While the outright Ivy League title was up for grabs as the Princeton University field hockey team played at Penn last Saturday, the Tigers maintained their business-as-usual approach coming into the contest.
“For us, every league game feels similar,” said Princeton head coach Kristen Holmes-Winn.
“Our preparation and mentality never wavers and that is a reason why we have been so successful. We take the single-game approach.”
Showing its championship mentality, Princeton pulled away to a 5-1 victory over the Quakers, winning the program’s ninth straight Ivy crown and 19th in the last 20 years.
The game was tied at 1-1 midway through the first half but the ninth-ranked Tigers seized control after that as senior star Michelle Cesan scored one goal and assisted on another to help Princeton take a 3-1 lead into halftime. In the second half, Cesan added another goal along with Allison Evans as the Tigers moved to 13-4 overall and 7-0 Ivy.
“There was never a point in the game where I felt Penn had control,” said Holmes-Winn, whose team outshot the Quakers 28-6 and built a 13-4 edge in penalty corners.
“The teams in the league play a very direct game. It is a lineal game and not a lot of transfers. There can be random chances. I thought we played our lines well. We got a tip or touch on every one of their outlets. It was a very controlled game for us, we were able to dominate. You look at the league stats, we gave up five goals in seven league games and had more than 20 shots in each game.”
Now the defending national champion Tigers will get a chance to defend their title as they face Penn State (13-5 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at College Park, Md. with the victor likely facing host and top-ranked Maryland (20-1) on November 17 for a spot in the Final Four.
Princeton will bring a special motivation to the clash with Penn State as it fell 4-3 to the Nittany Lions on September 15 to snap a 17-game winning streak.
“From my perspective, the one game I would like to have back is the Penn State game,” said Holmes-Winn.
“We are a very different team now. We have grown and evolved since September. We are playing great hockey. We are going to attack the match.”
Senior midfielder Cesan has been on the attack recently, tallying five goals and two assists in her last four games to give her a team-high 10 goals and nine assists on the season.
“Cesan is getting good looks,” said Holmes-Winn. “We changed up our press and we are opening up space in the midfield. We are getting more depth from our forwards.”
Princeton is getting contributions from a variety of players and has overcome some health issues and is riding a seven-game winning streak coming into the NCAA tourney.
“Annabeth Donovan has grown massively, she is marshaling things from out of the back field,” said Holmes-Winn, noting that such stars as Kate Ferrara, Amanda Bird, Sydney Kirby, and Teresa Benvenuti are all at 100 percent after dealing with various ailments over the fall.
“It helps that she has two of the best midfielders in the country in front of her in Julia [Reinprecht] and Michelle. Anya Gersoff in goal is playing well, she has been communicating so well. We are at full strength for the first time this season.”
The Tigers will have to play strong hockey in order to survive the weekend and advance to its third Final Four in the last four seasons.
“It is a classy bracket, the teams and coaches have a lot of experience,” said Holmes-Winn.
“We are grateful to have this opportunity. To me, when it’s hard, its better. It will be a huge challenge for us. We are a team of winners. I said to the girls last week that in every aspects of their lives, they are hard working, detailed, and accountable. They put everything out there and from a coaching standpoint, that is a good feeling.”
Holmes-Winn is feeling good about her team’s prospects. “We played the third strongest schedule in the country and that underpins the disciplined approach we take every day,” said Holmes-Winn.
“It adds a rawness to the environment. You are going to elevate and rise to it or crumble under it. We have done the right thing to this point. I think we are coming together at the right time. Everyone is healthy and we are in a great spot as a team. We are absolutely committed and focused on the moment. Each player is prepared to do what she is asked under pressure. Physiologically, we are in a taper phase, the girls are very fit. We are very excited for Saturday.”