Mind Games: How Michael Sowers Found His Confidence

This article appears in the April 2020 edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. This story went to press March 6 and appears as it appears in the magazine, which hits homes later this month. Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, we are committed to telling the best stories in lacrosse and recognizing those players who have achieved excellence. Read why in editor-in-chief Matt DaSilva's latest columnDon’t get the mag? Head to USLacrosse.org to subscribe.


ichael Sowers arrives early for his interview. That’s not as surprising as the fact that he can even tell what time it is, judging by the state of the Apple watch on his left wrist. It looks like someone used it for target practice. The face appears illegible underneath the spiderweb cracks. A black rubber case barely holds it together.

“I got the case after it cracked,” Sowers says from a second-row seat in section 307 of Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium. “I was putting on my jacket and my watch one day while I was walking. I just fumbled. It exploded ... I break everything.”

That includes records. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior attackman with a boyish grin often makes opposing defenses look childish. He required only 42 games to set Princeton’s all-time points record, and he has reset the single-season mark in each of the last three years.

Sowers shows no sign of slowing down, either. In the Tigers’ season-opening 20-11 win over Monmouth, he tied his record for points in a game (11). He tallied nine before the end of the first half. 

His encore did not disappoint. Despite not playing the last nine minutes and 23 seconds against Colgate, Sowers set the Ivy League single-game record with 14 points. During the third quarter, Colgate attackman Nicky Petkevich had the misfortune of getting caught on the defensive end. He pressed out on Sowers, who knows a mismatch when he sees one. The Tigers cleared out — way out. Sowers rolled, stopped and changed directions, leaving Petkevich on the other side of the crease.

“This is not going well for Colgate,” play-by-play announcer Cody Chrusciel crowed on air.

Sowers created so much separation, he had time to switch hands before he delivered his ninth assist of the evening. He finished with 11.

The performance generated a now routine deluge of social media responses. Cue the Stephen A. Smith gifs. The Michael Sowers Stan Account and Michael Sowers for Tewaaraton Twitter handle. The proclamations that Sowers is VERY good at lacrosse. Reminders that Michael Sowers is doing Michael Sowers things again. That he’s the best player in the country, or maybe ever. That he’s the apparent successor to another No. 22. 

“This is the closest thing you will ever see from a dodging standpoint to Mike Powell,” ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra tweeted about the string of highlights that earned Sowers the No. 10 spot on the “SportsCenter” Top 10. Carcaterra ranked Sowers as the No. 1 overall prospect for the Premier Lacrosse League college draft.

Jerry Price watched Powell duel against the Tigers in the 2001 and 2002 NCAA championship games. As a senior communications advisor and historian at Princeton, he admired the charisma of Ryan Boyle and the vision of Tom Schreiber. Price has tallied the points of Princeton’s best players since before Sowers were born.

“I have been with the team for 31 years, and we have had a lot of great, hall of fame guys,” Price says. “But I consider Michael the best player I’ve seen.”

“I consider Michael the best player I’ve seen.”

For a player who doesn’t seem afraid of anyone, Sowers’ biggest hurdle was often himself.

When Sowers arrived on campus in the fall of 2016 after a five-day orientation on the Appalachian Trail, the No. 10 incoming freshman according to Inside Lacrosse believed “the smartest kids in the world” at Princeton would see through the public school kid who prefers sweatpants to khakis the way he spots holes in defenses.

“I don’t belong here,” he would tell his mom, Elizabeth, a special education teacher at Upper Moreland Middle School, on their near-daily phone calls that fall.

Sowers harbored similar doubts before he tried out for the U.S. under-19 team. On the first night of the summer tryouts at Stevenson University in Maryland, Sowers discovered he forgot his bag with his bedding and extra clothes. It wasn’t the first time.

“I consider him a nutty professor,” Elizabeth Sowers says. “Since the time he was a little boy, he’s been prone to losing things.”

On the way to Mesa Fresh club games, the Sowers family packed double, just in case.

“He’s so focused on his goals that he might forget the little things sometimes,” says Josh Wilkocz, the Upper Dublin and Mesa Fresh coach whom Sowers considers an older brother figure.

Sowers writes his goals on the back of his bedroom door so he sees them every morning. But as the tryouts neared, he believed his goal to make Team USA was out of reach. After a poor showing in a playoff loss to Conestoga that spring, Sowers says he felt lost. His confidence was at an all-time low. He considered focusing on his senior football season instead. 

