Fueled by Disappointing Loss in NCAA Tourney, PU Women’s Soccer Primed to Win 3rd Ivy Crown
HOLDING COURT: Princeton University women’s soccer player Courtney O’Brien controls the ball in a game last fall. Senior midfielder/forward O’Brien has emerged as a key attacking player for the Tigers, earning second-team All-Ivy League honors last fall as Princeton won its second straight Ivy title and third in the four years. The Tigers kick off their 2019 campaign this week by playing at St. Joseph’s (1-0-1) on August 30 and then hosting Boston College (2-0) on September 1. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Last fall, the Princeton University women’s soccer team displayed resolve and grit after it started 1-1-1 in Ivy League play.
Catching fire down the stretch, Princeton won its last four league games to earn its second straight Ivy crown and third in the four years.
But the excitement of that title run was dampened by how the season ended as Princeton fell 3-0 at Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t give a very good account of ourselves and that left a really bad taste in everybody’s mouths,” said Princeton head coach Sean Driscoll, reflecting on the loss to the Red Raiders which left the Tigers with a final record of 11-4-2.
“There is something to be said for winning a couple of Ivy League championships in a row and still not being very satisfied. That is a good thing. In that sense, it has been positive motivation.”
That motivation has resulted in an upbeat preseason. “It has been great so far, everybody is dialed in and focused and the fitness levels are pretty good,” said Driscoll, whose team opens its 2019 campaign this week by playing at St. Joseph’s on August 30 and then hosting Boston College on September 1.
“It is a spirited group, they get along very well. The chemistry has been positive. We have nine seniors and they have all bought into what we are trying to do.”
With the graduation of last year’s senior star Mimi Asom, who scored 12 of Princeton’s 24 goals in 2018 and was the Ivy Offensive Player of the Year, the Tigers will be looking to score by committee this fall.
“They want to be a team that is sharing the wealth. I don’t think they want be a team that is known for a single star,” said Driscoll.
“It should be many more people involved and that is something that we are leaning toward. Right now, it is a number of different people sharing the ball and getting goals from a multitude of sources. I would to prefer to have a number of multiple goal scorers with six or seven goals instead of one kid getting 12 or 14. We have a very, very unselfish team and we have a lot of skill. It is, from top to bottom, the most skilled team I have had.”
The Tigers boast a lot of skill up top in senior and All-Ivy performer Courtney O’Brien (two goals, three assists in 2018), sophomore Gabi Juarez (4 goals, 1 assist), senior Abby Givens (4 assists), sophomore Amy Paternoster (1 goal), junior Olivia Kane, junior Carolyne Davidson, and freshman Kamryn Loustau.
“Courtney has scored a number of goals in the preseason so far,” said Driscoll.
“Abby looks good. Gabi is coming off an injury, she will factor in there. We have another returner in Amy. Olivia has been out for a year and a half, she looks like she might be back in the mix. She is a really talented attacking player. Carolyne is coming off her ACL, she is another attacking player. Kami is an out-and-out striker; she is full footed and very hard working. She is easy to play to play with. She is a pure finisher, and we will figure out a way to get her involved.”
Princeton will mix and match in the midfield as Driscoll figures the best way to deploy the talent on hand.
“We are looking at a couple of options. We are playing a completely different formation in the spring than we did in the fall, trying to enhance some attributes of the players and see what works best,” added Driscoll.
“We have to find a way to really accentuate the strengths of the team, and I think certain formations bring out the strengths for some people another formations bring out the strengths in others.”
The Tigers boast some strong players in the midfield with senior Tomi Kennedy (2 goals, 4 assists), and other All-Ivy performer, along with senior co-captain Sophia Gulati (3 assists), sophomore and All-Ivy honoree Emma Davis, senior Emily Hilliard-Arce, sophomore Caroline Noonan (1 assist), freshman Grace Sherman, and freshman Marissa Hart.
“Tomi will feature, whether she is in the midfield or front,” said Driscoll.
