May 5, 2011

Princeton Puts Painful Season to Bed

by Justin Feil |

With a medical redshirt, senior Jack McBride will graduate from Princeton and pursue a post-graduate opportunity elsewhere, Tigers coach Chris Bates said. The All-American attackman and one-time Tewaaraton Trophy candidate missed nearly all of his senior season with a re-aggravated groin injury.

© Greg Wall

Like a battered boxer, the Princeton men's lacrosse team withstood hit after hit this season.

It started in November with a big body blow when Mike Chanenchuk suffered a broken collarbone in a fall game with Georgetown. The 2010 Ivy League Rookie of the Year missed so much school from it that he had to withdraw before the spring semester. He is expected to return to Princeton next year, when he will still be a sophomore.

It continued into the season, with four more players suffering season-ending injuries and 16 players in all losing at least one game to injury, not to mention countless practice time.

"I'm not a guy that uses any excuse," said Princeton head coach Chris Bates. "It's tough from a rhythm standpoint and getting a flow."

Still, round after round, the Tigers answered every bell.

"Honestly," Bates said, "until the final whistle at Cornell, we felt we had a chance to make a run."

The Tigers got up from every knockdown, and couldn't be counted out until their season-ending 9-7 loss to current No. 2 Cornell. With the loss, Princeton ended its year 4-8 overall, 2-4 in Ivy play.

"There was hope throughout only because we somewhat controlled our destiny," Bates said. "Harvard was the most disappointing. That would have sealed a way to get to the conference tournament.

"Cornell was almost surreal. We clearly demonstrated with Cornell and Syracuse, we could play with anyone in the country."

That was perhaps the low blow to it all, that in spite of wholesale injuries, Princeton not only was in most every game it played, but led almost every game is played. The Tigers, though, lost six of the eight games they played that were decided by one or two goals.

"As a coach, we're there to win games," Bates said. "That made it more frustrating we were so close. To get blown out may have made it easier to wash it away inside. But the fact that we were that close, it is a credit to our guys and the fight that we were able to put forth.

"I told our guys, I don't begrudge the effort or fight for one instance," he added. "This team, it never quit. There are some positives to take from the competitive spirit."

The top three teams in the country are Syracuse, Cornell and Johns Hopkins. Princeton lost to the first two by two goals apiece – it was tied with Syracuse heading into the final eight minutes and Princeton led the Big Red, 6-1, in the second quarter. At its healthiest, the Tigers pummeled Hopkins, 8-3, in the second game of the year.

It's one of only two losses for No. 3 Hopkins, and it came even though the Tigers didn't have Jack McBride, who reaggravated a groin injury after three quarters in the season-opener against Hofstra, played a couple minutes against Penn, and was gone for the rest of the year. Without McBride and Chanenchuk – who scored 63 goals and 24 assists in their first season working together last year – the offense struggled to score and even to maintain possession and keep the pressure off their vaunted Tigers defense.

The Tigers' demise started in the fall, when 2010 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Mike Chanenchuk withdrew from Princeton after breaking his collarbone and falling behind in his studies.

"When you take away Mike Chanenchuk and Jack McBride, that's four goals a game," Bates said. "Every team deals with injuries. You have to get production. We struggled on the offensive end. We struggled to replace those goals and execute and minimize turnovers. That's what undid us."

Unlike Chanenchuk, McBride will not return to the Tigers. He will graduate this spring, and Bates said that he is currently researching the best fit to use a medical redshirt year of eligibility at a school where he can do graduate work.

It would have been challenging enough if the Tigers only lost the dynamic scoring duo this year. Rob Castelo tore knee ligaments and broke his kneecap in a horrific end to a promising sophomore season in which he was starting on defense. In his place stepped Jonathan Meyers, who had been working in at longpole middie. Meyers went on to miss three games himself, leaving the Tigers looking deeper into their roster, and more and more Tigers got a chance to show what they had.

