April 8, 2010

Breaking Past Labels

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To a lover of anything sports, the number 16 would hold a lot of relevance. Sixteen is the number that has been retired for MLB pitchers Whitney Ford and Hal Newhouser. The New England Patriots won 16 games during the 2007 regular season. There are currently 16 different athletic programs on probation at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Most relevant and important to fans of the Cornell Red: there were 16 seniors that graduated from the men’s lacrosse team last year, leaving 16 vacated spots to be filled by 16 underclassmen.With such a large number of contributing players absent from the roster, the Cornell squad has been labeled a young, immature team. Consequently, the Red has tried to build up a hard-working team to get past this stigma and prove to the nation that it is a force to be reckoned with.“I’d consider the team a work-in-progress,” said head coach Jeff Tambroni. “To the credit of our group, the week to week process of training has been getting better.”The team is a work-in-progress that is constantly improving because of the large learning curves that exist for the multiple younger players on the team. To attempt to get past these, the Red has had rigorous practices that began long before the start of the season, as the team capitalized on the off-season opportunities.“The fall and winter provided great opportunities for the team to bond and prepare,” said senior midfielder Austin Boykin. “Obviously it was tough losing [last year’s seniors] but everyone has found a way to step up and adapt.” The younger classes have produced a great turnout for the team, and this success can be traced all the way back into the net with freshman goalie A.J. Fiore, who has started in every game to date this season.“I would give him high marks for his performance this year,” Tambroni said. “A transition from high school to college in any sport is big, but for goalies in lacrosse this is an especially daunting task.”One of the most daunting aspects of being a goalie on a new turf is producing consistency throughout every game. As a goalie starting in every game, Fiore has had to make sure that his game was at its best during every matchup the Red has participated in thus far.“The biggest learning curve for the goalie is adjusting mentally,” Tambroni said.A goalie needs to be tougher than before to survive on the Division I playing field, Tambroni explained.In the most recent games, there has been game splitting in goal between Fiore and junior Mat Martinez. As both are very talented netminders, the two can be seen challenging each other during practice and ultimately drawing out the maximum capabilities of the other.Fiore is not the only freshman who is bringing good things to this year’s team, however. Boykin commented on the defending ability of freshmen Thomas Keith and Mike Bronzino.“They’re starting to learn the system and are really getting on board,” Boykin said.Tambroni pointed out that freshman defenseman Jason Noble is doing a good job being consistent in his performances.However, amidst such a young team, the most important contributions to a team would be good leadership. Losing 16 players creates the largest need for adjustment from the current seniors, Tambroni said, as they are the ones required to fill these now vacant leadership roles. Although leadership roles are always passed on each year, the ever-larger requirement this year has been met in fine fashion.“The freshmen have done a great job of transitioning from high school to college lacrosse … this is credited to the seniors who have done a great job in pointing the group in the right direction,” he said.Tambroni noted that players who are doing a great job include senior captains Ryan Hurley and Pierce Derkac, along with Boykin and senior attackman Christopher Ritchie. Sophomore attackman Rob Pannell has also been an instrumental returning player. The attackmen have had to become even more offense-based with the graduation of last year’s senior players, as they are forced to pick up some of the slack that would normally be the job of midfielders. Last year, for example, Hurley and Pannell were seen as making up a fantastic tag-team in terms of plays; this year, though, their roles have required somewhat different focuses.In addition to the leadership from the returning players on the team, a new advantage for the Red has come in the form of a volunteer to the coaching staff, Josh Heller ’02.“Heller is an unbelievable asset,” Derkac said. “He knows the coaching staff very well and he used to play as we have been told to play.”Derkac went on to explain how Heller was one of the players at Cornell to witness and partake in the transformation in 2000 when Tambroni took over coaching, leading to the current recognition of the team as being an Ivy and national perennial power. He brings to the team a good mentality and “blue-collared work ethic” that is a “perfect representation of Cornell lacrosse”, Derkac said.“He’s a great leader, a great role model … you can’t run out of things to say,” Derkac said. “He’s motivational and inspirational.”Boykin agreed, noting that Heller helps in making connections on the team, especially with his recent experience of playing lacrosse for Cornell.Looking forward, the “early part” of the season is now just about at a close, and the young Red (7-2, 2-1 Ivy) is in relatively good standing. Though it had an unfortunate slip-up in the last game against Dartmouth, the men look forward with optimism.“Unfortunately, the team is sometimes more energetic after we lose,” Tambroni said. “It’s difficult to challenge yourself after consecutive wins, so we’re hoping that the constant urgency will come into play at every practice.”As the young team is learning not to be complacent, its plan of action includes taking every game individually, especially going forward. Cornell has to face No. 3 Syracuse as well as Ivy rivals Harvard, Princeton and Brown before it will hopefully make the first-ever Ivy League tournament and then eventually the NCAA playoffs.“I wouldn’t say that there is any game left in our schedule –– especially because of the loss to Dartmouth –– that isn’t of high importance. While there is no game that we have to win, we can’t afford to drop too many,” Tambroni said.The team will focus on playing its own game with each matchup considered individually, and the Cornell-specific style of play will include harping on the fact that everything is connected.“There are 10 guys working together on the field as one. Defense starts on ‘the ride’ and middies are on the attack … as soon as [midfielders] make a stop or a big-time save, the defense is on the attack,” Derkac said. “If you’re working together and have that edge, you’re going to win it.”It is this mentality that the younger players are being taught to live by each week as they improve their skills and become more acclimated to the style of Cornell lacrosse.“We don’t want the label of being a young team to be our excuse,” Derkac said.And without an excuse the Red will hopefully be, as it aims to tackle the NCAA tournament and meet the achievements that last year’s team had brought with the many new and young faces on this year’s team.

Original Author: Reena Gilani