Difficult schedule to put men’s lacrosse’s adaptability and identity to the test| Feb 24, 2016
Under warm skies this past Saturday, Princeton men’s lacrosse emerged from their first game with a convincing 21-4 victory. NJIT, a new set of faces for the crowd at Class of 1952 Stadium, held 1-1 share of the lead for just under one minute. The next 12 goals would be scored by individuals wearing the Tigers’ home white uniforms. Anything is possible, but it’s not likely that Princeton will manage a 12-goal streak against their upcoming slate of opponents: Hofstra, No. 6 Johns Hopkins and No. 4 Maryland.
Again, anything is possible. But it’s certain that, in the coming months, the Tigers will face very many of the nation’s best teams. To represent how it’s possible to attain even lofty goals with dedication over time, they employ a visual metaphor of a wall. The ‘player of the practice’ places a brick in the wall with words of a concept he considers important to success. At the completion of the wall is the Ivy League trophy. Last year, Princeton was a single goal away from hoisting that cup but ended their season with an 11-10 loss to Yale in the championship game.
Senior midfielder Austin deButts, 2015 team leader in caused turnovers, consulted his older brother, Hunter deButts ’14, on the matter of what his particular words should be. The two settled on reference to a newspaper, “Men Wanted” advertisement for the Antarctic expedition of Sir Earnest Henry Shakleton.
“It says,” deButts explained, “‘Men wanted. Low wages. Eternal darkness. Chance of survival limited. Possible honor and glory upon return.’ That’s just kind of the group of guys we have.”
In order to realize said honor and glory, Princeton will be able to draw upon a strong core of returning players. Despite that fact, many rightly perceive that the program lost two standout seniors to graduation.
Attackman Mike MacDonald and midfielder Kip Orban tallied 48 and 45 of Princeton’s 180 goals in the spring of 2015. Combined, just over half. That kind of production does not come about automatically. But the Tigers remain hopeful that last year’s successes can be improved upon.
On offense, Princeton fans will have the good fortune of watching the play of 2015 second-team all-Ivy selection Zach Currier. The junior midfielder hails from Peterborough, Ont. and has found himself on a number of preseason all-America lists. Rightly so. He regularly makes defenders and goalies look foolish with his repertoire of skills. What’s more, he makes opposing ball-carriers look equally foolish with an arsenal of takeaway checks.
“He’s a game changer,” deButts said. “In practice, he’ll do some things that make you turn your head. Really explosive on offense. But he’s also a ‘between the lines’ guy, getting ground balls. He does all the little things that don’t get noticed as much.”
Senior attackman Ryan Ambler will likewise be looked to for offensive firepower. In addition to his being named a team captain, Ambler recently joined the ranks of Princeton players who have been selected in the Major League Lacrosse draft —including the aforementioned Orban and MacDonald as well as midfielder Tom Schreiber ’14. His play has been refined through three years of starting nearly every game —last season saw him tally 51 points on 22 goals and 29 assists.
“He’s played a big role in implementing the system dynamic of moving off-ball and getting guys in the right spots,” deButts said. “His leadership’s been really awesome this year.”
While Currier and Ambler will shine against nearly any defender in the nation, the question of Princeton’s offensive identity is somewhat unresolved at this early point in the season. When asked how he would define his team’s offense, from the perspective of a defenseman, sophomore Daniel Winschuh gave the following explanation, “Fight to eight (yards) and hammer the pipes.” To explain, ‘eight yards’ refers to the ideal shooting distance from the goal, while ‘hammer the pipes’ refers to aiming shots at the orange metal frame of a lacrosse goal.
Sophomore midfielder Austin Sims, an aspiring offensive player, invoked the concept of the “Anonymous Man” —possibly related to the Stoic paradox of the Veiled Man. Given the mysterious name, it’s fair to leave the notion explained through play alone.
Filling out the offensive set will be returning junior attackman Gavin McBride and his sophomore linemate Riley Thompson. Freshmen have been impressive early, with the rookie quartet of Emmet Cordrey, Carter Flaig, Charlie Durbin and Dawson McKenzie combining for seven goals goals and two assists against NJIT. Coming from the midfield, the Tigers will look to a number of players in rotation, including Sims, junior Adam Hardej, sophomore Braedon Gait.
deButts gave his perspective on the team’s developing offensive identity. “This year maybe more than any year in the past, our offense is really predicated on being ‘Off-Ball Americans,’ as in not just being great one-on-one dodgers and beating guys. It’s working in a system, cutting at the right time and using pick plays. Defensively, it’s really tough to guard.”
They say defense wins championships. Lucky for the Tigers, a solid —in the Marshawn Lynch sense —defensive core returns from last season.
“People say we’re a young team,” deButts noted. “But at the same time we’re returning a lot of guys with game experience. Defensively, we have pretty much our entire defensive unit back. And we’re also adding guys like (seniors) Will Reynolds and Mark Strabo, who have been starters in the past. Coming back from injuries, they don’t look like they’ve lost a step at all.”Sophomore Tyler Blaisdell, who tallied 70 saves in 8 games last season, will lead a close defense unit comprised of juniors Alistair Berven and Bear Goldstein as well as a rotating third defenseman.
deButts described how “Blaze” has come fulfill a defensive field general role. “He’s been much more comfortable voicing that strong Boston accent. He’s a great ball stopper, but he’s starting to understand next steps in terms of getting the ball up and down the field. Also, Matt O’Connor had a great fall, keeping Tyler on his toes.”
Along the same lines as the wall-building metaphor, Sims referred to the aphorism of early birds getting worms, analogous to the team’s mindset of making the extra effort to get success. “Being the early bird,” as it were. “I’d say as a team our worm is definitely Hofstra next week. First test, they pulled off a good win against North Carolina. It’s a big game for us. If we’re going to be that early bird, we’re going to need that early season win against Hofstra.”
Next week, the Tigers will travel to Hepmstead, N.Y. to face the Pride. The Tigers currently have a 16-13 advantage in the series. Hofstra recently pulled off an upset win against No. 7 UNC. Still, the Tigers should be confident in their ability to handle this early opponent. After that, it’s a long road which includes five teams currently in the top 20. This writer has seen three good teams in three years come up just short of their final goal. A conference title at the end of this season’s road would be nice consolation.