Defense, surprisingly, hampers men’s lacrosse

Mark Kovler ‘09, No. 17, scored four goals against Virginia March 8.
Mark Kovler ‘09, No. 17, scored four goals against Virginia March 8.
Beverly Schaefer

The Princeton men’s lacrosse team saw its offense and defense undergo a surprising role reversal in the season’s first three games. The Tigers scored more goals in a 14–9 loss to Johns Hopkins March 1 and a 12–10 loss to the University of Virginia March 8 than they had in any of their games against the Blue Jays or the Cavaliers since 2002. But in the two losses — and even in a 13–6 win over Canisius Feb. 23 — the Princeton defense bore little resemblance to last year’s unit, which held opponents to an average of 6.17 goals per game, the best in the nation.

The improved offense has come despite the loss of Peter Trombino ’07 and Scott Sowanick ’07, two of Princeton’s top four scorers last year. Before the season, head coach Bill Tierney wasn’t sure who would start on attack, and he has rotated several players on the unit early in the season. His most successful move was putting his best offensive player, midfielder Mark Kovler ’09, on attack against Virginia, where Kovler scored four times. “I’ve been thinking about doing it for two years,” Tierney said of the move. “It’s like coaching in high school: You take your best player and keep him on the field.”

Tierney thought about moving Tommy Davis ’09, who started at attack the last two years, back to his high school position of midfield, but has yet to do so, and Davis has scored six goals and assisted on three others. The coach has used highly recruited attackman Jack McBride ’11 at midfield, and the freshman has responded with three goals and two assists — results that may get him more playing time as the season continues.

It’s a different story on the other side of the ball. Princeton’s defense is giving up more shots than it did last year, more of those shots are on goal, and more are reaching the net. The first two elements of the problem, and even part of the third, reflect the loss of first-team All-American Zachary Jungers ’07 and longstick defensive midfielder John Bennett ’07. Jungers led a defense that limited shots or pressured opponents into taking bad ones, which made goalie Alex Hewit ’08’s job easier. Canisius, Johns Hopkins, and Virginia combined to put 71 of their 115 shots on goal (compared to only 46 of 91 from the same three opponents last year).

Hewit’s save percentage has dipped from 60 percent last year to 55 percent so far this season, in part because of Princeton’s struggles on defense. “Your confidence does get down when you’re not playing as well as you know you could,” said Tierney. But, he added, “We’ve been talking about his mechanics, and he’s the same guy. It’s not Al’s fault, it’s our defense. We’ve got to do a better job of giving him shots to save.”