At 6-0, Cornell walks softly

Minus `wow factor,' Tambroni says No. 2 Big Red not `that good'

Men's notebook

March 29, 2006|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

One might call Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni a cautious optimist.

The Big Red shoots the ball so well that even the struggles of senior midfielder Joe Boulukos, a preseason first-team All-American, have not slowed the offense. The defense is dotted with walk-ons and players who have changed positions, but the unit has been nearly airtight. The team has won only 42.3 percent of its faceoffs, yet has negated that shortcoming with ease.

A year after wresting the Ivy League title from Princeton and making it to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals for the second straight season, and a year after losing three of its top four scorers, Cornell has climbed to No. 2 in the rankings. The Big Red is off to its first 6-0 start since 1987. Cornell and top-ranked Virginia are the last two undefeated teams left in Division I.

And the word out of Ithaca, N.Y., seems to be, "Shhhhhh."

"I don't think we're that good," Tambroni said. "I wouldn't say we have a shutdown guy [on defense]. We've had a lot of different people score, but there isn't a wow factor in terms of talent. A lot of different things have led to our success."

Cornell's schedule will not be mistaken for brutal, even though the Ivy League has become notably stronger in recent years. But the Big Red crushed a decent Army team by 12 goals, and last week went on the road and whipped essentially the same Duke team that knocked Cornell out of the NCAA playoffs last year.

The fact is, this squad is playing superb lacrosse, thanks to some surprising stories. Take junior attackman David Mitchell, a native of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, who scored three goals in his first two seasons while adjusting to outdoor lacrosse after living the indoor game.

Mitchell, who operates mainly around the crease, immediately asserted himself by scoring eight goals in a season-opening, 16-3 rout of Binghamton. He leads Cornell with 23 goals and is shooting 62.2 percent.

"Back home, it's just a get-out-and-play mentality. There's not as much strategy in high school and college lacrosse as in the U.S.," Mitchell said. "I learned a lot watching [Cornell] guys like Kevin Nee and Sean Greenhalgh [since graduated]. Now, I'm playing with guys with unbelievable vision who know how to set me up."

Junior attackman Eric Pittard (team-high 16 assists) has the best vision. Senior attackman Derek Haswell (12 goals, six assists) is shooting 52.2 percent. Even with Boulukos shooting just 16.9 percent thus far -- he is one of the few players pressing -- the Big Red has converted a healthy 34 percent of its attempts and is averaging 13 goals a game.

Defensively, Cornell has been a shutdown group, allowing just 4.3 goals a game, and is doing it with a bunch of movable parts. Junior defenseman Mitch Belisle and sophomore defenseman Danny Nathan are converted midfielders. Junior long-stick midfielder Ethan Vedder is an ex-goalie. Defensive midfielders Dave Bush and Cam Marchant are former walk-ons. Marchant used to play football.

The anchor is junior goalie Matt McMonagle, who has a .675 save percentage, and just might be standing in the net in two months at Cornell's first NCAA tournament final four appearance since 1988.

Loyola short-handed

Loyola's offense took a big hit in January when sophomore attackman Shane Koppens, the team's top returning scorer, went down for the season with a broken hand. Now, the 3-3 Greyhounds will have to navigate the stretch run without their current leading scorer.

Early in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 14-9 loss at UMass, junior attackman Patrick Kennedy collided with a UMass player and suffered torn ligaments in his left knee. He is done for the year, after producing 12 goals and eight assists.

Coach Charlie Toomey will insert freshman Michael Crimmins in Kennedy's place. He will also ask more of players such as junior attackman Ryan Rabidou, who has scored 10 goals after barely seeing the field during his first two seasons.

"When things aren't going well, we need our maturity to take over," said Toomey, who is trying to guide Loyola to its first playoff berth in five seasons. "We'll find out who we are in April."

UMBC and NCAAs

If the UMBC Retrievers end up making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, they might look back on Saturday's 12-8 victory over then-No. 12 Denver as the spark.

The Retrievers finally broke out of a fourth-quarter funk and finally got a shot of life from their entire attack unit. UMBC scored four times in the fourth period after scoring a total of four times in the fourth through their first five games.

And attackmen Drew Westervelt (six points, career-high four assists) and Brendan Mundorf (four assists) made a major impact in the same game for the first time in 2006.

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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