Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Cornell is the No. 4 team in the country, but Yale — who the Red upset to win last year's Ivy League title — is the favorite to win the conference in 2019.

February 20, 2019

Ready to Defend Ivy Crown, ‘Underdog’ No. 4 Men’s Lacrosse Eyes National Title

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One year ago this week, then-interim head coach of Cornell men’s lacrosse Peter Milliman sat at his new desk, ready to begin his fifth year with the program and his first as its head skipper. Unranked Cornell was picked to finish fifth in the Ivy League, and Milliman, beginning the season without the full-time head coach title, had one clear goal in mind.

“We want to bring the Ivy League championship back to East Hill,” he said in February 2018.

On Tuesday, Milliman sat in the same chair, now as the Richard M. Moran head coach of men’s lacrosse, eight months after leading his team to accomplishing its goal. Indeed, the Red’s six-goal victory in the conference title game over then-No. 1 and eventual national champion Yale sticks out in memory, as the underdog Cornell squad battled expectations all year long to come out on top in the Ancient Eight.

Despite the success and national attention, Cornell feels as if it’s being counted out once again.

“We’re still an underdog on almost everybody’s lineup,” Milliman told The Sun on Tuesday. “Everybody that writes about it that thinks we’re good probably at the same time says they don’t think we can make it to the Final Four.”

“If everybody puts you in their top four, but nobody puts you in the Final Four, do they really think you’re good enough? Or are they just doing it because it sounds right?”

In the 2018 NCAA tournament, the Red outlasted Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and ultimately knocked on the door of championship weekend before falling to Maryland in the quarterfinals.

“The opportunity for us to compete in the quarterfinals for a chance to get to the Final Four, I’m not sure I would’ve seen that in the fall, or in the beginning of the year,” Milliman said. “But it didn’t surprise me by the middle of the season the team that we had become.”

In May, after the Red’s postseason run, Cornell announced that it would remove the interim tag from Milliman’s title and retain him as full-time head coach.

“This is my sixth year at Cornell, I’m excited to be a part of this team,” Milliman said. “It’s a pretty special group of guys to be with, and I’m just hoping the guys find some success and have a great experience doing this.”

All year long in 2018, the team was confident in itself, and the underdog mentality proved to be an asset as the Red rattled off win after win and upset after upset en route to what by all accounts was its most successful season in years — despite falling short in the national playoffs.

“In a general sense, every season is a failure if you don’t win the national championship, but it’s also a success in what you end up doing and the progress that you make,” Milliman said. “I felt pretty good about what we did last year.”

Now, Cornell is ranked in the top five nationally and received a pair of first-place votes in the Ivy League preseason poll — though the Bulldogs are favored once again.

But the Red’s approach has not changed, in part because beating Yale in resounding fashion on a big stage late last season has not convinced everyone that Cornell lacrosse is a force to be reckoned with.

Still, it’s hard to argue that a team ranked fourth in the country is not a legitimate favorite to win it all or at least get close, if only in the eyes of some.

“It might be more difficult to play the underdog card in every single game,” Milliman said. “But it’s something that, since I’ve been here, we’ve been doing.”

“I wouldn’t say [the mindset] has changed,” added senior midfielder and captain Jake McCulloch. “Last year, even though on the outside people didn’t give us much of a chance. … It doesn’t really matter what we’re ranked in the preseason. We just want to be ranked No. 1 at the end.”

With all the improvements Cornell has made, it could be said that a repeat Ivy League championship is the bare minimum this year. Put another way, the clear goal is the one that has eluded the program for 42 years, but one that it has come close to achieving in many seasons since.

“Bringing home a national championship is the ultimate goal,” Milliman said.

The culture and brand of Cornell lacrosse is to always channel the focus inward, so even a larger profile as one of the nation’s most elite teams is not changing the team’s mindset to always play with a chip on its shoulder. In the process, a fourth national title for the program just may fall within reach.

“We’re still an underdog,” Milliman said. “It’s just the nature of who we are, to disregard the attention, the media, the scrutiny from the outside and just make sure that we figure out how we can play the best lacrosse and compete.”

“Very few people know what we do up here,” Millman said. “And that’s fine with us.”