April 5, 2014

Harvard Rides Mendola's Hot Hand By No. 1 Cornell

by Will Cleveland | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Harvard upset No. 1 Cornell on the road, its first win over the Big Red since the late 1990s. (Harvard Athletics/Gil Talbot)

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The last 16 years in the Cornell/Harvard men's lacrosse rivalry have followed a similar script. The Big Red has dominated, winning every meeting in the series since 1998, including a 15-6 win in the 2011 Ivy League Tournament championship game.

It's only fitting that an Ithaca native helped flip the script in Saturday's match-up. Senior Gabe Mendola, an Ithaca High School graduate, won 20 of 26 face-offs to power the Crimson to a 14-9 win over the top-ranked Big Red in an Ivy League game at Cornell's Schoellkopf Field.

"We just stick to what we do best. It's been a long time coming. I guess I face off well in Ithaca," said Mendola, a 6-foot-1, 212-pound face-off specialist.

"It's a dream come true. Every year we play them and we wanted it real bad. You look over there and my whole neighborhood is over there. Shout out to Belle Sherman (an Ithaca neighborhood). It's a dream come true."

Mendola entered the game with a .512 face-off winning percentage (62 of 121). He went 9-for-25 at the 'X' in the previous game against Duke. Mendola sparked Harvard (6-4, 3-0 Ivy League) and helped the Crimson overcome a rocky start in which it managed just two shots in the first 11 minutes and committed turnovers on its first three possessions. Cornell (9-1, 3-1), which was the last undefeated team in the country, built an early 4-1 lead.

"Incredible. He's really the MVP of this game," Harvard coach Chris Wojcik said. "He went to Ithaca High School, grew up in this area. I couldn't be happier for him. He really allowed us to control the tempo of that game and really control that game from start to finish. He did an incredible job, and I'm so proud of him, that he's able to get this win as a homecoming."

The possession advantage allowed the Crimson to dictate tempo, often leading to drawn out possessions that clearly fatigued the Cornell defense. The Crimson's face-off advantage was particularly impressive since Cornell senior Doug Tesoriero is among the top face-off specialists in the country, finishing with the 12th best winning percentage in the country last year (.581).

"We were pretty confident that if we were on top of our game, we could take it to him," Mendola said. "That's pretty much the same for anybody. We really focused in on our own process. When you face-off, you have to keep track of a lot of things in your head. You've got two hands to work with, different motions in each hand, and not to mention your body. If all of those things click at once, then great things can happen. I'm happy that happened for me today."

Sophomore Deke Burns, typically Harvard's fourth attackman, stepped in after starter Ian Ardrey limped off the field with Cornell leading 4-1. Burns buried his first shot and finished with three goals and two assists. Sophomore Will Walker added four goals and an assist for the Crimson.

"We were a little erratic with the ball and a little sloppy right away," Wojcik said. "I think we had two or three turnovers right from the start. When we were down 2-1, I called a timeout and said, 'Alright, just take a deep breath and play our game.'"

For the first time this season, Cornell lost the ground ball battle (33-31). More impressively, the Harvard defense limited Cornell's top three scorers – Matt Donovan, Connor Buczek, and Danny Lintner – to a combined one goal. Long poles Bobby Duvnjak and Stephen Jahelka marked attackmen Donovan and Lintner, while Brian Fischer and Walker Kirby worked to limit the effectiveness of midfielder Buczek.

"They really showed early to everything," Buczek said. "They didn't shy away from any of us. They pushed out our hands, got out on us, and packed it in behind it. It's tough to dodge to the goal when you see a slide and you see another defenseman right in front of you. They did a really good job of just packing it in and making it look like there was less space than there was on the field."

Junior midfielder John Hogan led the Big Red with three goals and two assists. Senior midfielder Joe Paoletta added two goals and one assist and sophomore attackman John Edmonds chipped in one goal and one assist.

"All the credit goes to Harvard," Cornell interim coach Matt Kerwick said. "I really thought they played an excellent game today. They wanted it a little bit more when it was on the ground. I think that was the difference. The tough ground balls, they were really fighting and scrapping for them.

"They were very efficient offensively. They had long possessions that would end up in a good look, a lot of times a goal. They did a great job at the face-off 'X', on the ground ball play, and then they would get another offensive possession. It put too much pressure on our defense."

The Big Red had a chance to quell the momentum late in the first half. Freshman goalie Christian Knight came up with a big save but turned the ball over with an errant pass due to the Harvard ride. His pass sailed right into the stick of Harvard's Walker, who scored on the empty-netter with 53.8 seconds left to tie the game at 6. Knight, who has started the last six games for Cornell, is now 5-1.

Cornell doesn't get much time to reflect on this loss as No. 7 Syracuse (6-3) comes to Schoellkopf on Tuesday. The Orange will have a full week to prepare.

"It stings, but we've got all of our goals still in tact," Buczek said. "It's one of those things where maybe we rode a little too high getting to 9-0. Maybe this is what this team needed to knock us down a peg and now we can really re-focus when we have the Orange in 48 hours or 72 hours. It's never a good thing to lose, but if you're going to lose, it might as well be now than at the end of April or before May rolls around. "

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