Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Right Stuff

Ed Mikus Jr., back when he lived down the hall from TigerBlog in High Rise South in West Philadelphia, said one night that he was going to the movies and would TB like to go.

When TB asked what the movie was, EMJ said it was "The Right Stuff," a movie that TB knew was three hours long. Hesitatingly, TB agreed to go, even if he felt there was no way he'd be able to sit through the whole thing.

The movie began at 8 on the little theater on Walnut Street, next to Smokey Joe's. As TB watched the movie, he figured it was about an hour into it when he glanced at the watch of the person next to him and saw that it was actually 10:50 and the movie was almost over.

For those who don't know, "The Right Stuff" is a movie about early American space exploration and the seven original Mercury astronauts. TB has seen it about a million times since, and every time it amazes him to think about what these men did.

It starts with Chuck Yeager, who at that time was making spark plug commercials but who on Oct. 14, 1947, became the first person to break the sound barrier. It then goes into the Mercury program, with the search for the right pilots to become the first astronauts and all of the politics behind the program.

One of the great scenes is when the Americans realize that the Soviets had beaten them into space and how panicked all of those responsible for the space program became at that point.

In reality, it was a blow to national pride for sure, in a way that probably was never matched during the Cold War. It also sparked a time where Americans began to fear a Soviet monopoly on space exploration and ultimately the ability to conduct war from that position.

One of TB's favorite parts of the movie is when the old pilots are sitting around talking about how Gus Grissom had lost his composure, resulting in the loss of his Mercury capsule after he became the second American in space, after Alan Shepard. Yeager, rather than piling on, comes back with this: "Well, I'll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV. Ol' Gus, he did all right."

And let's face it, those were suicide missions. In the rush to get there (space, the moon) fastest, there was no guarantee that these guys weren't sitting on top of something that was just going to explode on ignition.

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space - and to orbit the Earth - as the Soviet cosmonaut made the inaugural flight in Vostok 1.

As a weird aside, when TB saw pictures of Gagarin yesterday, he saw the "CCCP" letters on his uniform and capsule and became a bit wistful for the old days of the Cold War.

Anyway, if you wanted to know what the conditions were like outside Gagarin's space capsule on that first journey, all you had to do was go to the turf football practice field at Rutgers last night, where the Princeton-Rutgers men's lacrosse game was moved from Yurcak Field because of the elements.

The game was delayed by lightning for 75 minutes, and it was played in really strong wind, temps that fell as the game went along and periods of heavy rain.

This was the 89th meeting in the series, and - with Rutgers at .500 after a loss to Marist and Princeton at 2-6 and battling injuries that have crippled what was a promising season - this figured to be one of the least memorable of all of them. The fact that almost nobody was there to see it made it even more likely that the game would be an afterthought.

But that's the beauty of sports. You never know when you're going to stumble across a game that starts out with no expectation and then ends up being not only exciting to the very end but also historically unprecedented.

Princeton's 11-10 win over Rutgers last night turned into one of those games. In fact, TB would go as far as to say that the game might have been the best college lacrosse game played so far this year - or at the very least the equal of any game this season.

Consider all that happened:

* Princeton won just 5 of 23 face-offs and almost never had possession
* Princeton won despite being outshot 2-1 for the game (42-21) and being outshot in every quarter
* Princeton scored twice in the first three minutes and then just once more in the next 35 minutes to fall behind by five at 8-3 midway through the third quarter
* Princeton then scored five straight goals to tie it at 8-8, only to fall behind by two again when RU scored twice 58 seconds apart to start the fourth quarter
* Princeton then tied it with two goals eight seconds apart and finally went ahead midway through the fourth
* Rutgers then had seven more shots to try to get the tying goal but couldn't get it past Tyler Fiorito, who made four saves in the final seven minutes, including two in the last 20 seconds, one of which was a miraculous stop of a drive from not-very-far-away by Scott Klimchak

In all, Princeton would score eight goals in less than 16 minutes to go from 8-3 down to 11-10 up, this after the Tigers came into the game averaging a little more than six goals per game.

Oh, and that doesn't even take into account this little fact: Princeton took 21 shots, and all 21 were on goal. Princeton had 11 goals, and Rutgers goalie Rudy Butler made 10 saves. No shot missed the cage.

TB has no way of knowing whether or not that's a first, but it's not possible that that's happened too often, if ever. As a matter of fact, go get a lacrosse stick and 21 balls and try shooting them into an empty goal from at least five yards away. You'll probably miss at least once.

The win keeps Princeton mathematically alive for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Now, with three Ivy League games left, there's the matter of putting together a winning streak, getting into the Ivy tournament and seeing what can happen from there.

But even if it doesn't work out for the Tigers, the game last night was a still great - and fascinating.

It was also really about two players for Princeton.

The first was Fiorito, who made 16 saves, several of which were of the "how does he do that" variety. And the one on Klimchak with 19 seconds left was on a shot that he had no business getting his stick on to just deflect it over the top.

The other was Tom Schreiber, the freshman who had three goals and three assists. More than that, Schreiber was all over the field offensively and defensively, and he was all over his teammates, refusing to let them give up. It was the kind of leadership that is rare in a freshman.

Several times during the game, TB glanced behind him, where through the rain and fog and darkness he could see Rutgers Stadium. Princeton won two of its six NCAA championships in that building, including the most recent in 2001.

TB couldn't help but think back to those games, how Princeton sprinted away from Maryland to win 15-5 in 1998 and how Princeton and Syracuse played an epic game in 2001 before B.J. Prager won it in overtime.

Last night's game will lack the historical context of either of those. Still, not every game is about the historical context.

TB is also pretty sure that any review of the 2011 season won't mention the game last night, which was played without TV, radio or much fanfare of any kind.

And hey, that's a shame, because the game last night was exciting, wild and ultimately dramatic.

It's what makes sports so special. You never know when you're going to find one of those games.

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