back in 1989, Donnie Marsh became the head men's basketball coach at Trenton State College, which is now the College of New Jersey. During the next few years, TB - then a sportswriter - would cover as many TSC games as he would Princeton games, and he came to know Marsh as one of the nicest, kindest, classiest people he's ever known.

Marsh's career has taken him from Mercer County to stops at Florida International (where he was the head coach), as well as South Florida, UAB, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Indiana and now Texas Southern.

TigerBlog is pretty sure that Marsh remembers his time at TSC fondly. TigerBlog remembers traveling with the Lions to away games during the week on the school's vans, in much the same way as he rode with Princeton on its buses on the weekends.

In fact, TB can remember one trip back from Millersville, which is about a two-hour ride. About an hour in, every one else on the van was asleep except for Marsh and TigerBlog, who played "name that tune" on the radio the rest of the way.

TigerBlog hasn't spoken to Marsh in years, but he remembers a lot of what Marsh used to say about basketball. After one excruciating loss on what remains one of the two worst calls TB has ever seen late in a basketball game (the other is the non-goaltending call for Will Venable at Temple that should have tied that one), Marsh said simply "we never should have let ourselves be in the position to have the official decide the game."

Another thing that Marsh said that has stuck with TigerBlog is the part that connects all of this to Princeton lacrosse. The hardest game in sports to play, he said, is the one after a huge win.

And that's where Princeton men's lacrosse finds itself tonight.

Princeton defeated Johns Hopkins 18-7 Friday afternoon in its most recent game. TigerBlog has seen Princeton play for 28 years, through six NCAA championships and 10 Final Fours, and he can say without hesitation that the top-to-bottom performance - head coach Matt Madalon calls its "complementary lacrosse" - Friday against the Blue Jays rivals anything that TB has ever seen from the Tigers ranked that high (Hopkins was third last week).

Of course the game didn't have the historical significance of so many of the others, but just in terms of one lacrosse game, Princeton has rarely if ever played better against a team in the top five. It was a dominant performance in every phase of the game, and every Princeton player played well.

And it begs the question: Now what?

Well, first up is Quinnipiac tonight, in the game after the game, as Donnie Marsh would say. Quinnipiac is 1-2 this season, but the Bobcats are also the defending MAAC champs. They also beat Hartford in the preliminary round of the NCAA tournament last spring and then played a close game against Maryland, so this is a team that is used to winning and knows how to compete.

A year removed from a tumultuous 5-8 season, Princeton suddenly finds itself ranked 19th this week, with three wins in its first four games. How will the Tigers handle success?

It's obvious Princeton is improved over last year. For one thing, almost everyone who is playing this year played last year, only they're playing with more consistency and experience. There is greater depth all over the field, the result of graduating six seniors and adding 15 freshmen.

There is the incomparable Zach Currier (the Ivy League Player of the Week), who does everything and does everything well. He can dominate a game like few players in lacrosse, whether he scores a goal or not. Austin Sims (the Division I Player of the Week), who had six goals against Hopkins, is as good a shooter as any middie in the country, and Gavin McBride is a steady, reliable scorer.

And then there's freshman Michael Sowers (the Ivy League Rookie of the Week for the second straight week). If you haven't seen him, yet make sure you do. Then you can join the rest of the crowd, which gasps in anticipation every time he touches the ball, just like it was with Tom Schreiber. 

If you're looking for the most improved player through the first month or so of the season - that's in Division I, not just at Princeton - look no further than goalie Tyler Blaisdell. A year removed from a .448 save percentage and a goals-against average of 11.75, Blaisdell has been over .600 for every game so far this season. He has made every save he should have and a lot of the ones he shouldn't have. He has been game-changing so far for the Tigers.

In fact, his four straight games with a save percentage of at least .600 mark the longest streak by a Princeton goalie since Tyler Fiorito did it five straight times in 2012. If you can get mentioned in the same breath as Tyler Fiorito, you're doing a lot right.

Blaisdell and Marquette's Cole Blazer are the only two goalies in Division I who are above .600 in every game this season. Blaisdell ranks third in Division I in save percentage and fifth in goals-against average.

Maybe the best note to sum up Blaisdell so far is this one: He has 50 saves and 25 goals-against so far this year; a year ago, he had allowed 55 goals by the time he made his 50th save.

After Quinnipiac, Princeton has, in order, Rutgers, Penn, Yale, Brown and Stony Brook. That's not an easy run by any stretch. There's a long way to go between now and when the Ivy League tournament starts. As good as Princeton looked the other day, the path of this season is still very much up in the air.

That's why tonight is huge. It's the game after the game, and it should tell a lot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Football, then field hockey, then men's bball, then the ice hockey teams, now mlax...this year has been extraordinary in terms of the resilience shown by Tiger teams and programs. Other teams have continued impressive trends - water polo, wrestling, fencing, etc. Truly a golden era for Princeton athletics. Locomotives to all.