Feature: A defense in transition
“We knew the day would come when foundation players would graduate. That’s just the nature of Division I athletics,” Bates said. “[The coaching staff] has the expectation that the guys in line will be ready to go and be ready to anticipate plays. The idea is to not rely on individuals but instead an individual defensive system.”
Among the positions now for the taking is that of goalkeeper. Three players are currently chasing the goal of consistently starting. Two players return to the team after waiting on the sidelines last year — junior Brian Kavanagh and sophomore Eric Sanschagrin — while the third, freshman Matt O’Connor, seeks to start his Princeton career on a high note. Sanschagrin started one game against Manhattan last year and helped maintain the Tigers’ lead in a 13-7 victory against the Jaspers, but he has not otherwise started a game.
“We’ve ridden a little bit of a roller coaster here,” Bates said. “O’Connor has done a great job and brings a lot of intangibles to the table, but we haven’t seen as solid or consistent of play from any of the three as we would like. Matt and Eric are in the lead based on results from our scrimmages. Kavanagh has done a nice job but has some things he needs to iron out before the season is underway. I’m not ready to anoint anyone as starter yet. My preference, though, is not to rotate guys and yank them around. The rest of the coaches and I will settle on somebody sooner rather than later.”
The scramble for the cage comes after the graduation of Tyler Fiorito ’12, who acquired seemingly endless honors during his Princeton career. Fiorito started every game throughout his four years, except the Manhattan game in which Sanschagrin took the net. The New Jersey native was a three-time first-team All-Ivy selection and was second-team All-America last year. Among the top goalies in Division I men’s lacrosse during the 2012 season, Fiorito finished with a 7.07 GAA and a .595 save percentage. He was drafted 10th overall by the Chesapeake Bayhawks in the 2012 MLL Collegiate Draft.
Several Tigers are in the hunt for the three open spots on defense as well. Some are donning the orange and black for the first time, some are returning and others have shifted to the position after playing in other spots in prior years. Junior Nick Fernandez recently became a short stick close defenseman, though he was originally set to be a long stick middie, and has “made great progress there,” according to Bates. Fernandez assumed what is likely to be his starting role after one of the Tigers’ Great Three was forced to stop playing, not because of graduation, but because of a season-ending injury. Junior Rob Castelo would have been the lone returning starter on defense if he had not incurred his second major injury in three years after tearing his ACL and MCL at Johns Hopkins in 2011. Castelo, now spending the year in Africa, started every game and acquired 11 caused turnovers and 20 ground balls in the 2012 season.
“Rob is a great defenseman, both from a leadership and player standpoint, so not having him in the lineup definitely hurts,” Bates said.
The other two Great Three defensemen — Jonathan Meyers ’12 and Chad Wiedmaier ’12 — combined with Castelo, Fiorito and long stick midfielder John Cunningham ’12, earned 11 All-America selections and 13 All-Ivy League selections. Wiedmaier was the only four-time first-team All-Ivy League selection in program history and Meyers, with 14 caused turnovers and 50 groundballs throughout the 2012 season, was arguably the Tiger most acclimated to the concept of change. Meyers played long stick middie before becoming a starter on close defense, but his most significant sports transformation of all occurred before coming to Princeton. In high school, he was a football star, ranked the No. 11 inside linebacker in the nation among 2008 high school graduates by ESPN’s Scouts Inc.
With Fernandez, among those working to earn a starting spot after a modification in position is sophomore Derick Raabe. Raabe, who played long stick midfield last year, has settled into the second starting close defensive spot. The third and final opening for a close defensive starting position is still, according to Bates, “up for grabs.” Freshman Mark Strabo — younger brother to junior short stick defensive midfielder Jack Strabo, who has started in his position since his first day with the Tigers — has shown promise and may fill the third void. Others who might do so are junior Brian Reilly, junior Rob Posniewski, who suffered a concussion last week, and freshman Brian Pickup.
In spite of the complete freshness in the Tigers’ defensive line, the team still ranked No. 13 in the Inside Lacrosse 2013 Preseason Top 20. The key for the newcomers will be to prevent the majority of high percentage shots and to allow the still-unnamed goalkeeper to maintain full visibility of the ball.
“We want to take away the strengths of each team we play. We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach,” Bates said. “What we’re doing is adapting each game — like taking away certain players on opposing teams or certain hands — and forming a game plan.”
“The goals for this season remain the same: to win the Ivy League again and to play as deep into May as possible,” he added. “We knew the day was coming when we had to do without four-year foundation players, and the process of transition doesn’t happen overnight.”
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