Cornell men’s lacrosse is at a critical point in its legacy. It has been 20 years of conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances since the team had back-to-back losing seasons like the Red had in 2016 and 2017.
For a team that prides itself on its winning tradition — one that has captured three NCAA championships and dozens of conference titles — these past two years have been black marks on a decorated history. But not long ago, Cornell was a giant in the collegiate lacrosse world. And the quest to get back on top comes with a new coach.
Peter Milliman, who in May was named interim head coach for the 2018 season after Matt Kerwick resigned, knows the time is now for Cornell to ascend back to national stardom. With so much young talent and so much promise across the roster, the upcoming season will be about finally putting it together.
“Our biggest area of focus is going to be playing better lacrosse,” Milliman said in his first interview since being named head coach. “I think our guys are excited and motivated to take a step forward. I don’t think we have been a very good team the last couple years, and that doesn’t fly at Cornell.”
Looking to get Cornell back on top, Milliman enters his new role with a wide array of past coaching experiences. A year before coming to Cornell in 2014, Milliman was an assistant at Princeton. Before that, he was in a head coaching role for Division II Pfeiffer, where he earned conference Coach of the Year honors twice, and assistant stints at RIT and Siena.
Even before coaching, Milliman was a three-time Division III All-American at Gettysburg, taking part in two national title games before winning a Major League Lacrosse championship with the Rochester Rattlers in 2008, when he was an assistant at RIT.
“I would say that I have a great desire to be successful and I really want to serve the guys on the team and give them the best opportunity they can have to be successful,” Milliman said of how his past experiences could help his next. “I think this is the best program in college lacrosse, this is a great opportunity to lead some of the best young men in the game.”
In his time at Cornell as an assistant, Milliman has taken on a big role as the recruiting coordinator. Those efforts have paid off handsomely.
Milliman brought in the first ever No. 1 Inside Lacrosse prospect, Jeff Teat, who just finished 2017 as the highest scoring freshman in program history with 72 points, passing Rob Pannell ’13. Teat was ranked the No. 3 freshman at the mid-season point this year, behind TD Ierlan of Albany and eventual Ivy League Rookie of the Year Michael Sowers of Princeton. Fellow Cornellian Brandon Salvatore came in at No. 12 on that list.
Teat and classmate Connor Fletcher combined for 104 points to become the highest scoring freshman duo on program history. As just freshmen, the duo finished the season No. 1 and 2 in team scoring.
Even before the promising class of 2020, Milliman brought in six U.S. Lacrosse All-Americans with the class of 2019 — the most for Cornell since 2009. Of that class, Clarke Petterson just wrapped up a 32-point season to earn himself All-Ivy honorable mention.
But despite the talent, Milliman noted the need for his team to be able to close it out in tough situations — such as the games against Virginia and Penn this past season. In both cases, Cornell held the lead as the game was winding down, but the Cavaliers and Quakers both pulled it out in the end with one-goal victories.
Had those two games gone the other way, the conversation about Cornell’s 2017 campaign would be much different — one about a winning season.
“We don’t have a lot of experience on the roster in the wins column,” Milliman said. “Now, we have guys who have played a lot more minutes, we have a lot of returning starters. … The biggest challenge is going to be the experience of winning games and how to win close games in tough situations, and that’s going to be something that we try to build.”
Of the older talent, such as defender Jake Pulver, who just finished his junior year as captain, and Christian Knight, who intends to return to Cornell in 2018 after missing his entire junior season, Milliman will look for them to impart their wisdom to hopefully flip games like Virginia and Penn.
“I think we have a really great senior class,” he said about the class of 2018. “I am excited about them, I think they are as committed as any group that I’ve ever worked with and they’re dedicated to make Cornell successful and you can’t ask for anything more from them.”
Milliman has one year guaranteed at the helm of Cornell, as a search for a full-time replacement will come at the end of the 2018 season, though Milliman has not been excluded from the running.
No matter the potential limit on Milliman’s time as head coach, he has one goal in mind: fully develop the young talent and change the current tide of a storied program.
“I don’t think anything past this year is relevant in my life,” he said. “I’m excited to win the Ivy League … I’m excited to play Yale, I’m excited to get on the field and start practicing.”