(Photo Courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
*Note: It was reported back in September by Matt Kinnear of Inside Lacrosse that at least 20 members of the Princeton men’s lacrosse team planned to opt out of the 2021 season. Who the opt outs are and whether they will stick has not been made public. Due to that some players mentioned in this article may not be playing this spring*
In 2001 the Princeton Tigers won their sixth NCAA title under Bill Tierney. 2002 is the last time that Princeton has made a national title game appearance, 2004 is the last Championship Weekend appearance the Tigers have made, and 2009 is the last time they have made the NCAA Quarterfinals. That season also marked the end of the Bill Tierney era at Princeton, as he headed west for Denver following that season.
While Princeton did win the Ivy League Tournament in 2010 and has made the NCAA Tournament twice (2010,2012) since the end of the Tierney era, they have been a shell of their former perennial national title-contending selves. And many have questioned if Princeton has the capability of taking the Ivy back and rising to national prominence ever again.
The Tigers had some strong seasons under Chris Bates and have seen much of the same under Matt Madalon. But perhaps nothing will ever top what the 2020 could’ve been for the Tigers.
Led by Tewarraton front-runner Michael Sowers, the Tigers went 5-0 before the season was cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak and ended the season as the No. 3-ranked team in the nation. With Sowers now at Duke as a grad transfer, that’s 47 points (16G/3A) that the Tigers have lost from last year’s team. And not to mention that they also lose midfielder Connor McCarthy, who is using a grad year at North Carolina, and attackman Phillip Robertson, who will join Sowers at Duke. Those two combined for 27 points last season.
Losing 74 points and arguably one of the top five greatest players in program history is not ideal for any program. And there is no doubt that second-year offensive coordinator Jim Mitchell has maybe the biggest challenge of any coach in the country on his hands this season.
While Princeton does lose a lot of talent from what was the nation’s third-ranked scoring offense, the cupboard is not bare. However, just what the ceiling is for this offense in 2021 is certainly in question. And perhaps it’s the biggest question in the Ivy League heading into the upcoming season.
The Tigers will return their second-leading scorer in senior attackman Chris Brown (13G/5A). Brown was primarily a shooter last season and worked very well with Sowers. He will now be thrust into the spotlight as their top threat at attack and will have to prove that he can be the elite scorer we know him to be without a passing machine in Sowers working alongside him.
In addition to Brown returning at attack, the Tigers do have a fairly strong midfield unit with junior Alexander Vardaro (11G/2A) and sophomore Alex Slusher (7G/1A). Junior midfielder Jake Stevens (7G/1A), who was a key role player at the position could see himself bumped up to the first line this spring and be a primary threat on the offensive end for the Tigers.
Another huge piece of this Tigers squad last season was faceoff man Tyler Sandavol. As a freshman, Sandavol came onto the scene strong and played out of his mind in the four games he saw action in. He ended the season going 39-for-73 (53%) at the dot. His success gave the Tigers a huge advantage and really allowed their offense to heat up and drain energy from the opposing team at times.
Princeton held the 28th-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing an average of 10.80 goals per game. Erik Peters anchored this defensive unit in cage and silently showed to be one of the best and most consistent goalies in the nation. He ended the season with a 52% save percentage.
Out in front of the cage, Ben Finlay was one of the only poles who started all five games for the Tigers. The first freshman to start for the Tigers’ defense in five seasons, Finlay recorded 12 ground balls and three caused turnovers. Senior George Baughn has been one of the best defensemen in the Ivy League over the course of his career. He recorded 10 ground balls and eight caused turnovers last season. Amari Medghalchi is the only graduation loss the Tigers have on the back end, as far as starters go, from last season.
No matter who does end up opting out and following through with it, this Tigers team has a good crop of young talent, many of whom will have to face the test of growing up and taking on a bigger role over the next few seasons. Whether this Princeton team can ever get back to being a perennial Ivy League contender lies within the talent of these young guys that have either showed flashes already or could have breakthrough seasons in 2021 or 2022.