Tiger Women’s Soccer Stuns UNC in NCAAs, Will Head West to Face UCLA in Quarterfinal Clash
GIVING HER ALL: Princeton University women’s soccer player Abby Givens boots the ball in Princeton’s 4-0 win over Monmouth in the opening round of the NCAA tournament earlier this month. Last Sunday, sophomore forward Givens scored the game-winning goal in overtime as Princeton upset North Carolina 2-1 in the NCAA Round of 16. The Tigers, now 16-2-1, play at UCLA, 18-2-2, on November 25 in the NCAA quarters. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
In early September, the Princeton University women’s soccer team traveled to North Carolina and turned heads as it posted wins over two Atlantic Coast Conference foes, N.C. State and Wake Forest.
Last weekend, 13th-ranked Princeton headed back to Tobacco Road for NCAA tournament action and came through again, edging N.C. State on penalty kicks after the teams tied at 1-1 through regulation and two overtimes on Friday in a second-round matchup and then toppled storied and second-ranked North Carolina, the holder of 21 NCAA crowns, in a 2-1 overtime thriller two days later.
The stunning upset earned Princeton, now 16-2-1, a trip west as it plays at UCLA, 18-2-2, in the NCAA quarterfinals on November 25 for a spot in the College Cup semis on December 1 in Orlando, Fla.
It is the Tigers’ first trip to the Elite Eight since it advanced to the NCAA semis in 2004, the program’s greatest run in the national tourney.
“They have had lofty goals all season and it is a team that doesn’t want its season to end,” said Princeton head coach Sean Driscoll, reflecting on his team’s historic weekend. “They are tremendously ambitious and have a great belief in one another.”
In the rematch against N.C. State, freshman Carolyne Davidson displayed her self belief, tallying a second half goal and then burying the clinching PK to give the Tigers the win.
“We have a very deep team and throughout the year, we have had different players step up in key moments,” said Driscoll.
“In that Friday game, Carolyne was the one. She has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and made the right run and got there and took care of business. She is unflappable, everyone on the team knows that the kid has ice in her veins so when she stepped up to that final PK, I was confident.”
The Princeton defensive unit was unflappable, holding the fort after the Wolfpack knotted the game at 1-1 late in regulation.
“For me the greater moment was when we were eight minutes from the end of the game and we conceded a goal,” said Driscoll.
“As a team, we don’t usually concede goals if we are winning. When we are ahead by a goal, we finish the game off. We could have easily succumbed. We were playing right outside Raleigh; there were a lot more fans there for them than for us. We held on, got right back into it, and got ourselves into the PKs so that was brilliant.”
Edging N.C. State earned Princeton the chance to face North Carolina and its brilliant head coach, the legendary Anson Dorrance, who has guided the Tar Heels to those 21 national titles and has an all-time record of 809-67-36.
“It is the most storied program, the coach is a hero of mine; you can’t be a women’s soccer coach and not have the utmost respect for him,” said Driscoll of Dorrance.
“When I was a 23-year-old coach, he spoke at the high school where I was then coaching. He sat right next to me at a dinner and took the time to talk to me.”
Matching wits with Dorrance was a landmark in Driscoll’s coaching career.
“It was an absolute dream to share the sideline with him, to play against that team, to see the Carolina blue, and be in that environment,” said Driscoll.
“I was staring at my ceiling at 4 a.m. in the morning. Usually I am so nervous but this time I was so excited and I couldn’t sleep. It was like being a little kid on Christmas Day.”
The contest turned into an exciting battle with Princeton jumping out to an early 1-0 lead as North Carolina yielded an own goal. The Tar Heels tied the game at 1-1 with a goal midway through the first half. Neither team scored again in regulation and the Tigers broke the deadlock as sophomore forward and Charlotte, N.C. resident Abby Givens found the back of the net at the 98:18 mark.
“We had kids who were literally sliding, jumping, diving, putting their body in front of the ball, doing whatever it took to keep the game in a position where we could find a way to win it.” said Driscoll.
“We conceded a goal later in the first half and we responded. We didn’t just sit there and take it on the chin and let them go on a run. We continued to work as hard as we could. We continued to grind, that is what this team does best.”
That work finally paid dividends as Givens redirected a feed from senior defender Natalie Larkin into the back of the net.
“They smashed the ball across the front of the goal and were inches away from winning the game in OT,” recalled Driscoll.
“Then their corner kick goes out of bounds and we score on the ensuing goal kick. I said before the game that North Carolina is a team that has to win because of its tradition. We have to be the team that wants to win. Wanting to win is sometimes more important than having to win. If you have to win, there is pressure on you.”
Driscoll was thrilled to see Givens come through under the pressure in her home state.
“It is very appropriate; she has played through injury and fought and continues to do whatever she can, like every other player on this team, to give everything she has,” said Driscoll.
“It is huge for anyone to score that goal but a North Carolina native would be at the top of that list.”
The dramatic win and the raucous postgame celebration left Driscoll with a huge memory.
“Aside from the birth of my two kids and marrying my wife, it is the greatest moment of my life; there’s no two ways about it,” asserted Driscoll.
“At the end of the game, I sprinted onto the field. I had tears in my eyes, I was emotional. You dream of the moment to play the legend and then to come away with a win in overtime, that is what storybooks are written about. It doesn’t happen. There is no doubt in my mind that I will be comparing every other thing the rest of my life to that one moment of complete euphoria.”
The Tigers will be hoping to produce some more big moments as they play UCLA, the program that ended Princeton’s 2004 magical NCAA run in the national semis.
“They are incredibly technical, incredibly talented, and very gifted so we have another storied program to play,” said Driscoll of the fourth-ranked Bruins.
“It is a huge task. We just got back last night and now we have to turn around and get on a flight on Wednesday and go across the country and continue to try to be the best road team in the country. That is our goal.”
No matter where the road ends for the Tigers, it has been an incredible ride.
“Not many teams start their season, thinking they are going to be in the Elite 8 with the opportunity to play UCLA and have a chance to go to the Final 4,” said Driscoll, whose squad is undefeated (9-0) in away games this fall.
“It is surreal to even say it. We are just going to continue to enjoy what we are doing and get ourselves as healthy and rested as we can and embrace the moment.”