“She is a very conscientious worker and a tremendously technical player. She will be involved. Sophia is a captain who plays midfield. Emma is there too and we have Emily Hilliard-back; she is very technical player who is playing with more vigor. Caroline Noonan will either be in the midfield or the back. Grace is another very attacking player and Marissa is a very hard working midfielder who can play either on the outside or inside.”
The defensive unit figures to be a strength for Princeton as returns a number of key performers.
“Our whole back line from last year is back and we also have some freshmen who have done well; the good news is that we have depth,” said Driscoll, whose team yielded only 12 goals last fall.
“I can honestly tell you right now, I could not give you a lineup, there is too much parity.”
The Tiger back line will include junior and two-time All-Ivy star Lucy Rickerson, junior and All-Ivy honoree Eve Hewins, senior Olivia Sheppard, junior Tatum Gee, junior Margaret Sneeringer, sophomore Aza Keohan, freshman Madison Curry, freshman Gracyn Kuerner, and freshman Morgan Wiese.
“Lucy looks great, Lucy is Lucy; she is a tremendous defender, she covers a lot of ground,” said Driscoll.
“She is extraordinarily competitive. We have Eve back. Sheppard played center back all season, she had fluctuated before depending on our needs. We have Tatum back. Margaret is working hard as well as Aza. Maddy is doing well, she is playing at left back and is very, very good. Gracyn and Morgan are working hard right now.”
Princeton features an extraordinary goalkeeper in senior and two-time All-Ivy performer Natalie Grossi (a 0.65 goals against average and an 848 save percentage in 2018) who enters the season with 25 career shutouts.
“Natalie brings seniority and is extraordinarily focused and conscientious about what she is doing to improve,” said Driscoll, noting that the backups, sophomore Grace Barbara, a former Princeton Day School standout, along with senior Kelli Calhoun and freshman Ella Gantman, have been showing good focus as well.
“She is never satisfied with her game which I think has really helped. She is very, very good. We are fortunate to have her and she is one of our captains. The players respect her commitment to the game and to excellence in the goal.”
Driscoll is hoping that Grossi and her classmates will set a winning tone this fall.
“The seniors have to take ownership of their last season. and leave a good legacy,” said Driscoll.
“If you have a talented senior class that is bought in and you have freshman class that pushes the rest, you have the recipe for success. That is what we had a couple of years ago and that is what we have again. We have a big senior class that gets along really well and a young freshman class that has the talent; we have those on the bookends of either side. We have talent in both the sophomore and junior classes as well. It makes for a positively competitive atmosphere and that is what it needs to be.”
In opening the regular season, the Tigers will be facing some tough competition with the matchups against St. Joe’s (1-0-1) and BC (2-0).
“We have a very big dichotomy in the first weekend; we are going to go from playing on the road in a turf environment against a team that has had good success,” said Driscoll, noting that St. Joe’s played to a 1-1 draw last week against a Villanova team that recently defeated LSU.
“We are going to see a team that is very dangerous on set pieces and they have a pretty prominent attacking player. We are going to have to be organized defensively and play to our strengths. BC comes down here and that will be a different game. They have a different style and we are playing on our grass field. It is going to be two very different games; one is going to be a little more chaotic and the other one is going to be more systematic. Ultimately, both are going to be difficult and challenging in different ways for us.”
No matter how Princeton ultimately does this fall, Driscoll wants his players to savor the challenges they will face on a daily basis.
“I am looking forward to seeing what they can do; I know we have an extraordinarily difficult schedule, but these are talented kids,” said Driscoll, noting that Princeton has been ranked in the Top 25 nationally at some point during each of this four previous seasons at the helm.
“We have kids who have had injuries like Olivia Kane, Carolyne Davidson, and Ilana Perkins coming back. It is very exciting to see them get back to the sport they love. At times, we get lost in the wins and the losses. Sports are a finite experience, especially with teams. I just hope that our senior class embraces it and all of the other kids can enjoy the ride. It is a unique, special senior class. One thing that people oftentimes forget is just how lucky you are to have certain individuals pop into your life and before you know it, they are gone. We all need to enjoy every practice and the overall process rather than just the end result.”