"Guys playing JV or who weren't playing at all," Bates said.

Oscar Loynaz and Derek Styer, two shortstick midfielders that would have helped, also missed the entire year due to injuries.

"It depletes your depth, whether it's game day or practices," Bates said. "It's something have to account for."

If not for some determination, the number of season-ending injuries would have been higher. Nick Fernandez, a freshman midfielder fought back from a pre-season ankle injury and concussion to become a contributor. Against Yale, he broke his arm, though he returned after four games with his arm wrapped in an elaborate cast. Tyler Moni, a team captain who suffered a broken wrist, also came back after missing three games to play with a protective cast on.

Junior midfielder Peter Smyth, one of three faceoff specialists for the Tigers, missed three games. Alex Capretta, a junior attack getting a bigger chance, missed a pair of games. Another midfielder, Chris White, missed two games. Chris McBride, Jack's cousin, missed just one game, but could barely play in the season finale at Cornell.

Even Tom Schreiber, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year, missed the Penn game, and the offense only scored three goals without the midfielder who became the first Princeton freshman to ever lead the team in goals and assists. He had to.

"There's a lot more responsibility and attention defensively on you," Bates said. "When you're looking at Princeton offensively, you're looking at Tom earlier than you would otherwise. If you have Mike, Mike's drawing the pole.

"It put a little more burden on him. He assumed the role better than can be expected. He certainly didn't step away from the challenge."

Schreiber, though, shouldn't have been in that position as a freshman. It was a theme for Princeton, which was forced to turn to lots of unproven players in the field.

Junior goalkeeper Tyler Fiorito had his best season for the Tigers, who return most of their defense in 2012.

© Greg Wall

"At this level, when you're in one- and two-goal games, you need that experience and execution," Bates said. "That's ultimately what cost us – not having what needed to win. I think it's more game experience and playing guys not used to prime time minutes."

What kept the Tigers in games this season was its defense, a defense that returns intact aside from senior Long Ellis, who shut out North Carolina's Billy Bitter and led the Tigers with 16 caused turnovers. Junior goalie Tyler Fiorito had his best year. Chad Wiedmaier was named to the All-Ivy first team for the third straight year, and no attackman in the country wants to be matched up with him. John Cunningham, the junior longstick midfielder, also plagues opposing offenses. Castelo, who withdrew from school for the year, also is expected back Feb. 1.

"We're excited about his future," Bates said. "He was a starting defenseman for us. He's a big part of the future of the program."

Ultimately, though, the defense wasn't enough for the depleted Tigers.

"You have to manage the game and find a way to win," Bates said. "They kept us in it in a lot of regards. We were mixing and matching to find ways to put goals in the cage and to maximize possession."

It's easy to pin the Tigers' struggles on an encyclopedia of injuries. Bates wants no such excuse.

"What's more important is what you learn from it," he said. "We had every opportunity given who was on the field to beat Harvard, beat Cornell, beat Syracuse. As a coach, you don't want to lay blame completely, you want to learn and grow from it.

"At the end of the day, the team on the field didn't do what it needed to, to win the game. If we learn from it and grow from it, that's the most important thing."

There will be a fleet of frustrated players back next season, players that stood on the sideline helpless during a loss that made the difference for a Princeton team that came up short of its pre-season hype and its own lofty goals. Even without some of the cogs that fueled that hype, the Tigers never lowered their goals, which is why the ending was just as painful as any of the myriad injuries suffered this seoson.

"We talked about taking a run," Bates said. "We didn't just talk about making the Ivy tournament. We felt we could play with anyone in the country.

"You have to put that to bed. It's a closed chapter. Going forward with what's returning and the lessons we learned this year, there's significant talent and significant pride. The emotions are going to be high, and that's a good thing. That's what we expect at Princeton. As a coach, you can't help but start thinking about next year and what you can do better."

And as a fighter, you know you'll get the rematch.

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