Give Princeton midfielder Josh Sims some room, and he'll scorch you defensively with his torrid speed. Try and put a stick on him and he'll dodge past you with unparalleled acceleration.
It's with similar quickness that Sims transformed his confidence as well as his young collegiate career.
A year after an up-and-down freshman season, Sims has become one of Division I's most dangerous midfielders and a major key in the Tigers' run at a third straight national championship. His rapid turnaround has more than tripled his scoring output to 28 goals, two shy of Princeton's midfielder record, and earned him first-team All-Ivy League honors.
"He's only showing a glimpse of how good he is," Princeton defenseman Christian Cook said. "When he decides to make a move, all of us just watch in awe. And he's only going to get better. That's pretty scary."
And Sims has created plenty to fear for the opposition.
The main defensive scheme against Princeton revolves around clamping down on the Tigers' All-American attack of Jesse Hubbard, Jon Hess and Chris Massey. The popular decision is to overplay them and don't slide away to help out on Princeton's midfielders.
In the quarterfinals last week, Duke employed this strategy and Sims countered it. Sims continually sprinted past Blue Devils defensive midfielder Tim Knowles, tying a career-best four goals.
"Most teams put all that pressure on our attack and it opens up lanes for me," said Sims, an Edgewater native who is the Tigers' fourth-leading scorer. "The coaches and the team expected me to take a more active role offensively. Luckily, some good things have happened."
Nevertheless, Sims isn't just a product of the attack.
"He's the first to give Jon, Jesse and Chris credit for opening up the seams," Princeton coach Bill Tierney said. "But at some point, you have to accept your talent and take some of the credit."
Sims showed flashes of that talent in his freshman year.
On just his second career shot, Sims blindly tossed a backhanded shot into the goal to lift the Tigers to an overtime victory over Johns Hopkins in the 1997 season opener. After struggling through four straight scoreless games at the end of the year, he closed out the season with his other major impact in the national championship game, scoring two goals for his first multi-goal game.
But Sims mainly shied away from taking any risks, keeping a conservative mind-set in the transition from losing seasons at the Severn School to playing for the national champions.
"It was definitely overwhelming," Sims said. "To come to a program with so much success and be asked to take an active role, it catches you off guard. I was initially tentative and didn't quite adjust immediately."
As a freshman, he ran on the second midfield with upperclassmen Craig Katz and Seamus Grooms and still drew the long-stick defender because of his scoring potential. Yet Sims at times wouldn't try to dodge and felt satisfied with just taking the top defensive midfielder off of Katz and Grooms.
"He had what I'd call an overrespect for his teammates," Tierney said. "We told him countless times how explosive he was. This year, we moved him up to the first midfield and told him that either Lorne [Smith] or him was going to get the pole. I told him that he had to be the man."
And Sims has responded.
He has scored at least two goals in 10 games and recorded a goal in all but one game this season. When the Tigers needed a catalyst against Johns Hopkins and Hobart this year, Sims stepped up with three goals each time.
His play has been so dominating that teams have shifted the long pole off of Smith, a first-team All-American last year, to Sims.
"He's fast; very, very fast," Smith said. "A lot of players dodge up top and when they see a flag coming, they pull away. But he goes down the pipe. I don't know if anyone can stop him once he's moving."
Princeton at a glance
Location: Princeton, N.J.
Coach: Bill Tierney (11 years, 123-40)
Streak: Won 11 straight
NCAA tournament seed: No. 2
Final Four appearance: Sixth
How the Tigers got here: Beat Duke, 11-9, in quarterfinals
Tournament record: 16-4
NCAA Division I titles: Four
Final Four opponent: Syracuse
All-time record vs. Orangemen: 3-5
Goals leader: Jesse Hubbard (39)
Assists: Jon Hess (34)
Ground balls: John Harrington (61)
Faceoffs: Chris Berrier (.566)
Goalkeeper: Corey Popham (.540) or Trevor Tierney (.714)
Pub Date: 5/20/98