Bill Tierney has a problem.
Not that you'd know it by looking at the men's lacrosse coach, especially if you saw him in his spacious new office in the tower of Dillon Gym. Problems seem nonexistent for the coach of the two-time defending national champion Tigers.
But Tierney definitely has a problem, and it involves a crucial question: Who will be the starting goalie – the last line of defense – for preseason No. 1 Princeton?
There are a trio of candidates – senior Neal DiBello, junior Corey Popham and freshman Trevor Tierney – jockeying for the position left by the graduation of last year's starter, Patrick Cairns '97. The coach's problem is strangely similar to the one he faced just two years ago, when both Cairns and Pancho Gutstein '96 were vying for the starting job. This time, however, the problem is bigger – there are three possible starters, not two.
"(The coaching staff) had a long discussion about it – it's very much like two years ago," the elder Tierney said. "Not only do you take into account who's stopping the ball the best, which is to the outsider what's most important, but there are so many other things involved – defensive leadership, confidence, handling the ball once you get it and clearing.
"There's a lot to consider at this point, and what compounds it even more is that there are three guys this time. Last time, there were two, so it makes it a little crazier."
Bill Tierney's problem is one that other Division I men's lacrosse coaches are happy he has. The Princeton juggernaut has won two national championships and 28 games in a row, and this problem is seen as the biggest question mark in the Tigers' quest to three-peat.
There is also an underlying problem, one which coach Tierney can do nothing about: whichever goalie starts will be very inexperienced.
DiBello and Popham combined to play 177 minutes last year, mostly in the fourth quarter of games once the outcome had already been decided. They combined to give up 25 goals for a 8.47 goals-against average, more than two goals worse than Cairns' 6.44 GAA. Trevor Tierney, meanwhile, was a senior at the Hun School of Princeton. None of the three have ever started a collegiate game, and the Tigers open their season against No. 4 Johns Hopkins Saturday – a major test, especially for an untested goalie.
"A lot of people are questioning us and saying that Princeton is weak in the goal," Trevor Tierney said, "but I don't think that's fair to say, because none of us has gotten a chance yet. I think it's a question mark in goal, but I don't think we're necessarily weak in goal."
While each of the three have different styles of play according to coach Tierney – DiBello is "acrobatic," Popham is a "textbook goalie" and Trevor Tierney is "more athletic" – the coach doesn't think that his decision on Saturday's starter will hold for every game in the Tigers' season. Instead, some combination of the three will likely be used in Princeton's drive toward its fourth NCAA title in five years.
"We're a very team-oriented group," DiBello said. "I look at the goal position as a goal corps. I consider us one of the best goal corps in the country because of our depth."
Depth might be the Tigers' biggest asset at the goal position, but it doesn't solve Tierney's problem by itself. The solution could quite possibly be indirect – with a veteran defense and a high-powered offense, the importance of the goalie in Princeton's system would be diminished.
The Tigers put nearly 15 goals per game on the scoreboard last season, and nothing indicates they will decrease in their scoring output this year. The offense is a safety net, but Princeton's persistent defensive unit, led by senior Christian Cook and juniors John Harrington and Kurt Lunkenheimer, will provide more security for whoever stands between the pipes.
"Having experienced three of the best players in the country (senior attackmen Jon Hess, Chris Massey and Jesse Hubbard) and a good group of defensemen that work as a team in front of you and behind you," DiBello said, "it doesn't decrease the pressure, but it does increase your confidence."
Confidence. Something that the goalies will need when the Tigers open against Johns Hopkins, No. 3 Virginia and No. 9 North Carolina. Something that Tierney will need once he makes his decision on a starting goaltender.
"I can't predict how it's going to work out," the coach says with a chuckle, "but it's going to work out."