This story is part of The Sun’s 2017 spring supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.
Week-in and week-out, there is an unwavering confidence filling the Cornell men’s lacrosse locker room, a confidence you would expect from the seventh-most winningest program in collegiate lacrosse history. But for the second straight year, the team finished with a losing record and missed out on postseason play.
These failures would be a disappointment to any team of any caliber, but it is especially hard for a program as storied as Cornell’s. One has to go back nearly 20 years to find comparable teams record-wise to this one — it is the first consecutive losing season since 1997-98, and the first time finishing out of the top-three in the Ivy League for two years in a row since the pair of years prior.
But a turnaround came quickly. From 1999 until the second week of the 2016 season, the Red was ranked for 210 consecutive weeks. And in that 16-year run, the team posted a winning record each season and missed out on postseason play only three times.
Current head coach Matt Kerwick came in towards the end of this run, serving as assistant coach during the 2013 season, and was promoted to the head role starting in the 2014 season.
During the first two years of Kerwick’s reign, the team came out as co-Ivy Champions and secured spots in both the Ivy League and NCAA Tournaments during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. While Kerwick was unable to secure a win in postseason play — going 0-4 in total — it was a promising sign that Cornell would continue on the trajectory of success.
But as the past couple of seasons have proven, no team is immune to the cycles of success and failure. With the recently poor showings from the team, fans and followers alike are left wondering: what is happening to the Cornell lacrosse program?
A very prominent issue for the team is relying on its youth. During Kerwick’s relatively successful 2014 and 2015 seasons, his team was comprised of only 42 percent freshmen and 49 percent sophomores. But during the recent losing seasons, the 2016 and 2017 teams have comprised of 64 percent and 63 percent freshmen and sophomores, respectively.
“That’s honestly the biggest difference — my freshman year we had a big senior class, everyone played, everyone contributed, and same thing with my sophomore year,” said senior Christian Knight. “The senior leaders, upperclassmen are very important, [and] it definitely helps when you have some guys with experience out on the field.”
Last season, Kerwick brought in a massive 17-member freshman class. Of the freshmen, three of them were the team’s top-five scorers, with now-sophomore Colton Rupp leading the way with 23 goals. Classmate Ryan Bray, who has been plagued with injury this year, was third on the team with points and Clarke Petterson is now a captain of the team, despite only being a sophomore.
Kerwick brought in another big, talented freshman class this year of 14, including stand-out Jeff Teat, who was ranked the No. 1 freshman by Inside Lacrosse. Kerwick told The Sun earlier in the season that he was looking for this team to be a more “team-oriented, unselfish [and] ball-moving offense” than the 2016 campaign, looking to not put too much of a burden on Teat.
But while Teat has lived up to the hype, it is again the freshmen leading the way for the Red. Teat ranks eighth in the nation in points per game and is fifth in the nation in assists per game. Teat and classmate Connor Fletcher have combined to be the highest-scoring rookie combo in the history of Cornell lacrosse, and Inside Lacrosse had both Teat and defender Brandon Salvatore on the top-25 Midseason Freshman Rankings, with Salvatore at No. 12 and Teat No. 3.
“We were a really young team the past two years, [so] I think there’s a really good backbone for Cornell lacrosse the next two years,” said senior Marshall Peters. “Now these guys have gotten these experiences, taking these experiences and transferring to tangible leadership roles, they’re going to have to step up and set the tone, but that’s something we [already] preach.”
One of the challenges that faced the young team is trying to put everything together while facing a tough schedule. During the first five games of the season, the team went up against three then-ranked opponents of No. 11 Penn St., No. 9 Albany and No. 13 Virginia, as well as current league leader Yale.
“It takes a little bit of time, obviously you want to be ready out in game one, and we weren’t early in the season,” Kerwick said. “[The team has] just continued to learn and improve, they’re an impressive group of freshmen, and there’s a lot of sophomores in there as well that have done a great job.”
But the team has reason to be optimistic of what is to come. Cornell clearly has talented young players, and the signs of the team coming together have been evidenced by the late-season push.
The team finished the season 5-3 since the 0-5 slide, and the numbers for the Red have improved dramatically on both sides of the ball during that run. Cornell gave up an average of 17.8 goals per game and averaged only 10 goals to open the season, compared to scoring 11 and 13 since, respectively. The team also stayed close to UVA, losing a heartbreaking one-goal, overtime decision, and held its own early with No. 1 Syracuse, and beat No. 13 Princeton to close out the season.
And for a team that knows what it takes to be successful, Cornell knows that if it keeps working hard and staying true to the tradition of Red lacrosse, things will only get better.
“I’m not looking too far ahead, but we are very excited about where this program is heading,” Kerwick said. “Obviously we’re not where we want to be right now for this season and with our record, but were continuing to improve and that’s all we can ask [from] this group. I know the future is very bright.”
“The culture [here] is one thing I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Peters said.