Coming Off Another Trip to NCAA Final 4, PU Field Hockey Hungry for National Crown
STRIKING PRESENCE: Princeton University field hockey player Clara Roth, right, goes after the ball in 2018 game. Junior striker Roth figures to be a go-to finisher for the Tigers after leading the team with 13 goals last fall. Princeton, ranked fifth nationally, starts its 2019 season by playing at No. 1 North Carolina on September 6 and No. 10 Wake Forest on September 8. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
While the Princeton University field hockey program views itself as a national title contender, having made two of the last three NCAA Final 4s, visions of a crown are on hold as the squad rushes to prepare to open regular season play this weekend.
“It has been in the conversation since we stepped off the field last year in November through the spring until now,” said Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente, who guided the team to 15-5 record in 2018 and a trip to the NCAA semis where the Tigers fell 1-0 to Maryland.
“It is definitely in everyone’s mind but it is not something that we articulate and talk about this preseason. The focus is getting prepared and getting everyone on board. That is the pie in the sky goal at this point. Right now it is just one day at a time. It is always a challenge because we are more than a week behind all of the non-Ivy League schools so we have got to hit the ground running and catch up.”
Princeton should be able to pile up the goals with a forward line that includes junior Clara Roth (13 goals and 8 assists in 2018), sophomore Ali McCarthy (7 goals), senior Taylor Nolan (1 goal), freshman Ophelie Bemelmans, senior Krista Hoffman, and sophomore Zoe Shepard.
“Clara and Ali both did a really nice job in the spring, they have done a nice job so far in this preseason,” said Tagliente.
“I think they will be our two most experienced and impactful players returning on the front line. Taylor may come off the bench, she may start some. She is impressive and keeps it simple; she is not as flashy as the others but I expect to see her have an impact in the front line this year. Ophelie is tall, skinny, lightning quick with a high work rate; I think she will eventually start and be impactful up there. Krista and Zoe will both get time up front and they will double in the midfield too.”
The Tigers feature a number of impact players in the midfield with sophomore Hannah Davey (3 goals, 10 assists), junior Julianna Tornetta (10 goals, 7 assists), junior MaryKate Neff (6 goals, 3 assists), and highly-touted freshman Sammy Popper along with Hoffman and Shepard.
“We are very, very strong through the midfield; we have better depth than we have ever had there since I have been here,” asserted Tagliente, who is entering her fourth season at the helm of the program that won the NCAA title in 2012.
“We have Hannah and Julianna returning. We have got Mary Kate, who will slot into the defensive midfield position. Sammy can play any of the four spots. For as good a goal scorer as she is, she might be eventually one of the better defensive midfielders that we have in that group.”
While Princeton will miss senior star defender Maddie Bacskai, who is sidelined this fall due to injury, the Tigers still have a solid back line group, featuring sophomore Gabby Andretta, freshman Autumn Brown, senior Carlotta von Gierke (2 assists), and junior Marge Lynch.
“Gabby played in that position this spring, she was very good,” said Tagliente.
“She is very different from Maddie; we are going to miss Maddie a lot. Autumn has been injured a little bit here in the preseason but we are hoping that she is ready for opening weekend and then Carlotta and Marge will be the third and fourth backs.”
It is reassuring for Princeton to have star senior goalie Grace Baylis back as she is coming off a superb 2018 campaign that saw her post a 1.21 goals against average with a .547 save percentage.
“Baylis is irreplaceable in terms of leadership,” said Tagliente, noting that junior back-up goalie Grace Brightbill has been looking good in preseason.
“Next year, I think that will be the biggest spot to fill in terms of the leadership.”
With Princeton, ranked fifth nationally, starting its 2019 season by playing at No. 1 North Carolina on September 6 and No. 10 Wake Forest on September 8, Tagliente is looking forward to seeing how her team handles those big tests.
“It is a great challenge, both games are contests with great opponents; it is a good measuring stick to see where we are,” said Tagliente.
“Last year we split the weekend and got a lot of confidence out of that. We had a very good game with UNC [a 1-0 loss] that could have gone either way. The hope is that we are in it and competitive in both games. At the end of it, we will see where we stand. We are still going to have a lot of work to do either way. It is only week one.”