Ashleigh Johnson didn’t waste any time making an impression this past February as she started her career with the Princeton University women’s water polo team.
Starring in her college debut against fourth-ranked Cal, goalie Johnson made 19 saves in a 7-5 loss, setting a new single-game saves record for the program.
“The Cal game was really fun,” said Johnson. “I knew I had to step it up; they are a really good team.”
The Miami, Fla. native kept stepping up all season, amassing 366 saves, a single-season program record, 47 steals, 22 assists, and a 0.668 saves percentage. She was named a third-team All-American, the CWPA Southern Division Rookie of the Year, and was selected to the All-Southern First Team.
Johnson helped Princeton win the Eastern Championship, earning its second straight trip to the NCAA tournament. She ended her season in style, establishing a new saves record in the NCAA tournament with a total of 38 as the Tigers finished fifth.
Next week, Johnson will get to make an impression on the world stage as she plays for the U.S. squad in the FINA Junior World Championships, which runs from August 19-25 in Volos, Greece.
In reflecting on her superb debut season, Johnson is humbled by the recognition she has received.
“I am really gratified to get those honors,” said Johnson. “I enjoy playing and I want to keep playing this way.”
Johnson started playing water polo when she was 12 as a way to keep busy in the summer.
“My mom wanted my sister and me to do something in the summer instead of just sitting around,” said Johnson.
“She put us in swimming but it was boring. There was water polo at the club and we tried it. I liked it right away; I liked that water polo was a game. I guess everybody starts in the field. My sister wanted to play goalie so I said I wanted to try too. She quit and I kept playing. I felt it was the best position.”
Johnson quickly moved up the ranks, starring for her club team, the Gulliver Riptides through her high school career. She earned All-America Honorable Mention at the U18 Junior Olympics in 2010 and 2011, playing for the U.S. Youth National Team Selection Camp in 2010 and the Youth National Team in 2011. Johnson also starred for Ransom Everglades High School, helping the Raiders to three consecutive Florida state titles.
With that kind of resume, Johnson was sought after by a number of college water polo programs.
“I wasn’t thinking about any one school at first,” said Johnson. “I narrowed it down to Michigan, USC, and Princeton. I had a visit to Princeton and I really liked it. I had a friend on the team from Miami and he introduced me to kids in all grades. I really liked the players.”
In addition to getting used to juggling her classwork and water polo at Princeton, Johnson had to adapt in competition.
“I got more used to my teammates and I adjusted how I play,” said Johnson. “My strength is my weakness. I come out a lot to make steals and intimidate. The problem is people can lob over me.”
Few people, though, got the ball past Johnson, whose precocious talent became a pillar for a Princeton team that posted a 28-6 record.
A major highlight for Johnson and her teammates came when they travelled to the University of Michigan in late April for the Eastern Championship with a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line. The Tigers rolled past George Washington 16-3 in the opening round before rallying to beat Hartwick 12-11 in double overtime in the semifinals and then edging host Michigan 7-5 in the title game.
“Those games were really good,” said Johnson, who totaled 35 saves in the competition and was voted Rookie of the Tournament, along with earning Eastern All-Tournament First Team honors. “I was really nervous. I was really excited when we won. Our captains really stepped up and motivated us.”
At the NCAAs, Johnson continued her sparkling play, making nine saves in an 8-6 loss to UCLA in the quarterfinals before making 15 stops in a 12-2 win over Iona in a consolation contest and then making 14 in a 12-10 double-overtime win against UC San Diego in the fifth place game.
“I just wanted us to do well and make a name for ourselves as an eastern school,” said Johnson. “I think we will do even better in the future.”
This summer Johnson has dedicated herself to making a name with the national program. She had to survive two weeks of tryouts and successive cuts to make the U.S. squad.
“I just wanted to do my best,” said Johnson, reflecting on the team selection process.
“At first, I was very nervous; I was out of shape. It is different from the youth national team; you are competing against much better players. I am really happy to be going.”
As the U.S. prepares for the competition, Johnson is confident the team can compete with anybody.
“We want to be first,” asserted Johnson. “The girls that we have on this team are really good, we need to be a team and play together.”
Serving as the last line of defense, Johnson knows that she will play a key role in keeping the team together.
“I have to communicate differently, said Johnson. “It is different than being on my college team, I am used to doing more. On this team, I don’t have to do as much but I have to be constantly talking. It is tiring.”
No matter how the U.S. does in Greece, though, Johnson believes that she can make an even bigger impact this winter in her sophomore season for Princeton.
“I think we will be better,” maintained Johnson. “I think I will be the same; I want to be more of a leader.”