The early-season beating at the hands of top-ranked Johns Hopkins could have been devastating for the Princeton men's lacrosse team. Instead, it showed many of the team's players exactly where the bar was set.
Nearly three months later, they're not far from reaching it.
That group of 45, the youngest in coach Bill Tierney's 17-year tenure, will play Navy tomorrow in the NCAA Division I semifinals at M&T Bank Stadium.
"In all my four years here, I've never seen a team work as hard as this one," senior attackman Ryan Boyle said. "Every year [going to the final four] is special, but I'm proud to go back with the guys that haven't been to one. Everyone was counting us out from the start."
Princeton has won six NCAA titles under Tierney, the most recent one coming in 2001. But when the season started, his Tigers - with 14 freshmen and 11 sophomores - weren't expected to get far.
The cupboard wasn't exactly bare, with Boyle and junior attackman Jason Doneger returning, but seven of last year's starters were gone, including All-Americans Damien Davis and Brad Dumont. And only two - Boyle and defender Ricky Schultz - remained from the title team of three years ago.
"It's really been interesting in that we started out just not knowing," Tierney said. "It could have gone either way. What happened was the young guys came in with such a great attitude. It's the first time I've seen freshmen dictate the personality of the team."
Freshman Peter Trombino, expected to be a midfielder, earned a starting spot on the attack unit. Freshman Scott Sowanick, who Tierney said will be a great attackman, seemed a better fit for the midfield.
Trombino is one of five players, and the only freshman, to start all 14 games. He's second on the team in goals and third in points. Sowanick has started 13 times.
Freshman Whitney Hayes wasn't as highly recruited but has impressed Tierney with his ability to handle pressure. He has started nine games at midfield and is fifth in points.
Hayes had two goals in the quarterfinal against Maryland. Trombino scored the winner.
As well as the season has gone, it didn't come without its lumps.
Perhaps the biggest came in the Tigers' second game of the season, a 14-5 rout by Hopkins in front of more than 6,300 at Homewood Field. The Blue Jays won 17 of 23 faceoffs and dominated the second half, outscoring the Tigers 4-1 in each of the final two quarters.
"I definitely think we learned if we want to be the best, what it would take to get to the next level and be one of the top teams in the country," Hayes said. "Any time you lose by nine goals, it's a shot to the chin."
Seven days later, the Tigers beat defending national champion Virginia, 8-7, on the road.
The win was Princeton's first at Virginia in a decade. Trombino scored a goal and assisted on two others, including the eventual game-winner. Sophomore goalie Dave Law made 15 saves, and sophomore Ryan Schoenig won nine of 12 faceoffs.
"You look at them, and you're not overly impressed with their individual pieces," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "But when you put it all together, they are very good."
Their only losses in 11 games since have been to Syracuse, 14-12, and to Cornell, 12-11 in overtime.
"[The Virginia game] showed us who we were, that we weren't going to give up after a big loss," Trombino said. "That was, if not the turning point, one of the turning points [of our season]."
Assistant coach David Metzbower, who handles most of the offensive play-calling, has been instrumental in the development of the young players.
"I have assistants, if I wasn't there, the team would be as good or better," Tierney said. "Metzbower is on a different level. What [Metzbower] does that I could never do is instill confidence."
If anyone typifies that confidence, it's Boyle, Princeton's second all-time leading scorer and Tewaaraton Trophy finalist. The Gilman alum put the Tigers on his back in the final few minutes of Saturday's victory over Maryland.
"He's a great example," Trombino said. "When you look at a player like Ryan, he's a student of the game. He's a commander. It's hard not to learn from him."
This isn't the first time a young Princeton team has reached the final four, but top to bottom it's easily the youngest.
"The beauty of the place is that new names have come in to fill the jersey numbers," Tierney said. "They've been able to put their own mark on Princeton lacrosse. It's difficult. The only way to do it is to have pride."
Sun staff writer Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.
What: NCAA men's lacrosse final four
Where: M&T Bank Stadium
Tomorrow's semifinals: Navy (14-2) vs. Princeton (11-3), 11:30 a.m.; Johns Hopkins (13-1) vs. Syracuse (13-2), 2 p.m.
Monday's title game: 2:30 p.m.
TV: Semifinals on ESPN2; final on ESPN