It was a classic college sports setting: a big crowd, a beautiful spring day, a league title, and an NCAA Tournament berth on the line.

There was just one thing missing for Jon Thompson ’03 and his lacrosse teammates on that memorable May 4, 2002: a happy ending. Instead, Princeton held off a late Brown rally, escaping Stevenson Field with a 12–10 victory and the Ivy League championship, thus earning an automatic bid to the NCAAs. The Bears—who at 4–2 finished in a three-way tie for second in the Ivies with Cornell and Yale—were left to hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It never came: the spot went to the Big Red, whom, ironically, the Bears had beaten in double overtime a week earlier in Ithaca.

While the Bears packed and went home for the summer, Princeton played its way to the national championship game, which it lost, 13–12, to Syracuse, which had earlier defeated Brown, 14–13, in overtime. Small wonder that Thompson, a tricaptain of the 2003 Bears, remarks, “Last year we fell two goals shy of not only the Ivy League championship, but of what we believe was a legitimate shot at a national championship. There we were last spring sitting at home watching two teams play for the national title that we’d lost to by a combined total of three goals.” It is a bitter memory that has burned within the Bears for months. “This team is very, very driven,” says Thompson, an attackman who has led Brown in scoring for two straight years, racking up forty-seven goals and twenty-eight assists. “All of our hard work since we returned to campus in September has been focused on winning an Ivy League title and getting to the NCAA Tournament. Once you’re there, anything can happen.”

Last spring’s near-miss restored luster to a program that had seemingly dropped out of Division I’s upper echelon. In recent years, Brown has endured Ivy League finishes of fifth, fourth, sixth, and fifth. The last of the school’s eleven NCAA tournament appearances was in 1997, under the direction of then–head coach Peter Lasagna ’84. The last of the Bears’ six Ivy titles came in 1995.

Third-year coach Scott Nelson is under no illusion that last year’s strong finish guarantees Brown’s spot atop the Ivies, which he calls the best Division I league in the country. He lost thirty-one goals with the graduation last spring of New England Player of the Year and third-team All American Jimmy Mormile ’02, and another twenty-three goals when third-team All American Chas Gessner ’03 decided to bypass lacrosse so he could focus on speed and strength workouts to improve his chances in the National Football League draft. “It’s going to be very tough to equal that [4–2 Ivy record],” Nelson says. “This is going to be a tough year in that we’re very young. Out of thirty-eight kids on the roster, twenty-four are freshmen or sophomores.”

Although he admits the team’s youth could be a liability, Thompson adds, “With quality leadership, we feel the freshmen and sophomores will come along quickly. We lost some firepower on the offensive side and lost some stoppers on the defensive side, but we’re very confident in the players we have returning. Our goaltender is outstanding, and we believe the offense will put up enough numbers.”

Goalie Mike Levin ’03, who is one of the tricaptains along with Thompson and midfielder Matt Winkler ’03, was a first-team All New England and All Ivy selection last spring. He had a season-high twenty saves in the win over Cornell and a superb, eighteen-save outing in the loss to Syracuse. Chris O’Brien ’03 heads up an otherwise young defense that includes three sophomores and a freshman, and Michael Fiorvanti ’03 came on strong late in the season at defensive midfield.

The big question is where the offense will come from in the midfield. In addition to Mormile and Gessner’s firepower, Mike Albarelli ’02 and Matt Kelley ’02 scored six and four goals, respectively, last season. The contenders for their positions—Thomas Lipinski ’04, Richard Whelan ’04, Richard Tuohey ’04, and John Urquhart ’04—are “an excellent group,” Nelson says, but they combined for a total of only one goal last year. Middie Chris Mucciolo ’05, who scored nine goals in thirteen games as a freshman, is back after sitting out last year. Thompson (twenty-eight goals, twelve assists) heads up a promising corps of attackmen that also includes Brian Miller ’04 (seventeen goals, seven assists), Michael Hughes ’03 (thirteen goals, six assists), and Ryan Culligan ’05 (eleven goals, twelve assists).

“You always want to make sure your team is better at the end of the year than it is at the beginning,” Nelson explains. “That certainly could be true this year, given how young we are.”

Thompson is ready to get the Bears back to the NCAA tournament. “Graduation is the same weekend as the Final Four,” he observes. “The seniors are hoping to miss graduation.”