March 20, 2014

NCAA Notes: Cornell's 7-0 Start Doesn't Surprise Big Red

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Cornell's 7-0 start may have upended the rest of the lacrosse world's expectations, but the Big Red and interim coach Matt Kerwick knew what they were returning after last year's NCAA semifinals run. (Greg Wall)

After spending one season as an assistant coach at Cornell, Matt Kerwick knew exactly what the Big Red would be missing after attackmen Rob Pannell and Steve Mock had graduated.

Pannell, who capped his dominant career by winning the Tewarraton Trophy, and Mock, the game's top finisher, combined to score 172 points in 2013. The Big Red's ride ended with a NCAA tournament semifinals loss to eventual champion Duke.

But Kerwick, who became the school's interim head coach last fall, following the controversial dismissal of Ben DeLuca, also knew there was plenty stored in the Cornell cupboard.

Kerwick took little offense to the preseason polls that ranked the Big Red near the bottom of the top 20, although he sensed Cornell, with such an established winning culture and talent base, was in no way a team in rebuilding mode.

Nearly one month into its regular season, the third-ranked Big Red (7-0) have joined no. 1 Maryland as the only remaining, undefeated teams in Division I. After beating formerly no. 2 Virginia by three goals and opening its Ivy League schedule with an 11-9 victory over no. 15 Yale, Cornell downed its third straight ranked opponent with a 15-10 win at 18th-ranked Colgate on Tuesday.

"There is a standard here. I haven't been here very long, but that is really evident," Kerwick said. "Expectations are high, and so is the effort every day. The mentality of the seniors passes down to the young players. We're a hard-working group. We're not surprised by success."

In other words, the fact that senior attackman Dan Lintner leads the Big Red with 25 goals – on just 51 shots – should not come as a shock. It just shows how difficult Mock made it for Lintner to see meaningful playing time around the crease.

The fact that junior attackman Matt Donovan (18g, team-high 13 assists) has already won two Ivy Player of the Week honors should not surprise, since Donovan has been a factor since his freshman season. The fact that juniors Connor Buczek and John Hogan lead a deep midfield rotation is just Cornell repeating itself at that position.

The Big Red is once again playing the Cornell way. Seven straight opponents have been beaten in the ground ball game, where Cornell holds a 263-184 advantage. The Big Red is riding and defending hard and causing 8.5 turnovers per game. Those create extra possessions that complement reliable senior faceoff man Doug Tesoriero (.561).

Cornell is benefitting from one surprise. Freshman goalie Christian Knight has won the job, after battling for four games with sophomore Brennan Donville. Knight (.595) has won his last three decisions. In his first start, Knight stopped 15 shots in a 12-9 win over Virginia. Next up was a 14-save gem against Yale.

It was enough to earn Knight back-to-back, Ivy Rookie of the Week honors – the first time that has happened in Ithaca since Donovan did it in 2012.

"We have a great goalie group, but [Knight] is so confident and calm," Kerwick said. "It's his job to lose."

As the Ivy schedule kicks back in for Cornell against Penn on Saturday, this much is clear. Since former coaches Dave Pietramala and Jeff Tambroni started rebuilding this storied program in the late 1990s, the Big Red has regained its old pedigree by winning at least a share of the 10 Ivy titles in the last 11 years, and by advancing to the NCAA tournament's final four – including the 2009 title game – in four of the last seven seasons.

Whether Cornell will bring home its first national championship since 1988 remains to be seen, yet this much also is clear.

The Big Red is not going away.

Bryant Flips Script on Non-Conference Slate

Players like senior attack Dan Sipperly have come through this season for Bryant, which enters NEC play at 5-2. 

This time a year ago, coach Mike Pressler and the Bulldogs of Bryant University were in a painful place. The Bulldogs had endured several, fourth-quarter heartbreaks, and still were searching for the season's first victory after seven attempts.

Not so in 2014. The Bulldogs, who suspect they have to win another Northeast Conference title to reach the NCAA tournament as an automatic qualifier, already have knocked off three, ranked, non-conference schools. Saturday's 12-11 victory at Albany – in the Bulldogs' seventh game of the year – improved Bryant's record to 5-2.

"We're getting much better attack play this year [from freshman Tucker James, sophomore Shane Morrell and senior Dan Sipperly]," Pressler said. "But the reason we're 5-2 is we've been so strong down the middle."

That would be senior faceoff specialist Kevin Massa and especially sophomore goalie sensation Gunnar Waldt, who already has been named the NEC Defensive Player of the Week four times.

The duo really showed up against No. 18 Albany (2-3). Massa, an established FOGO superstar who put a major scare into Syracuse in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, has picked up his game after an uneven start. Massa won 22 of 26 draws against the Great Danes.

Waldt has been consistent from the season's outset and outstanding of late. He ranks second in Division I in saves (13.86) and save percentage (.642). Waldt made half of his 14 saves at point-blank range against Albany to hold the Thompsons in check and limit the highest-scoring offense in the game to a season-low, 11 goals.

"When you see what [Albany] did to UMass [a 25-10 rout], that is just scary," Pressler said. "We didn't really stop [Lyle, Miles and Ty Thompson]. We just kind of corralled them. We had to have every one of those seven saves on the doorstep to win a one-goal game."

Anemic Army Offense A Concern

Army (4-3) has bounced in and out of the top 20 this season with one of the nation's top defenses and an offense that has shot an anemic 22.6 percent. The Black Knights have lost each game by one goal, none more disturbing than Saturday's 7-6 setback at no. 2 Loyola.

A victory in Baltimore would have at least put Army in the mid-season, at-large NCAA tournament bid conversation. Even with a chance to score at-large points at no. 6 Notre Dame on May 3, Army's path to the NCAAs seems simple – win the Patriot League tournament and earn the AQ, or else.

"The 'if' game is something you don't want to be playing right now," said Army junior attackman John Glesener, who has taken 88 of Army's 297 shots and is has hit only 19.3 percent of them. "We've had the potential to be 7-0. But here we are [at 4-3], and we've got to win games."

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