Defeating UConn in NCAAs for 12th Win a Row PU Field Hockey Returns to Final 4, Will Face UVa
RETURN ENGAGEMENT: Princeton University field hockey player MaryKate Neff tracks down the ball in a game earlier this fall. Last Sunday, junior star Neff scored a goal to help No. 9 Princeton defeat No. 2 UConn 2-0 in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Tigers, now 15-4 and riding a 12-game winning streak, will play No. 3 Virginia (18-4) in the NCAA semis on November 22 at Winston-Salem, N.C., with the victor advancing to the national championship game on November 24. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
In late September, the Princeton University field hockey team suffered a tough loss when it fell 2-1 in overtime to UConn.
But after winning 11 of its next 12 games, including a 5-1 thrashing of Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament last Friday, ninth-ranked Princeton earned a rematch with the powerhouse Huskies last Sunday on their home field in Storrs, Conn. in the national quarterfinals.
Displaying how far it has come since that disappointing September afternoon, Princeton turned the tables on No. 2 UConn, pulling away to a 2-0 win as the program earned its second straight trip to the NCAA Final Four and third in the last four years.
Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente was thrilled by her team’s performance in Connecticut as it ended the weekend at 15-4 and riding a 12-game winning streak. The Tigers will now play No. 3 Virginia (18-4) in the NCAA semis on November 22 at Winston-Salem, N.C., with the victor advancing to the national championship game on November 24.
“The score result was much bigger against Syracuse but UConn is much more formidable opponent, both games were the best games we have played all season,” said Tagliente, who is her fourth season guiding the program which has made nine trips to the semis overall and won the national title in 2012.
“I was really, really impressed with the game on Sunday. We did one of the presses we had done against them the first time in the first quarter and it was horrible. We had to change in the first five minutes because they were running at us repeatedly. We really settled in after that.”
After settling in, the Tigers kept possession in its offensive zone for much of the game.
“They defend with a lot of numbers, which is kind of similar to Rutgers, Delaware and St. Joe’s, teams that we had struggled scoring on,” said Tagliente.
“It is something we have actually trained quite a bit on later in the season. We play with MK [MaryKate Neff] and JT [Julianna Tornetta] in the middle and we were finally really comfortable with giving them the ball. It is just us getting comfortable with things we didn’t do the first time.”
Princeton gained a comfort level as it got goals at crucial times with Neff tallying midway through the second quarter to out the Tigers up at half and Hannah Davey scoring early in the fourth to blunt a Husky comeback.
“It was so important, I felt like UConn’s energy level changed quite a bit after that, not in terms of panic but with a letdown in a way,” said Tagliente of Neff’s goal.
“The insurance goal was huge because things are still tense to that point. We were really knocking on the door, knocking on the door but we couldn’t get anything. We had an entry to Clara Roth in front of the goalie and she just missed and Ali McCarthy just missed one so we were there. It was really important that we got that insurance goal.”
For Tagliente, advancing to the Final Four once again is a huge step for the Tigers.
“To go back to a third one in four years, speaks volumes of where the program has come,” said Tagliente.
“You get to one and it is great job, you get to three in four years and you look at the culture of the program and the foundation is pretty strong right now with that consistency. I am really proud of where we are at.”
Producing late season surges has become a trademark for the program.
“I think we have done that for years (get better as the season goes on); that is the most important thing,” said Tagliente.
“We play a tough schedule. We may not get all the games in the beginning and we didn’t this year, but it is where you are at the end rather than in the beginning.”
The Tigers know they will facing a tough foe in UVa. “From what I have seen, they have a lot of tight games; they win a lot of games by one goal,” said Tagliente.
“They are good on penalty corners. They are athletic like we are and play an open game. They have leadership in the back with Rachel Robinson. She is a difference maker for them, she seems to be the one that really brings things together. They have different offensive threats and I don’t think there is any one person you can hone in on.”
Having been eliminated in the semis in its last two trips the the Final 4, Princeton is hoping to put things together this weekend.
“The perspective going into the third one is vastly different than the first one,” said Tagliente.
“In the first one (a 3-2 defeat to eventual national champion Delaware in 2016), it was like a whirlwind; everything was going fast forward. We were overdoing it and looking at too many things and trying to be so perfect. Last year, we got a lot right (in a 1-0 loss to Maryland). I thought we played a better game than Maryland. We dominated them, we just didn’t score goals and that happens sometimes. We have the right mentality this year. We have a level of calmness; we have a bit more quiet confidence this time.”
Bringing a 12-game winning streak into the semis is a definite confidence builder.
“We are firing on all cylinders right now,” said Tagliente. “The big question mark for me with our group was our back three and our goalkeeping was a bit inconsistent. I have never seen them play better than they played last weekend.”
If the Tigers keep playing like in Winston-Salem, they could be experience a weekend for the ages.