I remember the weekend last year when I officially met Pete Milliman.
Milliman was, at that time, carrying the title of “Interim Head Coach” of the Cornell men’s lacrosse team, and it was a crazy time by any measure. First, the Big Red was in the midst of a turnaround season that would ultimately see them win the Ivy League Tournament and have a solid postseason. They had been picked to finish fifth in the conference and started the season ranked well outside the Top 20.
Another possibly distracting factor for a coach trying to establish himself was that three dozen of the storied program’s most revered alumni were in town, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Cornell’s legendary 42-game winning streak (a record that still stands).
Oh, yes, let’s also factor in the slightly distracting reality that Milliman’s wife, Meg (who is the women’s lacrosse coach at Wells College), was due to have their first child any day.
Yet it all turned out well. On that weekend, the Big Red made the alumni proud, rolling over Brown by a score of 19-5. The next weekend, the Milliman family’s daughter, Reese, arrived, and soon thereafter Cornell would beat Syracuse for the second time in 2018. A few weeks later, the nameplate on Milliman’s office door read, “Peter Milliman: Richard M. Moran Head Coach of Men's Lacrosse.” Yes, it was a good year.
Milliman was kind enough to invite me into his office the day before the Big Red opened their season against longtime rival Hobart, and we discussed that Cornell was looking to start the season with a win for the first time in 5 years. I admitted that I was puzzled by that losing streak—the longest in program history.
Never one to make excuses, Pete said, “A lot of the schools start practice as soon as they return to school in January. The Ivy League dictates that we can’t start practice until Feb. 1, and last year almost every Ivy school lost, or barely won against inferior teams.” Of the four straight opening day defeats, Milliman said, “It’s a horrible track record,” and it was clear that he and his charges were ready to do something about it when they traveled to Geneva to meet the Statesmen.
Two days after the opener, the Big Red would host Lehigh, and like Hobart, the Mountain Hawks had a two-game head start on Cornell. Milliman said, “Given we start practice on Feb. 1, there are some years that there is a good chance that we don’t even get outside (to practice) before the season opens.” Milliman noted they have been lucky this year, only needing one indoor practice.
The energy around the program feels different these days. On any given day, the players might see Richie Moran—the Hall of Fame coach whose teams won three national championships and for whom the head coaching position is named—and they are mentored by coaches who have played the game at a very high level. After a collegiate career as a 3-time All-American at Gettysburg, Milliman played Major League Lacrosse for four seasons, and both of his assistants are (or have been) pro players as well. Jordan Stevens and Connor Buczek both have MLL experience, and given the fact that both are former Cornell lacrosse All-Americans, they can offer some insight on how to balance Division I athletics and Ivy League academics.
Like any coach, Milliman wants to look forward as much as possible, but he was generous enough to indulge my questions about what it is like to coach a program with such an illustrious history, and to know that on any given day, he might be having lunch with the coach that built the dynasty that still holds the coveted win-streak record. Pete said, “It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to lead these guys. When I was a kid, Richie came to speak at a clinic, and now it’s humbling to be around him and all those guys that were a part of it. Of all the college lacrosse programs, ours has the richest tradition.”
Addressing the pressure of officially taking over the program, the former Big Red assistant coach shrugged and said, “I have been here for some time, in fact last year was my fifth season. When I was given the opportunity to lead the program with two of the best assistants I could hope for, we were off and running.”
When the Big Red took the field against the Statesmen, they really hoped not to give up 16 goals. That is the number that found the back of the net, but Cornell’s vaunted offense was up to the task, pouring in 19 of its own to emerge victorious. The elite attack trio of Jeff Teat, Clarke Petterson and John Piatelli showed why every opponents’ defensive game planning will be put to the test, as Teat had six goals and two assists and Petterson and Piatelli each had four goals and two assists.
On Sunday, I sat in the press box and noted that the Big Red looked a bit sluggish after Friday’s big contest. They fell behind 5-0 in the first period, but chipped away in the second and third periods, and exploded for seven unanswered goals to win 14-9.
Thirty-three goals in two games, with two wins. So far, so good.