May 23, 2010

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Cornell midfielder Chris Ritchie finds a seam against Virginia long pole Bray Malphrus. © Greg Wall
Cornell midfielder Chris Ritchie finds a seam against Virginia long pole Bray Malphrus. © Greg Wall

Reloaded Cornell Ends Army's Cinderella Story

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Game Blog

The first rule of Project Mayhem: don't ask questions.

* MD1 Tournament Central
* WD1 Tournament Central

STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni knew when his current team assembled for the first time, it would be scrutinized more for who was absent than who was returning.

More than a dozen seniors from a team that came tantalizingly close to a national title were gone. The defense needed to be overhauled and the midfield required a little more than a tweaking.

And yet the Big Red is going back to the final four anyway.

Seventh-seeded Cornell blasted Army 14-5 in Sunday’s NCAA Division I men's lacrosse quarterfinals at LaValle Stadium, locking up its third trip to Memorial Day weekend in the last four years.

“We knew we could be back there,” attackman Rob Pannell said. “I know our captains certainly set the goal of going back to the final four. They had belief in the team around them thinking we could get back there.”

And now they are, set up for a semifinal showdown with unseeded Notre Dame on Saturday.

Ryan Hurley scored four goals, Steve Mock added three and Pannell had two goals and two assists for the Big Red (12-5), which will make consecutive final four appearances for the first time since 1987-88.

“Our team has really grown up pretty quickly as this year has rolled on,” Hurley said. “You look back to our Syracuse game [on April 13], and after that everybody started to grow up a lot.”

After a series of narrow games, including a triple-overtime tightrope act in the first round against Loyola, Cornell quickly eliminated any doubts against the Black Knights (11-6).

The Big Red bolted to a 4-0 lead and maintained an 8-3 edge at the break. But after Army’s Tyler Oates scored a man-up goal early in the second half, the Big Red managed to control possession and rattle off six straight goals to clinch the victory.

“We were able to possess the ball in the first and second half and give our defense a break,” Pannell said. “We were able to keep scoring goals and play a more complete game. I think Army does like to play style of game as well. I think today when we got out to the early lead, they didn’t have a choice  but to [try to] catch up.”

Cornell’s defense, while not severely tested for extended stretches, nonetheless controlled Army stars Jeremy Boltus and Garrett Thul. Goalie AJ Fiore made 11 saves, and defenseman Jason Noble snagged seven ground balls in the victory.

Army, which had won eight straight and upset two-time defending national champion in the first round, could never established its preferred style of play. Rather than holding on for long possessions in a close game, the Black Knights had little choice but to attack even when it didn’t suit them. Boltus and Thul combined for a goal apiece, and no assists.

“A little bit starts with time of possession,” Army coach Joe Alberici said. “I felt like they did to us what we’ve done to several other teams, where we’ve been very patient on offense and gone with
the best opportunity instead of the first opportunity. I think it started there. The flip side of it for us was when we got down and played a little bit of offense, A.J. made a few nice saves and then we had just a little bit of rushing."

It was nothing like when the teams met in early March and Cornell escaped with a 12-11 overtime victory. Instead, the Big Red looked every bit like the sort of mature, veteran team they were last year when they reached the NCAA final.

That wasn’t what Tambroni saw in the fall, when after watching his team struggle through a month of offseason workouts, called in his veteran players to discuss the upcoming spring.

It was then he prodded them into declaring the final four as one of the Big Red’s major goals. Now, it’s paid off with a return trip to the sport’s biggest stage for a team that’s grown up before Tambroni’s eyes.

“As I look back, that’s a tough transition with 16 going out in the senior class and 15 coming in with the freshman class,” Tambroni said. “We were as young as I’ve ever seen, at least in my tenure at Cornell. I certainly would  have found it very difficult to believe we would be sitting here right now thinking about Notre Dame in a final four surrounding.”


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