Hopes are high for a Princeton return to the NCAA Tournament

Michael Gianforcaro ’24
Michael Gianforcaro ’24
Photo: Shelley Szwast

Michael Gianforcaro ’24 began last season by splitting time in goal for the Princeton men’s lacrosse team but finished it as the most valuable player of the Ivy League Tournament. This year, Gianforcaro, a co-captain along with Pace Billings ’24 and Bear Lockshin ’24, hopes to lead the team deep into the NCAA Tournament in May.

In the first five games of the 2023 season, head coach Matt Madalon played Griffen Rakower ’23 in the first half and Gianforcaro in the second. “It was a unique situation,” Madalon said. “As much as you want one guy to step up and be great, we had two great guys.”

Goalies are used to playing the entire game and, Gianforcaro said, “Splitting time was really tough. In practice, I was always looking over my shoulder. I felt like everything I did was under intense scrutiny. I never knew what my last game was going to be. I had to be able to compartmentalize all of those stressors and focus on the task at hand.”

After winning its first two games last year, Princeton lost the next three, and Madalon tapped Gianforcaro to start against Penn. “As we were figuring ourselves out,” Madalon said, “we felt solidifying that position would help us move forward. He took that and ran with it.”

Gianforcaro saved 17 shots in a 9-8 overtime loss to the Quakers and went on to be the Ivy League’s leader in both save percentage and goals-against average. (Rakower finished second and fifth, respectively.)

Gianforcaro made 15 saves in a 9-8 win against Penn in the Ivy Tournament semifinal and notched 17 more in a 19-10 win over Yale in the final that sent Princeton to the NCAA Tournament, where the Tigers fell to Penn State 13-12 in the first round.

Gianforcaro, a graduate of Culver Military Academy in Indiana, was one of the top goalie recruits in his class, and he came to Princeton in part to play for Madalon, who was a goalie at Roanoke College and on two Major League Lacrosse teams. The two spend considerable time working on Gianforcaro’s positioning in the cage and his clearing game.

Madalon emphasizes efficiency of motion in the goal. “I like to stay in one place in the net. If you have any extra movement, the ball is going to be past you,” Gianforcaro said. His coach, he added, can see “what looks like a great save and say, ‘You’re going to make that save less often than you might think because you’re moving a ton.’”

Madalon also stresses the importance of catching the ball cleanly and throwing a clearing pass as soon as possible after a save. “If I make a good decision on the clear, we can have a fast break,” Gianforcaro said, adding that Princeton’s team film sessions before practice on Mondays focus on transitioning from defense to offense and vice versa.

A football quarterback in grade school and high school, Gianforcaro analogizes the process of deciding where to throw a pass after a save to that of a quarterback going through his progressions.

“We can be really good. We can be a special team and make a run on Memorial Day weekend.”

— Michael Gianforcaro ’24

His first look is to his teammate who was guarding the opposing player who shot the ball because the defensive player will be able to start sprinting up the field after a shot. “If that’s not open,” Gianforcaro said, “we’ll have one guy flying upfield, and if that doesn’t work, we have clearing routes that are like step-down routes in football.”     

The goalie is enthusiastic about his team’s prospects for 2024. The Tigers defeated Notre Dame, the defending national champion, 18-5 in a fall scrimmage, though the Fighting Irish were missing several of their best offensive players that day.

Still, the contest gave Princeton “a better gauge for how good we can be,” Gianforcaro said. “We can be really good. We can be a special team and make a run on Memorial Day weekend.”