For the Princeton University women’s lacrosse team, its NCAA assignment last weekend included a cast of familiar characters.
The Tigers faced Penn State in the first round on Friday, just weeks after falling 13-12 to the Nittany Lions in the regular season finale. The winner was set to face host sixth-seeded Virginia, who the Tigers had edged 15-13 on March 15.
“We were really excited about the draw,” said Princeton head coach Chris Sailer.
“We had as good a shot as anyone, any one of the three teams could win. We were closely matched.”
The rematch against Penn State was nearly as close as the first meeting with Princeton rallying from a 9-6 second half deficit to pull out a 16-13 victory.
“We executed the things we worked on,” said Sailer, who got four goals and an assist from junior star Erin McMunn with freshman Olivia Hompe tallying six points on two goals and four assists and senior goalie Caroline Franke making 12 saves off the bench.
“We have a habit of being able to score goals when we need them. Our Achilles heel has been starting slowly. We had some troubles early. We put Caroline Franke in at goalie, she is bigger and she had a great day in the cage. She gave us a spark.”
Sailer knew her team faced a big challenge in taking on host Virginia with a two-day turnaround.
“The tournament is set up to to give the top six teams an advantage; they can watch you play and rest,” said Sailer.
“UVa had two weeks off although you never know how that is going to play out. We played a really hard game on Friday but I thought the girls recovered quickly. It was 20 degrees hotter than what we had been used to. We did much better than we did at the Ivy tournament the week before.”
While Princeton is used to coming from behind, spotting an early four-goal deficit to the Cavaliers proved to be too much as the Tigers lost 13-11.
“We got down 4-0 against UVa, you can’t keep digging holes like that and expect to win every game,” said Sailer.
“After those early minutes, we won by two. When you play a good team like UVa that is patient, they hold on to the ball and you have to come out eventually. That can lead to some easy goals for them.”
The Tigers certainly didn’t make things easy for Virginia, cutting the Cavalier lead to 12-10 with 3:29 remaining in regulation.
“I am really proud of how the players keep fighting,” said Sailer, who got four goals from junior Erin Slifer in the defeat with senior Mary-Kate Sivilli chipping in three goals and senior Sarah Lloyd contributing a goal and two assists.
“Sarah Lloyd and Erin Slifer and the middies worked their butts off. MK had some important goals for us.”
Sailer credited the team’s group of seniors with setting the tone in terms of work ethic as the Tigers finished with a 12-7 record.
“It was really a strong season for Princeton lacrosse,” asserted Sailer, whose group of seniors includes Liz Cutting, Colleen Smith, Grace Bowen, Kellie Ragg, and Erin Williams in addition to Lloyd, Sivilli, and Franke.
“I am very proud of the seniors and what they have done to change the culture of the team. We were unified, hard working, and driven.”
Despite the loss to Virginia, Princeton has a lot to be proud of when it looks back on the 2014 campaign.
“We got a share of the Ivy regular season title which is always the No. 1 goal coming into the season,” said Sailer, a Hall of Fame coach who has now completed 28 seasons at the helm of the program and has guided Princeton to 22 NCAA appearances and three national titles (1994, 2002, and 2003).
“We have 11 Final 4s and 10 regular season Ivy titles so that shows how tough the league is. I am happy that the team made it to the NCAAs as an at-large team and got a good draw. We advanced in the NCAAs which means we were one of the top 16 teams. We would have liked to be in the elite 8 and we were very close. In a few days, when we look back and get some perspective, we will realize that we took some really positive steps this year.”
With such standouts as McMunn, Hompe, and Slifer coming back along with freshman Madeline Rodriguez, sophomore Liz Bannantine, freshman Anna Doherty, sophomore Anya Gersoff, freshman Amanda Leavell, junior Annie Woehling, and sophomore Alexandra Bruno, the future looks positive for the Tigers.
“Looking at the returnees, we have strength across the board,” said Sailer.
“We have a lot of good players who saw a lot of action this year. There was growth and improvement in each class. Everybody on the team got better this year and that is the direction you want to go in.”