The men’s lacrosse team’s 2009 season came full circle when it upset top seed Virginia for a chance to play in the national championship game against No. 2 seed Syracuse. The Red shocked the Cavaliers, 15-6, by playing intelligent team defense and, above all, controlling possession and showing discipline on offense. Those talents, however, weren’t always in the 2009 team’s repertoire — they appeared out of necessity after the Red’s 15-10 loss to the same Orange squad that will take the field on Monday looking for its second consecutive (11th overall) national title.
Early in the season, the team displayed a fast-paced, run-and-gun offense, often riding the pure scoring ability of senior midfielder Max Seibald and junior attackman Ryan Hurley to wins. Cornell put up eye-popping offensive stats — a 21-11 win over Penn on March 28 looked more like a track meet than a lacrosse game, and the team totaled a ridiculous 53 shots against Yale a week earlier.
But the humbling loss to Syracuse on April 7 — in which the Orange took advantage of sloppy transition play by a Cornell squad looking to push the pace of the game faster than they could apparently handle — showed head coach Jeff Tambroni that a good offense is not necessarily the best defense. Especially when playing from behind. Especially against a top program like Syracuse.
“I think at times [Cornell’s defense] had a couple let downs in our game, but we’ve watched them the last two weeks and they’re playing as well as anyone in the country right now,” said Syracuse senior attackman Kenny Nims, who leads the nation with 4.25 points per game.
Two weeks later, the Red passed its next big test with a 10-7 win over then-No. 1 Princeton. Cornell upset the Tigers the same way it would upset the Cavaliers more than a month later: grabbing an early lead and dominating possession. The team raced ahead to a 4-1 lead in the first quarter, then took care of all the little things to ensure Princeton would not fight its way back into the contest. Cornell held the significant edge in ground balls (30-11) and face-offs (14-5) and only allowed Princeton 45 seconds of possession in the fourth quarter.
In the rematch with Syracuse on Monday afternoon, Cornell will look to ride that recipe to victory one last time, this time with the pressure of an NCAA title and a national TV audience on its shoulders. Grabbing that early lead is a tough task against a Syracuse team loaded with talented scorers at every position, but Tambroni is confident his squad is up to the task.
“We’d like to say, as we do every game, that the first five minutes is important,” he said. “… but I don’t get the sense that if we go down by three goals, with this group that we have that there is going to be a lack of confidence or a panic button at this point.”
It’s going to be important but more importantly is going to be our guys’ ability to commit to 60 minutes of lacrosse and just stay poised whether we’re up by three or down by three.”
Nims and sophomore attackman Stephen Keogh lead the Orange’s offense, but Syracuse boasts an athletic scorer at every position and has one of the deepest teams in college lacrosse. Similar to the Virginia game plan, Cornell will look to emphasize team play on defense, rather than relying on its defenders to win one-on-one matchups against Syracuse’s attack.
“I think after our game I’ve seen a change in them, they really value their possessions and are playing great team defense,” said Syracuse coach John Desko. “They’re really sliding well and recovering. [Senior goalie Jake Myers is] making some good saves in the goal for them so it makes them even tougher.”
Cornell’s offensive strategy will also revolve around a team-first mentality. With defenders paying close attention to Seibald, recently named the USILA Player of the Year and Midfielder of the Year, Glynn and Hurley, the Red will rely heavily on Ivy League Rookie of the Year Rob Pannell. Pannell controls the pace of Cornell’s offense and takes advantage of “ball-watching” defenders by directing pinpoint passes to Red attackers cutting near the goal.
“With [Seibald] drawing so much attention, what’s nice about our offense is that we don’t depend solely on one guy to make plays,” said senior midfielder Rocco Romero. “For us as an offense, there’s no one individual match-up. It’s a team effort; we’re just trying to play 6-on-6.”
As has been the case for most of Cornell’s big games this season, the Red enters the championship game as the clear underdog to Syracuse. But as the numerous upsets have shown, the team doesn’t put much stock in underdog/favorite roles.
“I think the understanding is that it is going to take a pretty monumental effort to beat a team like that,” Tambroni said.
“But we’re excited to go out there and give it our best shot.”
Check back tomorrow at 1 p.m. for live updates from the championship game in Foxborough.