Earlier that summer, Sowers also spent a week at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia due to health complications related to severe dehydration.

“When most people get warning signs that it’s time to take a break, they stop,” Wilkocz says. “Mike doesn’t.”

The setback gave Sowers time to reflect.

“No matter what happens,” he told himself, “I am going to do everything in my power to make that team.”

Two weeks later, Sowers was among 105 players darting in and out of drills at Mustang Stadium. He says his knees literally shook every time U.S. U19 coach Nick Myers walked by him.

But then Sowers would remember his mom’s advice to “take it all in” and three-a-days with Wilkocz at Sparks Field or wherever there was an open space. He realized no one had worked harder than him, so he stopped worrying about the result. He played aggressive and free. He made the cut. 

“When he saw those results on that stage, that took his confidence to the next level,” Wilkocz says. 

Sowers has tallied at least two points in every game of his Princeton career. He maintains his confidence through consistency. Last summer, he woke up at 5 a.m. weekday mornings to train with Kenny Williams before work at Rubenstein Partners in Philadelphia. During family vacations to the Jersey Shore, he drowned out the sound of breaking surf with the thud of wall ball reps at Ocean City High School. It’s the same sound passersby will hear on the squash courts in Dillon Gym around 10 p.m. most nights.

“Michael’s success comes in his preparation,” Princeton coach Matt Madalon says. “He's got great vision, but great vision doesn’t come without great preparation.”

Madalon says Sowers’ commitment has rubbed off on the rest of the team. He describes his quietly confident two-time captain as “over-thoughtful.” Not a day passes when Sowers doesn’t stop by Madalon or new offensive coordinator Jim Mitchell’s office to discuss some detail he noticed on film, just like he did in high school.

“It was like having another coach on the field,” says Bret Stover, Sowers’ football coach.

Stover first coached Sowers when he was in second grade during his UDJAA basketball days. Even back then, Sowers was a floor general. On the football field, he played quarterback growing up but turned into a sure-handed slot receiver and shutdown cornerback.

Sowers’ father, Dave, a business teacher at Hatboro-Horsham High School, founded the lacrosse program there in 2002 and later coached lacrosse and football at Upper Dublin. The coach’s oldest son grew up on sidelines. He rode the bus to games with the Hatters. They called him “The Mayor” because he could strike up a conversation with anyone. Sowers watched his dad scout against standout scatback-type attackmen like Joey Sankey and Jordan Wolf, then he developed his own jitterbug moves. 

While many of Sowers’ Mesa Fresh teammates, including current Johns Hopkins captain Forry Smith, played for more established Philadelphia-area programs like The Haverford School, Sowers stayed close to home. He wanted to play with his friends. The player who looks more excited when his teammates score than when he does set the national high school assists record (402) at Upper Dublin and led the Cardinals to district championships in football and lacrosse his senior year.

While most observers fawn over Sowers’ athleticism and ankle-dislocating dodges, Stover believes his mental game sets him apart. During the 2016 U.S. U19 team’s gold medal run in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Sowers, battling strep throat, called Wilkocz after each game to diagnose his performance. He finished as the top scorer and All-World attackman on the team he never thought he could make.

“All the greats are obsessed with their craft,” Madalon says.

That extends to Sowers’ plant-based diet. At his Spelman Hall apartment, he usually makes a smoothie for breakfast with frozen blueberries, coconut water, kale and flax seed. He carries around a Wawa gallon water jug to stay on top of his hydration. His current kick is sweet potato pancakes.

“They’re actually pretty good,” says senior attackman Phillip Robertson, who has roomed with Sowers the last two years. On the field, Robertson is often on the end of Sowers’ assists and led the NCAA in shooting percentage in 2019.

“I am just going to work as hard as I can Monday through Friday, and whatever happens on Saturday happens,” Sowers says. “Games are an opportunity for me to express myself and the work that I have done.”

Every Friday before away games, Sowers reaches out to the handful of players who didn’t make the travel roster and tells them how valuable they are to the team. He found out his freshman year there was help everywhere he looked at Princeton. He just had to ask. He likes to say the university has pushed him in every aspect of his life and that he’s extremely grateful for the opportunity. 

“He's really been the face of this team since the day he stepped on campus, but it never got to his head,” says junior defenseman George Baughan. “It only made him work harder.”

A history major, Sowers’ senior thesis examines the Anglo-American Relationship in World War II and how those relations deteriorated through General Bernard Montgomery and Dwight Eisenhower.

“I argue that it was more a result of Montgomery's personality,” Sowers says. “He was an ego-driven guy.”

Princeton is a place that embraces its history. Along the black fence surrounding Sherrerd Field are banners that commemorate the men’s and women’s lacrosse national championships. 

There are a lot of them. Princeton won six NCAA tournament titles from 1992-2001 under Bill Tierney. You can see them in the background every time Sowers shakes his man at X. They’re a reminder of the glory days and the expectations that sprout anew each spring.

Princeton has not reached those lofty standards lately. The last time the Tigers made the Ivy League tournament was Sowers’ freshman year. The last time they made the NCAA tournament, he was a ninth-grader at Upper Dublin. 

“While I have been fortunate to put up stats and break records, we haven’t won,” Sowers says. “The ultimate indicator of success is how your team does.”

The Tigers found plenty of success early this season. On Feb. 22, they topped reigning NCAA champion Virginia 16-12 in Charlottesville. The four goals and four assists Sowers registered, a career day for most players, seemed modest compared to his earlier numbers. He posted two and seven, respectively, in an 18-11 win over Johns Hopkins, as Princeton, unranked in the preseason, vaulted into the top five of national polls. Sowers finished February with 42 points in just four games.

Still, he grades himself not by the stat sheet, but by how well he played within the team’s system.

“I feel like nowadays with Instagram and with YouTube and Twitter, every play that you see is a highlight,” he says. “The reality is if you watch me play, I am probably making just as many bad plays as I do highlights. One bad play doesn’t define me, just as much as one good play doesn’t define me.”

If you only watched Sowers’ highlights against Colgate, you missed his two early turnovers and an offside penalty late in the third quarter. You also probably didn’t see his tenacious ride that secured the possession on which he tallied his 11th point.

John McPhee wasn’t on the sideline at Class of 1952 Stadium that evening. He had a cold. But the prolific 89-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who still teaches a sophomore writing seminar at Princeton called Creative Nonfiction, has not missed many games. McPhee is an academic athletic fellow for the lacrosse team. On a Wednesday in February, Price, the communications advisor, received a call from McPhee. He wanted to make sure he was still on the stadium parking list. 

“He’s such a thoughtful person,” McPhee told Price, “and it’s reflected in his play.”

McPhee delves into his various subjects — from oranges, to Alaska, to lacrosse — in obsessive detail. His first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” focused on Bill Bradley, the former U.S. senator, Rhodes Scholar and NBA All-Star who led Princeton to the Final Four during his senior season in 1965 and earned the Sullivan Award as the country’s most outstanding amateur athlete. Bradley set the school’s all-time scoring record with 2,503 points, without the aid of the 3-point shot.

Bradley’s achievements are hard to ignore on campus. An oversized white No. 42 jersey hangs inside Jadwin. There’s a statue of him, mid-dribble, a couple steps from the ticket booth screens that flash Sowers’ photo every few seconds.

While Bradley’s stature both literally (he’s 6-foot-5) and figuratively exceeds that of Sowers, their similarities are hard to miss in McPhee’s prose.

Bradley develops a relationship with his man that is something like the relationship between a yoyoist and his yoyo.

Bradley calls all men “Mister” whose age exceeds his own by more than a couple years.

Bradley’s play has just one somewhat unsound aspect, and it is the result of his mania for throwing the ball to his teammates.

He had ratified his reputation — not through his point total nearly so much as through his total play.

No matter how many more records Sowers breaks, whether he wins the Tewaaraton or if Chris Bates, who recruited Sowers to Princeton, tabs him with Archers’ No. 1 overall pick in the Premier Lacrosse League draft, one thing is certain. His career is one college lacrosse fans will never forget.

On this afternoon in February, four days before the start of the season, the Princeton lacrosse team warms up on Campbell Field in the shadow of the FitzRandolph Observatory, which houses the second-largest telescope in the hemisphere. The Tigers’ reluctant superstar looks comfortable beneath the floodlights, but out of the glare of the public’s attention.

Sowers leads the team in stretches and passing drills and offers the same instructions he does before every practice: “Have fun and finish every play.”

The undersized kid who arrived on Nassau Street unsure if he belonged has gained a sense of where he is.

He’s exactly where he’s meant to be.

Sowers Speaks

After news broke that Princeton’s season was over, Sowers was the first player to make a statement regarding the unfortunate news. The video is embedded below.

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