With the greatest achievements come the highest expectations. This is the reality facing No. 2 men’s lacrosse as it takes the field this Saturday, Feb. 18, beginning its 2023 season on the road against the University at Albany. Nine months ago, Cornell was just minutes away from hoisting its first national championship in 45 years. Falling just short to the University of Maryland, the Red enters this year with the stakes at their peak.
Cornell’s run to a second place finish speaks volumes to the coaching and leadership of head coach Connor Buczek ’15, who had the team playing on Memorial Day in his first full year at the helm. At media day, Buczek reflected on last season, while emphasizing the short-term memory of his team.
“We were proud of our execution for large parts of that game, and [it] certainly left a taste in our mouth that we’re not satisfied,” Buczek said. “For us it was about getting back to work as soon as we let that sting a little bit, and that’s where we are now. We want to be at the top of the mountain and we know we came pretty close, but you don’t start pretty close, you start right back at the bottom.”
As Cornell turns the page and looks to make the climb back to the crown this year, it will do so without some of the players who had become staples in the program. No one will be missed more than John Piatelli ’22, who led both the Red and the nation in scoring, finding the back of the net at a clip of 3.56 goals per game.
“It’s hard –– you don’t just find 66 goals sitting in your locker room,” Buczek said. “He did a lot for us from the leadership end to the onfield end to always being the guy that was willing to take the shot when the moment was the biggest. He’s a guy we’ll miss.”
The Red is prepared to step up in the wake of Piatelli’s departure, and leading the charge will be junior phenom CJ Kirst. Kirst finished second in scoring for Cornell last season, with 55, earning Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors. Nominated to the first Tewaaraton Watch List of this year, he will look to build on a breakout sophomore campaign.
“He’s just more comfortable out there, he’s confident in our system and shows up with… the attitude,” Buczek said. “He’s a heck of a ballplayer who cares a lot about his craft, so we’re excited to see him take that next step this year.”
Supporting Kirst from the midfield are junior Hugh Kelleher and senior Aiden Blake. Kelleher, who frequently used his size to drive to the net last season, has been named a preseason All-American honorable mention.
Blake played a shortened season last year due to injury, and though he has played in just 13 games, he has racked up 23 points. Blake also received an honorable mention nod along with Kelleher, and the two will be pivotal to the Red’s success.
The true anchor for this Cornell team, however, is senior defenseman Gavin Adler. A first team All-American in 2022, Adler was a stalwart on the back end, leading the Ivy League in forced turnovers per game with 1.79. Adler, along with Kirst, are the two Cornellians on the Tewaaraton Watch List. As a preseason first team All-American this year, as well as a team captain, Adler will be a leader for this team on and off the field.
“[Adler] obviously [is] a very special talent, but he also does a great job of bringing everyone else up around him,” said senior goalkeeper Chayse Ierlan. “He’s a great lacrosse mind and I think that’s one of his greatest tools besides his athletic ability –– to just help those younger guys understand the slides, understand other teams’ offenses, understand shots we like to give up and favorable matchups.”
The Red is opening its year against the Great Danes for the third consecutive season. Albany is coming off of a 20-7 loss last Friday, Feb. 10, at the hands of Syracuse. Last year, Cornell handily beat the Great Danes, 16-8.
Nevertheless, everyone will want their shot at the defending NCAA runners-up this year, and for a team picked to finish second in the America East, an upset is just what it is hoping to capture.
The Red’s contest on Saturday is set to start at noon. It will be available on ESPN+.