This time of year, Cornell students are generally beginning to froth at the prospect of filling out a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament while watching Cornell’s hockey team make yet another run at the ECAC title (well, most years). Lost in the shuffle is the beginning of the lacrosse season. Saturday, the No. 3 Red made a heavy bid to get noticed as it took down No. 9 Army, 7-4 — the second top-10 team Cornell has slain in as many weeks.
Facing the task of going up against an Army team (4-1, 2-0 Patriot) that likes to slow the pace down on offense and pack defenders around the cage on defense, the Red (4-0) burst out of the gate, scoring a mere 12 seconds into the first quarter. Sophomore Tommy Schmicker nabbed the opening face off, brushing past his counterpart to head up field before finding senior Eric Pittard. Pittard took no time in filling the back of the net for his first of two points on the afternoon.
“It [getting the first goal] swings the momentum in our favor really quickly,” said senior Brian Clayton, who led the Red with two goals and two assists. “It gives guys a little more confidence in terms of starting the game off right. It’s a first impression, it’s definitely important.”
The Red continued to push a more high-paced tempo as sophomore John Espey netted a goal just over three minutes later. Espey streaked out from behind the cage, curling around to the front of the goal, eventually beating his man and Army goaltender Adam Fullerton with an upper shelf shot.
The Cornell offense staggered from there, however, as the team got bogged down a little in its own deliberate offense.
“We were trying to make deliberate set-ups with a lot of our plays instead of just moving,” Clayton said. “… We were calling plays, but not everyone was on the same page. … Army does a great job of packing it in and showing. They really started to show their slides early, but didn’t really commit to them, though. We would go into our first dodge, and the slide wouldn’t come and we just started to scan instead of going into another dodge.”
Still, the Red defense held down the fort with tight marking as the two teams traded futile offensive possessions.
“I think we had a great game plan going into it,” said senior co-captain Mitch Belisle. “We knew their big guys, 1 [Ryan Chase] and 11 [Justin Brokmeyer], and we made sure to put pulls on them. Against Army you have to be patient and not get lulled to sleep by their offense.”
Interestingly enough, the Red’s plan was actually to draw Army into a 6-on-6 offensive set-up in an attempt to stifle the Black Knights efficient transition game.
“Their main strength is actually their transition game,” Belisle said. “One of the keys was to get back in the hole and we did a good job of getting middies back in the hole. … I think a lot of their goals came off different situations than just a regular 6-on-6 defense. So when we were able to get them into their basic offense we could shut them down pretty well.”
And despite Chase’s two goals, the defense kept the Black Knights main attackers in check, helped significantly by the stellar play of senior co-captain Matt McMonagle in goal.
“He [McMonagle] had some unbelievable saves and some great plays out of the net,” Belisle said. “He had at least a couple picks of passes.”
McMonagle, who finished with eight saves, rolled both of these plays into one towards the end of the first quarter when he smothered a shot at point blank range, before roving away from the cage to pick off a pass after Army picked up the ground ball on the rebound.
The Black Knights did toss in their first goal of the afternoon as the second quarter began, but the Red — as it would all afternoon — responded only a few minutes later, as senior David Mitchell scored to put the team back up by two. The 3-1 lead would carry over into half time.
“I think a huge part of [never letting them score twice in a row] was Tommy on the face offs,” Belisle said. “Even though he didn’t dominate [8-of-15], he at least contested every ground ball so they weren’t getting any fast breaks on us.”
Coming out of the locker room, Cornell lapsed into a sloppy approach on offense, turning the ball over a few times and giving Army opportunities that it would capitalize on. As the game wore on, however, the Red began to better scout Fullerton’s tendencies in the net, leading to a new approach.
“The shots that went in “We started to learn what shots were going to go in,” Clayton said. “Particularly, a lot of the shots down at his feet were going. Initially a lot of were trying to shoot at the crossbar, but we found out later at the game wore on that we should shoot at his feet.”
Indeed Mitchell bounced in his second goal from five yards out to make it a 4-2 game. The teams yet again traded goals, and the fourth quarter opened with the Red up 5-3. After Army pulled within one for the fourth time on the afternoon, it became a slow-paced battle of the goalies, as they traded saves. As the game wound down, the Red’s defense held tight until Clayton stepped up and put in two goals in the final three minutes of the game, finally putting the game safely out of reach.
“My first goal was a dodge and a redodge,” Clayton said. “I dodged and then stop and acted like I was going to pass. The slide went back into the crease so when I went towards the goal, there was no slide and I just shot one at his feet.”
Clayton, who was playing near his hometown of Monsey, N.Y., felt it was necessary for a senior to take control in a fourth quarter which was intense, but very slow.
“I was so determined and angry that we weren’t playing our best,” he said. “I kind of had a little bit of a mental focus saying ‘I have to get to the cage.’ So instead of being complacent, I just decided that I had to step up as a senior.”
Indeed, both his goals came off simply muscling past a defender or two, and charging the cage. The two goals put the final tally at 7-4, giving the Red an unblemished record heading into spring break.