Aaron Snyder/Sun File Photo

CJ Kirst '24 defends a Princeton attacker in Cornell's game against the Tigers on April 29, 2023 at Schoellkopf Field.

February 25, 2024

Men’s Lacrosse Comes Up Short Against Denver in Back-and-Forth Contest

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No. 6 men’s lacrosse held a four-goal lead on two separate occasions against No. 7 Denver, but a late surge by the Pioneers (4-0, 0-0 Big East) was ultimately insurmountable as the Red (1-1, 0-0 Ivy) fell by a 17-16 score on Saturday afternoon.

The game featured eight lead changes across the four quarters and no team led by more than four goals. For Cornell, freshman attackman Willem Firth notched his second four-goal game after tallying four scores in his collegiate debut against Lehigh last Saturday. 

Senior attackman CJ Kirst, fifth-year attackman Spencer Wirtheim and junior attackman Danny Caddigan all registered hat tricks, but five goals from Denver’s Noah Manning led all goalscorers. 

A large misfortune for Cornell — and what drove Denver’s comeback late in the fourth quarter — was the disparity in faceoffs. The Red’s usual commander at the X, sophomore faceoff Jack Cascadden, was not available for Saturday’s game, leaving fifth-year Angelo Petrakis and senior face-off/midfield Marc Psyllos to split Cornell’s draws.

Neither could compare to Denver’s Alec Stathakis, an experienced graduate student, who won 22 of 37 faceoffs for the Pioneers. Prior to Saturday’s game, head coach Connor Buczek ’15 emphasized the importance of managing Stathakis.

“[Stathakis is] a superstar. So, certainly, the possession battle is going to be important — and finding a way to combat that defensively,” Buczek said.

The Pioneers, a veteran team with seven graduate students and 11 seniors on its roster, got off to a hot start in Saturday’s matinee, notching a goal just 1:13 into the contest.

Denver’s goal began a trend of back-and-forths, as both teams responded almost immediately after being scored on. Wirtheim registered the first goal of the half for Cornell to tie up the game, before Denver’s Stephen Avery scored with 8:36 left in the opening quarter to regain the Pioneer lead.

The final 2:43 saw a surge in offense after both goaltenders dueled in their respective creases. Firth tied up the game on a low shot that snuck by the Denver goalkeeper, before Caddigan buried his first of three to give Cornell its first lead.

The Pioneers tied the game once more with 22 seconds left, capping off a first quarter that saw more saves than goals. Denver’s Malcolm Kleban made four saves in the opening 15 minutes, while junior goaltender Wyatt Knust stopped three for Cornell. 

Knust, making his second straight start for the Red, amassed 11 saves on Saturday for a 39.3 percent save percentage. The keeper has done a solid job of filling the shoes of Chayse Ierlan, Cornell’s five-year starter and mainstay between the pipes.

“He’s been steady and consistent,” Buczek said ahead of the Denver game. “He’s worked really hard to put himself in a position to be successful and has lightning-quick hands and a really good presence behind the defense.”

It was Denver that opened up the second quarter’s scoring, but Cornell retaliated with three goals of its own to retake the lead. Firth scored the initial goal before Kirst tallied two of his own. Just 45 passed between Kirst’s goals, the second coming off a hard drive from behind the net and a quick wrap-around release.

The final six minutes of the half saw five goals between both teams. Michael Lampert scored for Denver to cut Cornell’s lead to 6-5, but the Pioneers were met with two quick responses from fifth-year attackman Michael Long and freshman midfielder Luke Gilmartin.

With 48 seconds left in the second and an 8-5 lead, neither team was finished — Denver tallied a response to Gilmartin’s first collegiate goal, but a momentum-squasher from Wirtheim with just eight seconds left gave the Red a 9-6 lead heading into the locker room.

Denver’s resiliency was evident all throughout the game but was spotlighted in the second half, where Cornell built up two four-goal leads and saw both eliminated. 

“They’re incredibly veteran. A lot of guys [came] back [for fifth years] and across the board, they find ways to win,” Buczek said before Cornell took on the Pioneers.

The third quarter was an offensive onslaught, as both teams combined for 11 goals. Denver opened up the second-half scoring, preceding two response goals from the Red — first, Wirtheim completed his hat trick, before senior midfielder Hugh Kelleher found the nylon for his first goal of the season.

Denver then tallied three straight scores in just over three minutes to get within one, but in true Cornell fashion, the Red responded with three goals of its own to retake its multi-goal lead. Firth and Kirst polished off their hat tricks before Caddigan added his second score of the game. Kirst’s goal exposed the Pioneers, coming on a point-blank chance all alone just above the crease.

Commanding the game with a 14-10 lead, Cornell sought to prevail despite taking three penalties in the latter half of the quarter. Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called with 2:43 left caused a two-man disadvantage for Cornell and amounted to a pair of Denver goals to conclude the third.

It was total Denver domination in the final quarter, as five Pioneer goals in the final corner propelled the Pioneers over the Red. Firth’s fourth goal of the game — the second of its kind in the freshman’s two games — broke up those five Denver goals. Caddigan scored with 1:43 remaining to cut the deficit to 17-16, but a rare turnover by Kirst with under a minute left sealed the game for Denver, handing Cornell its first loss of the year

Cornell will have a quick turnaround and look to hit the reset button as it hosts Hobart at 5 p.m. on Tuesday at Schoellkopf Field.