Jaci Gassaway was primed for a big senior season with the Princeton University women’s lacrosse team as the Tigers’ top returning goal scorer and a co-captain.
But a month before the season opener, the star attacker’s hopes for a stirring finale seemed dashed as Gassaway tore the ACL in her left knee.
If Gassaway had the surgery she needed to repair the injury, she would be out for the season.
With her senior campaign hanging in the balance, Gassaway decided to not rush into anything.
“I wasn’t sure if I could play. I was considering taking the semester off,” said Gassaway. “I decided to see if it would get feel better.”
Trying a large black brace on her knee, Gassaway found that she could navigate the field. She was in uniform for the season opener against Villanova on February 23 but didn’t see action. In Princeton’s next game at Georgetown, the 5’9 native of Severna Park, Md. did come in off the bench but didn’t get a shot.
Two days later, Gassaway saw action against Southern California and scored two goals. She then added two goals in a loss to Virginia on March 16 and a tally in a defeat at Rutgers three days later.
While Gassaway wasn’t close to full speed, she has adjusted her game in order to be a factor for the Tigers.
“I have learned what I can do and what I can’t do,” said Gassaway, who has 12 points on the season with nine goals and three assists. “I can’t go behind the net, I play more in the middle now.
Last Saturday, Gassaway was in the middle of the action as the Tigers rallied from a 7-4 second half deficit against No. 16 Johns Hopkins] and score six unanswered goals to stun the Blue Jays 10-7 at Class of 1952 Stadium.
Displaying her finishing touch, Gassaway scored three goals in that stretch to help spark the comeback as the Tigers improved to 4-3 overall.
“I think it was more the offense was moving better so I was getting open and I took advantage of that,” said Gassaway.
Gassaway acknowledged that the Tiger attack needed to pick things up as Princeton trailed 4-3 at halftime.
“The defense was playing great,” said Gassaway. “Offensively we had outshot them but we weren’t finishing so the focus was to get the ball in the net and do a much better job of that in the second half.”
With Princeton coming off tough losses at Virginia and Rutgers, the Tigers were focused on getting back on the winning track.
“It was definitely a critical game, especially going into our Ivy season,” said Gassaway, reflecting on the league campaign which will see Princeton host Columbia (1-7 overall, 0-3 Ivy) on March 27 before playing at 12th-ranked Cornell (6-2 overall, 2-1 Ivy) on March 30.
“We have had one Ivy game (an 18-11 win over Brown on March 9).We just wanted to put it all on the line.”
Princeton head coach Chris Sailer believes the win over Hopkins should help her team down the line.
“Whatever happens you move forward but I think getting this win against a good team, a ranked team with a lot of good players on it, is just going to do a lot for our confidence,” asserted Sailer.
Princeton drew confidence early on from a superb defensive effort that saw the Tigers hold the high-powered Blue Jays to four goals in the first half, a big plus considering that Hopkins came into the day averaging 13.75 goals a game.
“The defense was phenomenal in the first half; I don’t know that I can remember a better half of defense,” said Sailer.
“We had some great stands, [Caroline] Franke made some key saves. The job that Liz Bannantine did on Taylor D’Amore was just phenomenal. The whole defense just played so well in that first half.”
In the second half, the Princeton offense stepped up, producing a 7-1 run after it fell behind 6-3 with 25 minutes left in regulation.
“We were taking quick shots and we weren’t changing our levels,” said Sailer.
“Our possessions were just so short so we challenged them at halftime and said look we had to win this game on the attack end, we had to take the pressure off the defense. We did that.”
Princeton started putting the pressure on the Blue Jays when sophomore star Erin McMunn took over draw control duties.
“I think the big factor in the game was second half draw controls,” said Sailer of McMunn, who helped Princeton win nine of 12 draws down the stretch of the game.
“We put McMunn on the draw control and she was phenomenal. The whole team was really scrapping for the ground balls off the draws; that really turned it around.”
Having Gassaway on the field, even in a limited role, has made a big difference for Princeton.
“I am just so thankful for Jaci; the things that she has been able to do are really just amazing,” said Sailer.
“She was huge for us. The kids know that she will handle those balls inside and she was able to put them away.”
Sailer liked the patience her team showed in putting away the Blue Jays down the stretch.
“We knew when we got that two-goal lead that it would help us if we could kill some clock and possess the ball a little bit,” said Sailer, who got two goals from freshman Alexandra Bruno with McMunn chipping in a goal and two assists and senior Mary-Kate Sivilli contributing a goal and two assists.
“They have some talented kids so we knew that we had to take the air out of the ball a little bit and get them out of what they were in as well. Offensively, I thought our kids did a good job of controlling the ball. We haven’t been in that situation that much where we have had to hold the lead and expand it.”
As Princeton heads into the thick of its Ivy schedule, Sailer is hoping her team will take keep playing from the lead.
“I think the kids feel really good about how they performed today,” said Sailer.
“I think it really was a full team effort with the attack and the changes we made in the second half.”
Gassaway, for her part, is feeling really good about being able to contribute.
“It means so much to me to be out there,” said Gassaway.
“I told my teammates I would be happy to play one game with them, now that I have played six I am so excited.”