Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

April 24 , 2002:
Underdogs or Top dog?
Lacrosse teams, both men and women, will soon know

By Patrick Sullivan '02

For many sports enthusiasts, the mention of Princeton athletics readily brings certain images to mind. The most obvious might be those of Pete Carril’s crisp-passing, back-door streaking basketball teams in the late 1990s. Or possibly the heroics of hoops star turned senator Bill Bradley ’65.

The next most-recognized Princeton sport would have to be men’s lacrosse. Whenever strangers ask me where I go to school, they almost inevitably follow up with an all-too predictable question. "So, are you on the basketball or lacrosse team?"

No, I run track. And I hate lacrosse.

As a Midwesterner my knowledge of the sport was negligible until four years ago when I came to Princeton and its powerhouse lacrosse program. My understanding of lacrosse centered around thick-headed fraternity boys banging into each other on a turf surface, using the word "sweet" a lot, and trying (unsuccessfully) to act cool and macho as they re-enacted an olden-day Indian war-game with ridiculous rules.

Lacrosse in northern Illinois is about as popular as ice hockey in southern Florida — which is to say, we couldn’t care less. We thought of lacrosse as diluted hockey: no ice, a bigger "puck," and less checking. It was a pseudo-manly game that pretty boys from Phillips Exeter and Andover Academy played to impress their blond girlfriends and their old-money fathers.

However, laying aside any misconceptions and opinions I may (still) have about lacrosse, the performances by both the men’s and women’s teams this weekend were impressive.

Men’s Lacrosse: The Underdog?

The men successfully staved off elimination from the Ivy League title hunt, soundly defeating Cornell 12-7. The Big Red entered the game with a No. 5 national ranking, three spots ahead of Princeton’s paltry No. 8 ranking. The game was also the first time the Tigers were the lower ranked Ivy team since the 1990 NCAA quarterfinals match-up between Yale and Princeton. Sixty minutes later, head coach Bill Tierney had secured his 200th career victory and his humbled team had found much-needed confidence.

The game unfolded in the true Princeton style of unselfish team play. Six players scored and junior attack Sean Hartofilis led all scorers with three goals. The Tigers narrowly outshot the Big Red 32-31, but the difference came in retrieving ground balls, where Princeton owned the advantage, 31-19.

The Tigers began the season with grand expectations — many polls touted Princeton as a preseason No. 1, predicting a repeat national championship season. Scouts emphasized Princeton’s strong recruiting class and its talented, offensively potent upperclassmen. This supposedly high-intensity offense faired poorly, however, as the overly confident squad started the season 0-2, losing to Johns Hopkins and Virginia. They defeated Hofstra, prompting some to say that the first two games were merely an early season fluke. An 11-8 loss to the Syracuse Orangemen the following week silenced this optimism, however.

Further embarrassment befell the cocky Tigers when Yale defeated them at home on March 30, ending a 37-game Ivy winning streak and handing Princeton its first Ivy loss at home in the seven-year history of the Class of 1952 Stadium. Six games into the season and the six-time national champion, 17-time Ivy League champion Tigers held an abysmal 2-4 record. Worse still, they faced a must-win situation in order to hold on to the Ivy title and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The men’s team rose to the challenge, winning its last four games and outscoring its opponents 55-21. With just two regular season games remaining, all that stands between the Tigers and their ninth consecutive Ivy title is a hapless Dartmouth team and a mediocre Brown squad. Two victories would assure the Tigers of a bid to the NCAA tournament, though once at the "Big Dance," the team would likely face an uphill battle against better-ranked opponents. Almost certainly, Princeton would not enjoy such perks as a No. 1 ranking or a first round bye, both of which accompanied the team’s bid last season.

Women’s Lacrosse: Sitting on Top

The women’s team, however, is enjoying yet another strong season, boasting a 13-game win streak and an almost flawless 13-1 record. The lady Tigers, whose only loss came against Georgetown in their first game of the season, hold the nation’s current longest win-streak and the present national No. 1 ranking. The Tigers have the ambitious goal of capturing their sixth Ivy League title and their second NCAA championship. Two years ago, the team made it to the NCAA finals, but lost to Maryland 16-8. Last season, Princeton shared the Ivy crown with Dartmouth and advanced to the semifinals before losing to the Terrapins again.

The women’s team also boasts a high-octane offense, outscoring its opponents 205-96. In the two games this week, the Tigers defeated the Pennsylvania 14-7 on Wednesday and Dartmouth 15-3 on Saturday. These victories assured Princeton of at least a share of the Ivy League Championship — with two regular season games remaining, the team controls its future. Only a weakened No. 12 Maryland and a struggling Brown stand between the Tigers and their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

Players aren’t taking the game against Maryland lightly, however. The contest, which is at home in 1952 Stadium, pits the seven-time defending national champion Terrapins against the school that last captured the NCAA crown — in 1994. The Tigers must make a statement in this game if they hope to erase the bad memories of the past two postseasons.

Against Penn on Wednesday, Princeton foreshadowed just how emphatic their "statement" might be for the Terps. Freshman midfielder Lindsay Biles added four points in the onslaught against the Quakers, while senior attack Lauren Simone contributed three. The Tigers outshot Penn 34-14. Against the Big Green on Saturday, the team continued its offensive domination, dumping 15 points on a Dartmouth squad that was co-Ivy League champions with Princeton last year. Six players scored, but Simone led the way with four goals and two assists. Princeton again outgunned its foe, 32-24. The team also commanded ground balls, picking up 26 to Dartmouth’s 12.

Heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, both the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams have their sights set on Ivy titles and NCAA bids. For the women’s team, near-perfect regular season performances leave little doubt of the talent, dedication, and drive of the senior-laden squad. The men’s team, however, finds itself in the unenviable position of underdog, a role that past men’s lacrosse teams have rarely experienced. Nobody questions the talent of this Tiger team, but the remaining games will certainly reveal whether Princeton can rise to the humbling challenge of playing from behind to defend their NCAA title.

You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu.