Unknown No More: Cornell Channels Big Red History to Build Next Era

PHOTO BY RICH BARNES

Gavin Adler emerged as one of the nation's top defenseman in 2022.


It was hard to know exactly what to make of Cornell entering the 2022 season.

There was a new head coach and a largely overhauled roster nearly two years removed from its last game. Outside of understanding the program DNA connecting more than a half-century of contenders in central New York, it was hard to project the Big Red.

It’s a sentiment no one will have next spring, not after Cornell’s run to the national title game.

“We talked about it over the last two years being a renaissance, being an opportunity to rebuild, to really get back to the basics, philosophically talk about who we wanted to be, and then when it’s time that the rubber hits the pavement, it’s time to go, and they did just that,” coach Connor Buczek said. “I think they truly set the foundation for this program moving forward, and there’s a lot of young guys in that locker room for how great our senior class was and some of the studs that we’re going to lose, there's a lot of really young guys in that locker room that are just getting started.”

No, the Big Red (14-5) did not win its first national title since 1977. But staring down a hefty second-half deficit against Maryland, it threw a scare into the Terrapins (18-0) at a point when so many opponents crumpled throughout the season.

The final margin — 9-7 — matched the Terps’ closest game of the year. Cornell kept Maryland scoreless for nearly 27 minutes, scoring four goals in the fourth quarter as the champs wheezed to the finish before running out the final 35 seconds after the Big Red’s final tally.

Injecting even the slightest bit of doubt into a game that was once 9-2 was impressive. But it also fit the personality of Cornell’s program, with 2015 graduates Buczek and associate head coach Jordan Stevens channeling so much Big Red history into how this year’s team was built.

“All year, we may not have had the best start, but we always finished strong,” attackman CJ Kirst said. “We gave it all we got. That last 15 minutes, we were definitely really motivated, and unfortunately, we came up short.”







Cornell, though, could be back — and soon — after only popping up on the national radar intermittently since advancing to the 2013 semifinals.

The Big Red were one-and-done in the 2014 and 2015 tournaments and were bounced by Maryland in the 2018 quarterfinals after winning a first-round game at Syracuse. That covers Cornell’s postseason history in the seven tournaments between its Memorial Day weekend appearances.

That method of accounting downplays what might have happened if the 2020 season unfolded without a pandemic. Nonetheless, the Big Red possessed modest postseason experience prior to its run as a No. 7 seed in May.

“It’S a domino effect,” defenseman Gavin Adler said. “Now that I’ve been here, [Kirst’s] been here, that’s three years a generation of players can pass on, do what it takes and show the young guys this is who we are.”

What was a roster filled with untested players at the college level outside of a few guys — Adler and attackmen Michael Long and John Piatelli, among them — now has a lot of knowns.

Kirst (55 goals, 24 assists) has to rate among the most intriguing of that bunch after proving every bit as effective as Buczek believed he could be in the preseason. Adler, an exceptional technician and master of leverage who was named a first-team All-America selection, will be back to anchor the defense.

Other stars have emerged as well. Sophomore Hugh Kelleher had 23 goals and eight assists in his first college season, including a hat trick in the NCAA semifinals against Rutgers. Jack Follows looks like he will be a long-term mainstay on close defense after starting the final six games after injury prevented him from debuting until late April.

The Big Red will take some graduation hits, most notably with Piatelli — whose last-minute goal in the title game gave him 66 for the year, one more than Mike French’s 46-year-old program record. As significant a departure as Piatelli is, Cornell won’t have nearly as many unknowns as it did at the start of 2022.

Yet to the Big Red, a team that concentrates on inputs rather than outputs, the plan will be to follow the same blueprint, only with an altered roster.

“We just want to get better tomorrow, because if we talk about Memorial Day starting tomorrow, we just wasted 364 days,” Buczek said. “So our hope is as soon as we turn the page from this and we let this hurt a little bit that it’s back to work.”

It shouldn’t happen without some appreciation of what Cornell accomplished in its return to competition. It won 10 of its first 11, then overcame a late-season wobble to race past Ohio State, smother Delaware and then pound Rutgers before forcing a juggernaut to scrap to the end on the season’s final day.

And if the title game loss meant the present wasn’t euphoric, it underscored the future’s considerable promise in Ithaca.

“The clock ran out on us today, but hopefully we’re on the cusp of building something pretty special here moving forward,” Buczek said.

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