Last year was not the season that Cornell men’s lacrosse had hoped for. They’ll be the first ones to tell you that.
“It was a growing year last year, but no one really wanted that result, no one really expected that result,” said senior goalie Christian Knight, who sidelined the entirety of the 2016 season due to injury.
For a program that has been around since Grover Cleveland was the president, success for Cornell men’s lacrosse is not just something to strive for — it is what’s expected.
So coming off a season where Cornell finished below .500 for the first time since 1998, the team has two options: wallow in the disappointment of what never was, or use last season as a driving force to go ahead and reassert itself as one of the premier squads in Division I lacrosse.
So far this year, it seems like the latter has been the obvious approach.
“There has been a little bit of an edge and chip on the shoulder this year and that’s not a bad thing,” said head coach Matt Kerwick, who is entering his third full year at the helm. “But if you get caught looking at last year too much you’re not looking ahead. This is a very different team from last year.”
Part of what has Kerwick confident and excited about this upcoming campaign is the maturity he believes some of his younger players gained from last season. The 2016 team consisted of a whopping 17 newcomers — five members larger than the next-biggest class.
“Any time you rely on a number of freshmen like we did last year you’re going to have some peaks and valleys — and we knew that as a staff — but that’s no excuse,” Kerwick said.
Of those 17 now-sophomores, three of them were within the top-five scorers last season, with Colton Rupp leading the way with a team-high 23 goals. Only two of the team’s top-10 point getters last season have departed form Ithaca, meaning a “wiser and stronger and more comfortable” team is going to take the field this Saturday at Penn St., according to Kerwick.
Along with Rupp, this group is highlighted by midfielder/attacker Ryan Bray, midfielder Clarke Peterson — captain as just a sophomore — and the more-experienced Ryan Matthews.
They will look to replace the night-in-night-out contributions of John Edmonds ’16, whose goal-scoring and playmaking contributed to his team-high 26 points last year.
“The younger kids on the team, especially that sophomore class that’s in now, learned a lot last season,” said junior defender and co-captain Jake Pulver. “A lot of them played as freshmen and I think that will help them become leaders and help the new freshmen this year.”
As if the freshman class of last year was dangerous enough, this year’s is poised to make an even larger splash. The first-years are headlined by Jeff Teat, a Canadian phenom who was ranked the No. 1 freshman by Inside Lacrosse, an ESPN-affiliated lacrosse publication.
“Jeff is a different talent,” Kerwick said of his new threat. “His mental approach is outstanding. He’s never too high, never too low, and he sees the game at a very high level. He is two steps ahead out there on the field in terms of recognizing plays and understanding where he should go with the ball next.”
“He has a great lacrosse IQ and makes you sure you’re focused the whole entire play, because if you’re not, he’s going to beat you,” Pulver added.
Kerwick also stressed not to rely too heavily on Teat, emphasizing the game plan this year is to be a more “team-oriented, unselfish [and] ball-moving offense.”
“We’re not going to put too much on his shoulders, but he is a very good offensive leader in that he looks for his teammates, he’s not selfish and he can also put the ball in the back of the net,” the head coach said. “So that combination is very unique.”
It is also important to not overlook the fact that this year’s freshman class rivals the current sophomores in number, totaling at 14 of its own. Hopes are high for defenseman Brandon Salvatore, Connor Fletcher and Ryan Maloney, who was ranked No. 45 on the same list as Teat.
Regardless of how the freshmen pan out, everything this team has prepared for gets put to the test this Saturday, when the Red travels to State College, Pa., to take on the No. 11 Nittany Lions (2-0). Last season was a back-and-forth affair for the two powerhouses. Cornell took the 4-2 lead into the half, but Penn St. blanked the Red in the third quarter along with scoring five of its own.
Cornell put together a furious comeback in the final frame by scoring four straight, but a Penn St. goal with 3:49 remaining sunk Cornell’s comeback bid.
Penn St. already has two games of experience under its belt this season, defeating both Robert Morris and Hobart, which Cornell faces next weekend.
The quest for redemption begins Saturday, and for a team that is eager to reaffirm its status as one of the most elite country, it could not come soon enough.
“We’re very excited to get going,” Kerwick added. “This is a deep and talented group and we are very eager to get this season rolling.”