After Hitting Rarified Territory in Final Four Run, Tiger Women's Soccer Ready for Next Chapter
By Bill Alden
Last fall, the Princeton University women's soccer team rode a senior-laden squad to uncharted territory as it made an improbable run to the NCAA Final Four.
With 10 seniors departing from a team that broke a slew of program records on the way to a 19-3 record, the Tigers will be headed into unknown territory of a different kind this fall with just four starters returning and a bevy of new faces getting extensive action for the first time.
While the images of last season's dramatic success are still fresh in her mind, Princeton head coach Julie Shackford is excited about the upcoming season which kicks off this Friday with a rematch of the Final Four as Princeton plays UCLA in Miami.
"It is the two opposite ends of the coaching continuum," said Shackford with a laugh before a practice session last week.
"Last year still seems surreal. From a coaching standpoint, it was probably a once in a lifetime experience. I enjoyed it and learned so much about being on a great team and competing at that level. I think the good thing about this season is that there are so many players who can step up. It's exciting. Nothing is in place and everything is up for grabs."
With so many changes in the offing, Shackford acknowledges that this year's Tigers won't be as flashy as in the past.
"I don't think this team will go forward as much as last year," explained Shackford, who is entering her 11th season heading the Princeton program and has compiled a record of 117-52-10 in first decade on the job.
"We have to be a more disciplined group. We have to be patient. We'll have to pick our spots a little better. I think we can be better with the ball."
Senior co-captain Emily Behncke is looking forward to seeing how the team picks its spots. "The team is going to look a lot different in the field," said Behncke, a first-team All-Ivy selection the last two seasons.
"I think it is a really exciting time to be around, especially after last year. Our mantra is 'make it ours.' It is a different team, a different group and we're not going to focus on last year."
In Shackford's view, one thing that can't be too different from last year is Behncke's scoring punch. Moving to forward in 2004 from the midfield, Behncke put together a banner campaign, scoring 13 goals and five assists.
"Obviously Em has to lead the team in terms of producing," asserted Shackford, who may utilize a 4-5-1 formation this season with Behncke as the only forward. "There is a lot of pressure on her, she has to score." Behncke will get plenty of help from dazzling sophomore midfielder Diana Matheson, who earned All-American recognition after scoring seven goals and seven assists in her debut campaign.
"I think we are going to have to rely on Diana to score more goals for us," said Shackford, who won't have the services of co-captain Matheson for the Tigers' first two games because she is currently playing with the Canadian national team.
"We might play with three people in the center of the midfield so Diana has less to do defensively and can get more involved in the attack."
Shackford is also looking for senior midfielder-forward Maura Gallagher (four goals and four assists in 2004) to share the scoring load. In the midfield, Shackford is counting on senior Maija Garnaas and freshman Jen Om to be key contributors.
Princeton's back line will be spearheaded by senior Romy Trigg-Smith, a first-team All-Ivy player last year, whose leadership will be even more crucial in the wake of junior Christina Costantino being lost for the season due to an ACL injury.
"Romy is definitely anchoring the back," said Shackford of the heady and athletic native of Kailua, Hawaii. "She will be doing a lot of the work this year."
As for the goalkeeper situation, Princeton may be utilizing the rotation of seniors Madeleine Jackson and Emily Vogelzang that it went with last season.
"I think the goalkeepers will have to pick up the slack," said Shackford, who gave Vogelzang 11 starts last year and Jackson 10. "At the end of the day, the goalkeepers didn't have to do a ton of stuff last year. In some ways that can be harder as they have to be perfect when they do get a chance."
The Tigers will get the chance to learn a lot when they face UCLA, the team that ended Princeton's magical run when it won the Final Four clash 2-0.
"They are very strong and very athletic," said Shackford, whose club will play at the University of Miami on September 4 before its home opener against Loyola Marymount on September 8.
"It'll be their third game and they had one of the top three recruiting classes in the nation. I think it will put us in position where we can see our weaknesses and that is a positive thing. To be faced with those kind of teams will only help us."
While Shackford would love to topple UCLA, the game should serve as a valuable learning experience in any event.
"I've talked to the kids about not getting tied up in results," added Shackford, who has led Princeton to four Ivy League crowns and six NCAA appearances in her tenure. "We want to to focus on getting prepared to be in a position to win the league."
Despite all the question marks, Shackford believes her squad will once again be in the Ivy title chase.
"It's tough to know what the identity of the team is going to be," said Shackford. "We have a lot of talent; it's just piecing it all together. It's going to be fun. My expectation is that we will still be competitive. As always, the league is our first goal."
If the pieces come together, Princeton should find itself in the familiar territory of the NCAA tournament come November.