By Nelson Coffin

Cornell has officially been put on notice that it's not welcome to hobnob with lacrosse bluebloods Johns Hopkins, Virginia and Duke - unless it earns its way in.

Of course, that doesn't sit well with many, including those who vote in the two college lacrosse polls who picked Cornell week after week as the number 1 team in the nation. No criticism here. It's just that two entirely different systems are used to evaluate who's number 1 here. And on a year like this all we can conclude with the application of the most basic logic, is that one or both systems are faulty, but not necessarily unfair.

Some would disagree. Those who thought the Big Red had already done enough to deserve the top seed in the postseason party were really set back by the surprisingly low No. 4 seed awarded. Being undefeated, apparently, holds little weight with the lacrosse committee, which decided the Big Red's schedule couldn't compare with those of Duke, Virginia or Johns Hopkins.

Aside from its six Ivy League victims, the Big Red beat Syracuse, Colgate, Binghampton, Army, Hobart and two squads that made the tournament, Notre Dame and top-seeded Duke - in Durham, no less. OK, so some real purists of the top level game would call that a 2007 season with one quality win. In fact, some might say that a one goal loss to Duke and maybe Cornell misses the dance altogether. But if scheduling is so important, perhaps a scheduling Czar should be appointed by the NCAA so that at least teams have relatively equal schedules heading into a season.

From this vantage point, it looks as if Cornell was penalized because Syracuse had a down year and the Ivy League was, other than Princeton and Cornell, fairly weak. Taking nothing away from the Blue Devils, they had a strong schedule dotted with some breathers, such as Bellarmine, St. Joseph's and Air Force, but reinforced by a four team ACC tournament that just locks up strength of schedule dominance for all four "conference" teams on most years.

Cornell did it on the field in 2007, and that wasn't enough. Now, they'll have to do it again, starting with an opening-round meeting with 9-6 Towson. The tigers were rewarded for an at-large bid by having to travel to Ithaca to take on the thoroughly dissed and undoubtedly fired-up Big Red.

"You have to be prepared to play anybody in the tournament," Towson coach Tony Seaman said. "It would be a feather in our cap if we can go in there and knock them off."

But Seaman who coached for years at Penn, knows that running the Ivy table is impressive, indeed. Besides, even with the low seeding, things don't look so bad for Cornell. At a Washington Bayhawks press gathering today, the consensus among pro players and media members that we spoke to, putting aside the Duke vs. Providence match-up, Cornell had the easiest road in what is the most competitive bracket ever. While this early competitiveness may make is easy for a new team to win it all, it may well just seem like easy pickings for the eventual champion when we look back, if early rounds knock out a couple contenders. And Cornell could be the beneficiary of exactly that with the easiest road to Baltimore.

Cornell, of course, along with Duke represent more than just potential Champions. They both are serious threats to challenge the Princeton-Syracuse-Johns Hopkins-Virginia NCAA championship hegemony when the NCAA crowns the next and perhaps new standard bearer at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium on Memorial Day.

If the Big Red or Blue Devils can pull off that Houdini act, it would be the first time in 30 years a team outside the big four - or North Carolina - captured the championship. Ironically, the last squad to turn the trick was Cornell, which jumped out to a 10-1 halftime lead and buried Hopkins, 16-8, in the 1977 final behind all-time greats Eamon McEneaney and Tom Marino. Legendary coach Richie Moran led the Big Red to its second consecutive undefeated record and championship that year. Cornell would almost make it three in a row before Hopkins snapped the Big Red's NCAA standard-setting 42-game winning streak in the 1978 final, 13-8.

Most recently, Duke came the closest to crashing the elite's stranglehold on the trophy before wilting in the second half of a 9-8 setback to Hopkins in the 2005 championship tilt in Philadelphia. This year's Big Red, a perfect 12-0 after topping Brown for official Ivy honors, will attempt to continue on the path to its first unbeaten campaign in 31 years when it meets Hobart for the 129th time.

