Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Congratulations To The Bulldogs

TigerBlog stood on the Gilette Stadium turf Monday, about 90 minutes before Yale and Duke faced off in the NCAA men's lacrosse championship game.

He was talking with one of the people who works at the stadium, and he mentioned the five banners that hung above the scoreboard. There's one for every Super Bowl victory for the New England Patriots, the primary tenant of the stadium.

"Five banners," the worker said proudly.

"Only five?" TB said. "We have six."

"Steelers fan?" he asked.

"Nope," TB said. "Princeton men's lacrosse."

TigerBlog had been around for all six of them. At that moment, Princeton's NCAA titles - 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 -  and Cornell's three in the 1970s were the only ones the Ivy League had ever won.

A few hours later, TigerBlog would send out this tweet from the @tigerlacrosse account:

This came seconds after Yale defeated Duke 13-11 to win the school's first NCAA title. It also came three days after TigerBlog wrote this for you Friday:
TB can see any of the four teams as the last one standing. He'll go with Yale, though. The Bulldogs aren't going to beat themselves, and they have a lot of experience and a lot of confidence. 

What TB wrote on Friday (and what he told Yale coach Andy Shay when he saw him Friday night) is what he and Princeton head men's lacrosse coach Matt Madalon talked about a lot during this season. Yale wasn't going to beat itself. In fact, the Bulldogs were the most complete and consistent team pretty much all season.

The Bulldogs certainly had the look of a championship team throughout the tournament. They easily handled a UMass team that had won 11 straight and then in the quarterfinal knocked off Loyola, who very well may have been the ones holding the trophy Monday had it not been for the Bulldogs.

Then it was Albany, who simply got blown off the field by Yale in the semifinal Saturday, with a final score of 20-11 that wasn't reflective of how dominant Yale was. In fact, Yale set the tone for the entire weekend with its 7-0 start against the Great Danes, as none of the five games - Division I semis, Division III and Division II finals and then Division I final - ever featured a tie, let alone a lead change.

The only real drama of the weekend came in the final minute of Wesleyan's 8-6 win over Salisbury in the D3 game, and really there wasn't much there anyway. Merrimack had the largest margin of victory in an NCAA final with its 23-6 win over Saint Leo in Division II.

And the Division I final? From his view from the press box, where for the 14th straight year he was part of the official stats crew, TigerBlog never for a second thought Yale was going to lose. Duke played hard and tried to come back, but Yale was just, well, Yale was just the best team. Jack Tigh started the scoring 46 seconds into the first quarter, and Yale would lead from then on - the final 59:14 of a 60-minute game.

In fact, for the entire tournament, Yale trailed only for 3:09. That's three minutes and nine seconds. And all of that was early on against UMass, who scored the first two in the game. It took Yale those three minutes and nine seconds to even things at 2-2, and that was that.

Yale was the kind of team that Princeton women's basketball coach Courtney Banghart loves - no obvious weakness, a lot of experience playing together, a strong team culture and great senior leadership.

It had been 17 Memorial Days since Princeton won the 2001 title, accomplished when B.J. Prager scored on a feed from Ryan Boyle, making it six titles in 10 years for the Tigers. Princeton's alumni base is loaded now with players who won one, two or even three NCAA championships.

Maybe for a little while, it looked like no Ivy team would be able to win it all again. Only Princeton in 2002 and Cornell in 2009 had reached the final from the league before Yale got there this year.

Now, though, it would shock TB if an Ivy school was shut out for the next 17 years. You can say "told you so" to him in 2035 if he's wrong.

Because Yale lost in the Ivy League final, it will enter 2019 having won four straight. Actually, Princeton will enter the season with the longest winning streak in Division I, having won the final five games of 2018. Princeton actually played seven fewer games than Duke, who played 20.

As TB has said, Princeton has a lot of young pieces in place for next year, led by the player that TigerBlog would take over any other in college lacrosse - Michael Sowers. The list of players who have at least two years of eligibility left is large, including several who have major All-America potential besides just Sowers.

By the way, to make sure there's no ambiguity in his opinion, there were five first-team All-America attackman this year, while Sowers was second-team. TB would take Sowers over any of those five in a heartbeat.

What Princeton can learn from what Yale just did is how to build a championship persona. It's not about the talk. It's about the foundation. It's about being able to handle adversity. It's about playing with the confidence to beat any opponent.

It's about things that come with playing together and growing into a team that's ready to make a run. And then it's about staying healthy - Yale did that - getting better as the year goes along - Yale did that too - and getting buy-in one what you're doing from every member of the program - from the outside, it appeared Yale had that as well.

If all of that comes together, Princeton has a chance to be really special.

The first person TB saw that he knew when he left the press box after Yale's win was Phillip Robertson, Princeton's attackman. Phillip's brother Joe starts on attack for Duke; Phillip led Division I in shooting percentage this year and led Princeton with 33 goals.

The two talked about the game for a few seconds, but TB really only had one thought the entire time - hopefully Phillip gets to experience the Memorial Day Weekend experience with the rest of the Tigers.

This year, though, wasn't Princeton's year. It was Yale's.

The best team won.

There were only two things any Princeton fan could do when the game was over, and TB did both.

Congratulate the winners.

And get excited for 2019.

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