"Last year when I spoke with the team, I told them we all… (Darl Zehr )
When Cornell's lacrosse program was going through troubled times last fall and the early part of the winter, interim head coach Matt Kerwick's mind shot back to the summer of 2012.
On June 25 that year, Kerwick pleaded guilty to a DWI charge in a Fairfax County, Va., court while he was an assistant at Georgetown.
"Last year when I spoke with the team, I told them we all make mistakes," said Kerwick, who replaced Ben DeLuca in November 2013 after a hazing incident at Cornell. "I told them how I had learned so much from my mistake and it helped me grow as a person. I told them what defines a man is what you do after the mistakes and the direction we go from here will define us."
As Cornell prepares for Dartmouth on Saturday, the Big Red (8-0) is ranked No. 2 and the only undefeated Division I team in the country. A year ago, Cornell advanced to the NCAA semifinals before losing to eventual champion Duke, 16-14, but few thought this team would get that far. Besides the dismissal of DeLuca, the Big Red was not allowed to participate in any fall competition.
But it's the same Big Red. Cornell still runs a wide-open, balanced offense combined with pressure defense. The Big Red still outhustles the opposition on ground balls and wears down opponents in the final quarter of games.
"We couldn't have any competition in the fall, so we had to rely on leadership," Kerwick said. "When we came back to campus in January and started practice in early February, we had no identity. So much had changed.
"I'd be foolish to say I'm not a little surprised that we're 8-0, but not surprised by the leadership and the dynamics of it," Kerwick said. "In this program at this university, players know they have to wait their turn, it will come during their junior and senior years. Those are the ones who have provided a lot of the leadership."
It's even more amazing considering Cornell lost its top two offensive players from a year ago in attackmen Rob Pannell and Steve Mock. Pannell had 89 goals and 102 assists during his last two full seasons with the Big Red, and Mock had 132 career goals, including 60 last year.
Besides Mock and Pannell, the Big Red also lost 14 other seniors to graduation.
"There were a lot of different challenges we had to face, but we believed that Cornell is bigger than one man, bigger than one incident," Kerwick said. "This is a world-class institution and a great place to get an education and learn how to overcome challenges."
Senior attackman Dan Lintner has replaced Mock as the big scorer with 29 goals and three assists, and junior Matt Donovan has become the primary feeder on attack with 21 goals and 14 assists. Junior midfielder Connor Buczek has 20 goals and eight assists.
On close defense, led by senior Tom Freshour, junior Jordan Stevens and freshman Marshall Peters, the Big Red has been dominant. Cornell, which relies on positioning and angles, has allowed 73 goals compared to scoring 115. The Big Red has given up only 14 goals on 43 extra-man situations (32.6 percent).
Cornell has a freshman goalie in Christian Knight (Boys' Latin) who has a save percentage of .573, but the Big Red wins because it is relentless on ground balls, where Cornell has a 305-211 advantage.
No player is more symbolic of the Big Red's work ethic than faceoff specialist Doug Tesoriero, who has won 112 of 200 faceoffs this season and is 10th in the nation with an average of 8.88 ground balls per game. .
That's simply an overwhelming desire to dominate.
"We've out-ground-balled every team we've played all season," Kerwick said. "It's a key to the season, but especially early in the year with the weather and the sloppy play. "
But the key figure has been Kerwick, in his 15th season as a head coach. He seemed ideal for the job. He learned from one of the best in the game in former Georgetown head coach Dave Urick, both as an assistant and a player.
When Jacksonville started a Division I program in 2010, Kerwick was the head coach for two years before joining Urick at Georgetown. At Cornell, Kerwick applies the lessons he learned from Urick.
"He was a fun coach who always kept things in perspective," Kerwick said. "The focus was always on team, doing what is right regardless of the circumstance. He was committed to his players, to his university.
"That's what is going on here," Kerwick added. "We have a strong tradition, and since we started in February we've never looked back. When we recruit a kid, the first thing we ask is not if he is a great lacrosse player but about his character, how hard does he work?
"Our kids have worked hard."