Tom Schreiber '14 (Photo: Office of Athletic Communications)

Tom Schreiber '14 (Photo: Office of Athletic Communications)

The Princeton men’s lacrosse team returns the best midfielder in the country and features one of the nation’s best offenses, but it will be the Tigers’ performance on defense that will determine the team’s fate this season, which begins on Saturday with a home opener against Hofstra. If Princeton gets consistent goalie play and its young starting defense gels under new coordinator John Walker, the Tigers could compete for an NCAA title.

Head coach Chris Bates called the choice of a starting goalie “the biggest question that remains.” He went with Matt O’Connor ’16 for most of 2013 but switched to Eric Sanschagrin ’15 for the last four games of the season, which ended with a 12-8 loss to Yale in the finals of the Ivy League tournament. Those two and Brian Kavanagh ’14 will compete to start in the net. Bates prefers to play one goalie rather than rotate two or three, but with three in the running, he said, “We may not have closure at the start of the season.”

Princeton had to jury-rig a starting defense last year because of injuries, but the Tigers are fairly deep on that end of the field in 2014. Mark Strabo ’16 returns as a starter, while his two linemates from last year will move back to their old posisions. Derick Raabe ’14 will be a long-stick defensive midfielder, and Nick Fernandez ’14 will play short-stick defensive midfield along with Mark Strabo’s brother Jack ’14 and Hunter deButts ’14.

Will Reynolds ’17 will also start at close defense; he was one of the top recruits in the country, and Bates calls him “very college-ready.” The third starter will either be Alex Beatty ’15 or Bear Goldstein ’17. They’ll answer to John Walker, whom Bates hired after his longtime defensive assistant Greg Raymond took the head job at Hobart College last summer. Walker was an All-American attackman at the U.S. Military Academy, then spent three years coaching Army’s prep school team and four years as a defensive assistant at the University of Virginia before joining Princeton’s staff. In Walker’s style of defense, Princeton may be less apt to slide to the ball — to double-team, in basketball terms. He gives his players a little more freedom to play one-on-one, Bates says.

Justin Murphy ’15 will take most of the team’s faceoffs, as he did in 2013, when he struggled down the stretch. Bates could use several other players on draws, which he called “a key to our success” given the team’s offensive prowess.

The list of weapons begins with Tom Schreiber ’14, a two-time first-team All-American and last year’s winner of the MacLaughlin Award as the best midfielder in college lacrosse. He’ll be joined on the first midfield by Kip Orban ’15 and Jake Froccaro ’16, last year’s Ivy League rookie of the year. Tucker Shanley ’14 and Forest Sonnenfeldt ’14 both took last year off because of injury and will make a potent second midfield along with Zach Currier ’17, another highly regarded freshman. Inside Lacrosse ranked Princeton’s midfield unit as the best in the country, and it’s the deepest in the Ivy League since the great Princeton teams of the late 1990s.

On attack, Princeton returns All-American Mike MacDonald ’15 and Ryan Ambler ’16, who showed promise last year but wore down toward the end of the season. Will Rotatori ’15 will be the third starting attackman and should give the Tigers more of a presence dodging from behind the goal, Bates said, which would create space for everyone else on the offense.

Princeton will be challenged early; after Hofstra, Princeton hosts Johns Hopkins, the University of North Carolina and a good Penn team before traveling to Yale, the co-favorite in the Ivy League along with Princeton, on March 22. Bates was coy when asked to offer a prediction for the season, but he allowed that his team “has a lot of parts” and expects that it will be “much different at the end of the year than at the beginning.”