One would think that, after spending two seasons in the net at Princeton, junior Pat Cairns would feel secure as the Tigers' top goalkeeper.
For starters, Princeton carries four goalies on its roster. And coach Bill Tierney is not afraid to use them, especially senior Pancho Gutstein, a co-captain as well as the guy Cairns originally beat out a year ago. Second, Cairns replaced Scott Bacigalupo, the three-time All-American who led Princeton to two national championships before graduating in 1994 as one of the best ever in the NCAA.
Cairns hardly resembles Bacigalupo, who specialized in the spectacular save -- diving, leaping, deflecting shots with his feet -- and was Princeton's undisputed leader. Cairns blends in more behind his high-powered offense and concentrates more on the basic footwork, positioning skills and stick technique he showed during his All-Metro days at Boys' Latin.
AHe's not flashy, but Cairns is good enough to be the Tigers' last line of defense. In 11 starts this year, he has allowed 6.5 goals per game and saved 58.7 percent of his opponents' shots.
Cairns will occupy the net again Saturday when Princeton (12-1) meets defending national champion Syracuse in the NCAA tournament semifinals at Byrd Stadium. Should the Tigers go on to win the crown, it would mark Princeton's second title in three years -- Bacigalupo led them there in 1994, when Cairns was a freshman.
"I was in awe of him [Bacigalupo]. He did stuff that dropped my jaw," Cairns said. "But it's always bothered me that I couldn't just be the Princeton goalie. I've always been the guy who came in after Scott. A lot of people have to realize that he works on Wall Street now, and he's not coming back to play."
Cairns plans to come back and start as a senior, when he figures on beating out the next group of challengers after his job. That will not require much adjustment, because Cairns has been looking over his shoulder for two seasons.
Even after he surprised teammates by beating out the more experienced Gutstein as a sophomore in 1995 -- Cairns was named the starter minutes before the season opener against Johns Hopkins, then went on to become the Ivy League's best -- he was not a sure thing coming into 1996. And after Cairns gave up eight first-quarter goals in the Tigers' lone loss to Virginia two months ago, Tierney benched him the next week against North Carolina.
Since then, Tierney has enjoyed watching Cairns grow up a little more.
"It's in the back of his mind. He knows I'll pull the plug on him if I have to, but Pat is always at his best when he's a little bit nervous," Tierney said. "Last year, he didn't get the credit he deserved for having an outstanding season, because he was compared to Scott and we were a more defense-oriented team. This year, he has persevered through the ups and downs. He has become the older guy."
Defenseman Becket Wolf said he long has admired Cairns' cool, calm approach, and is glad to see him become more vocal behind the defense.
"Scott Bacigalupo is sort of a distant memory to us," said Wolf. "Pat has established himself as his own person."
The Tigers have allowed only 27.5 shots per game by keeping the ball from opponents, making Cairns' job easier. Cairns, who averages a modest 5.8 saves, said part of his occasional struggles can be traced to not seeing enough shots.
If the Tigers win it all, statistics will be the last thing on his mind.
Said Cairns: "If I'm standing in the middle of Byrd Stadium on Monday afternoon with my hands in the air, who cares what I did this season?"
Tomorrow: Johns Hopkins
Tigers at a glance
Location: Princeton, N.J.
Coach: Bill Tierney (94-39, two national championships in nine years at Princeton)
Ranking: No. 1
How they got here: The top-seeded Tigers had a first-round bye, then crushed Towson State, 22-6, in the quarterfinals. With a little over seven minutes left in the second quarter, Princeton held a 9-6 advantage. The Tigers then outscored Towson State, 13-0, over the final 37 minutes.
Goal-scoring leader: Sophomore attackman Jesse Hubbard (49) Assists leader: Junior attackman Todd Eichelberger (28) Goalie: Junior Pat Cairns (.587)
Pub Date: 5/22/96