For Princeton, there's a laundry list of problems

Usually powerful Tigers have stumbled to 1-5 start

College Lacrosse

April 08, 2005|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Princeton lacrosse coach Bill Tierney didn't put his dirty socks in the hamper Tuesday night, and his wardrobe at the Tigers' game tomorrow will consist of dark blue pants, a dark long-sleeve shirt under a white sports shirt and a baseball cap.

It's the same outfit he wore during Princeton's 6-5 double overtime win against Penn on Tuesday.

"I'm full of superstitions, even though I haven't resorted yet to biting the heads off chickens," said Tierney, laughing. "When you're winning, you're aware of the way you drive to work, the things you say to kids, the way you practice in pre-game.

"But I've been washing a lot of socks this year because I usually don't wash them when we win."

There's an odor of defeat this year around Princeton, which hasn't had a losing season since 1989, Tierney's second season on the job. Before beating Penn, Princeton was 0-5, the first time that ever happened in the Tierney era.

Even in the game against Penn (1-8), the Tigers were lethargic. Tierney tried to be optimistic after the game, but he was left scratching his head as he prepared himself to answer the same question again.

"What's wrong with Princeton? I've been asked that a lot," said senior attackman Jason Doneger.

It's legitimate, especially from a program that has won six NCAA championships, appeared in nine NCAA Final Fours and won 12 Ivy League championships under Tierney.

"I feel frustrated, desperate at times, because we're trying everything we know," Tierney said. "We're kind of a team full of jacks of all trades, but masters of none. It's so hard to pinpoint what is wrong."

It's hard because the Tigers have a lot of problems. Attackman Ryan Boyle (23 goals, 44 assists last season) is not there to bail them out. Senior midfielder Mac Bryson, the team's best outside shooter, is taking a year off from school.

Princeton's offense has always been deliberate, but it is now near a standstill. The Tigers have no zip on their shots, no zing in their passes.

The offense just droops.

"As much as I thought I already appreciated Ryan Boyle, maybe he had a stronger back than I thought he did," Tierney said. "We have a bunch of players who can all feed, shoot, can pick up ground balls, but none are great feeders, great shooters and great ground ball guys."

So, in the past couple of days, Tierney has been putting in more motion plays. As far as the defense, which is allowing an average of 8.8 goals a game, Tierney is going back to basics. He admits to getting caught up in the team's youth movement.

Seven of the team's 10 starters are freshmen or sophomores. Tierney's trademark has been a zone defense, but this season he has relied more on individual matchups than a team concept.

"Hindsight being 20-20, I can look back and say we should have stayed with what we've always taught," Tierney said. "Our athletic talent on defense is as good as it's ever been. We've let defenders play individually a bit more than in the past. In the future, it's going to pay great dividends, but it sure hurts right now."

Like other strong programs, Princeton also has been hurt by the parity that is sweeping lacrosse. It's going to take time to reload, especially with programs and players getting stronger on the West Coast.

"Everyone in lacrosse has something good to sell," Tierney said. "You don't see any crummy schools in lacrosse; you don't see any coaches that are not good people. We knew this day was coming, and now with the game out in California and Colorado, it's more and more picky."

Tierney hasn't changed. Off the field, he's the pleasant, quiet, devoted Catholic who goes to Mass each morning. On the field, he's the little, raving maniac screaming at players and referees.

Against Penn, though, you can see reality setting in. In the past, Princeton always rallied at season's end to go on a run in the Ivy League or the NCAA tournament. But when sophomore attackman Peter Trombino stepped into the crease late in regulation to lose possession, Tierney just looked to the heavens.

When three Tigers failed to strip the ball from Penn's Albert Eberstein after the opening faceoff of the second overtime near midfield, Tierney again looked to the heavens with his arms outstretched as if to ask, "Why me?"

"A few wins cure a lot of things," said Doneger, a member of the 2001 national championship team. "We've got to keep plugging away, buying into the system. Coach has won a few games in the past. I think if we listen we might find out he knows what he is talking about."

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