Even coach Jeff Tambroni never imagined his squad would be in such a commanding position at this juncture of the season. "I would be lying if I told you that I thought we would be undefeated at this point, especially after the fall that we had. However, I am extremely excited for our seniors (along with the rest of the team), as they have led this group with great passion and maturity."

If being underestimated is an advantage, Tambroni hasn't embraced it. If it bothers him that Cornell's rich heritage is rarely celebrated outside of Ithaca, he doesn't show it. "We do not think about it either way, to be honest with you," Tambroni said.

"We are certainly proud of our historic success and hopeful that we can continue to represent the Cornell tradition the same way that Coach Harkness, Coach Moran and all those who came before us did."

In concert with Tambroni's athletic ideology, none of the players who have trampled a dozen opponents this spring are high-profile guys like Hopkins middie Paul Rabil, Virginia attackman Ben Rubeor or Duke playmaker Matt Danowski. What Tambroni does have is a cohesive group that will find ways to beat you. Just ask Princeton, which fell, 10-6, to Cornell's multi-pronged offense and superb goaltending - Matt McGonigal had 19 saves - in what was essentially the Ivy League championship game. The midfield accounted for seven of the Big Red's goals in the game, with junior John Glynn (3 goals, 1 assist) leading the way. Seniors Brian Clayton (2 goals) and Casey Lewis (1 goal) and sophomore Max Seibald (1 goal) also rippled the net from the midfield. Seniors Henry Bartlett and Eric Pittard were the only attackmen to score.

"Jeff has done a great job of assembling a group of complementary players," Richie Moran said. "None of them were a who's who of high school lacrosse players before they came here. We look for dual-sport players who will work hard. Every player on the team has a role, even in practice. I think the practices are harder than the games for these guys."

They probably practice shooting, given that Cornell took just 29 shots in the game to the Tigers' 45. The Big Red has finished 32 percent of its shots this season; its opponents have made good on only 20 percent. But even when Cornell has an off-target day, as it did at Brown, Seibald and Glynn still combined for five goals, longstick middie Ethan Vedder chipped in with two tallies and the Big Red topped the Bears, 11-8, to earn the outright 2007 Ivy crown.

"That's the beauty of this year's team - throughout the season everyone has contributed in their own way to make this a memorable season thus far," Tambroni said. "They have all made great sacrifice for the good of the team."

On a squad of unsung players, Tambroni pointed to a couple of guys who have helped put Cornell on the top of the heap. "If I had to pick two guys out of the bunch, it would be our captains, Matt McMonagle and Mitch Belisle," he said. "But they have had great support from their teammates."

All senior defenseman Belisle did against Princeton was stifle its top gun, Peter Trombino, who was held to only one assist in the contest. Other defenders make Cornell's backline formidable. "Our top close defenders are Belisle, who has had a wonderful year, and Matt Moyer, who has been great not only at close defense but in transition," Tambroni said. "Vedder, our starting pole, is a great story as he entered Cornell as a goalie (All-American from Yorktown) but has changed position and turned out to be one of our best defensive players. Our best shortstick is from Chicago, named Danny Nathan, who was converted from a close defender into a shortstick halfway through the season. Not a lot of super stars, but they work well together."

The loss of George Boiardi (a defenseman who died in 2004 from cardiac arrest after stepping in front of a shot) still resonates among the players and coaching staff. "George was the leader of our 'Hard Hat' club," Moran said. "He had the kind of work ethic that rubbed off on the players. And that's what we have today, a combination of blue-collar and talented players. It works well for us."

Moran then laughed, knowing that there are still a few skeptics remaining to be convinced about the big in Big Red. "Some people have forgotten already that we beat Duke," he said. But the fans in Ithaca know the score, and that their beloved Big Red, hard hats and all, is in the driver's seat headed to Baltimore to show everyone just how big the Big Red is.

May 8, 2007

Some Photos courtesy Cornell University


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