Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Present Meets The Past

You know who should host the next Academy Awards?

Matt Bailer. He'd be a lot better than whoever actually ends up doing it.

If, like TigerBlog, you were at the Friends of Princeton Lacrosse banquet Saturday night at the Hyatt, you know exactly what TB means about Bailer, a former Princeton midfielder. His 15-minute or so monologue was incredible, with its perfect mix of timing, content and delivery.

Yes, he should definitely quit his career and go into show business.

The Friends of Lacrosse event is always a highlight of the year for the program, one that, like all Princeton teams, does a great job of marrying the present to the past.

The current players are there, and they introduce themselves in numerical order. They also get a chance to see some of the great history of Princeton lacrosse, as those who have helped shaped the program come back and those who made a particularly strong impact are honored.

In this case, it was the 2004 team, one that started out in a rebuilding mode and ended up in the Final Four. The 2004 Tigers were led by Ryan Boyle, one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time, but mostly were a team of, well, team players, unsung guys who played well together and who especially played well together and the biggest moments.

It's not like there was no talent besides Boyle, obviously. The team had, among others, Jason Doneger, Peter Trombino, Scott Sowanick, Ricky Schultz, Oliver Barry, Drew Casino and Ryan Schoenig.

Barry, these days, is Dr. Barry, and he spoke at the end on behalf of his teammates. The word most used was "underdog," and that was probably pretty fitting. Princeton had graduated its Class of 2003 a year earlier, and that was a class that was loaded with talent up and down. Princeton had to pretty much start over in 2004, and yet there they were, 10 years later, remembering a trip to the Final Four.

The highlight video took TigerBlog back to those games, especially the NCAA quarterfinal against Maryland, when Boyle scored two late goals - including the tying goal with 12 seconds left - and then Trombino won it in overtime off a feed from Boyle.  

Then there was the 8-7 loss to Navy in the semifinals. There are some close losses that bother TigerBlog all these years later, and the Navy game is one of them. TB would have loved to have seen Princeton get another championship game shot against Syracuse, who would beat Navy by one in the final that year.

Still, knowing full well how that team began its season in a total rebuilding mode and ended it in M&T Bank Stadium in the national semifinals, it's hard to look at that year as anything other than a wild success.

The night was not just about the 2004 team, just as the program has never been just about the players or coaches.

No, also honored were Denise and Dennis Reilly, who ran the parents' group during the time their three sons- Brendan, Connor and Brian - played. Their role wasn't just to make sure that the parents had a good time at the games. No, what they did had a direct impact on the experience that the players themselves had, with a network of support that wasn't easy to coordinate.

The Reilly's are more comfortable in the background, but this was their night in the spotlight. When they spoke, it was easy to tell that their love of the program - not just their sons - was genuine.

Denise Reilly gave a nice, heartfelt thank you. Dennis Reilly was funny. It was a great mix.

As for the three sons, well, Brendan is an officer in the Marines, Connor is a teacher and Brian is a young alumni trustee of the University.

TigerBlog was seated at Table 1, and to his right was Justin Tortolani, another doctor. Justin was the first superstar Bill Tierney had at Princeton, and he graduated in 1992 with 120 goals, which was then the program record. He also helped Princeton to its first of six NCAA championships his senior year.

Now, 22 years later, Tortolani still ranks fourth all-time in goals at Princeton, having been passed by only Jesse Hubbard (163), Chris Massey (146) and Sean Hartofolis (127).

Also at Table 1 was John McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, writing instructor at Princeton and Academic Athletic Fellow for the men's lacrosse program. McPhee was to be honored with the Beth Tortolani Cup, given since 1995 in memory of Justin's mother, who had passed away from cancer. It honors someone who has done a great deal for the program, and Denise Reilly herself is a past winner.

The members of the Class of 2014 were also in attendance, and Bates called up the members of the most recent graduating class who had won the other team awards. The last one to come up was Tom Schreiber, who won the Higginbotham Trophy as essentially the team MVP.

Then it was Mr. McPhee's turn to speak, and he didn't disappoint.

McPhee, it turns out, went to a summer camp in the 1930s, where his counselor was none other than John Higginbotham. TigerBlog knows the name Higginbotham from the award all these years, but he never really knew who he was.

As it turns out, John Higginbotham graduated in 1939 after being the lacrosse team captain. As with many young men of his day, his next stop wasn't Wall Street; it was World War II. Higginbotham became a flyer with the Canadian Air Force, only to be killed in 1940.

But shortly before that, he had been McPhee's counselor. Higginbotham - "a blonde giant," McPhee called him - had a boxing match with young Mr. McPhee, with Higginbotham on his knees for the bout.

It made for a nice story.

It also made for the real point of the night. Everyone in the room was there because of a connection to Princeton lacrosse, and the overlap goes back decades and traces the history of a great program that has meant so much to so many.

John McPhee brought it all the way back to 1939 and John Higginbotham. The 2004 players were there, in the early 30s mostly. The Reilly's put a very personal face on the whole night. The team of 2015 was there to soak it all in.

TigerBlog happened to be at this one. There are others like it, across all 38 Princeton sports.

It's really the best part of Princeton Athletics.

The people, the way they're brought together - and the way they stay together forever.

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