November 27, 2019

PU Field Hockey Loses to UNC in NCAA Final As Late Surge Falls Short of National Crown

FINAL HIT: Princeton University field hockey player Hannah Davey gets ready for a big hit in a game this season. Sophomore Davey had an assist to help Princeton defeat Virginia 2-1 in the NCAA semis on Friday. Two days later, Davey and the Tigers fell 6-1 in the NCAA final to undefeated and defending national champion North Carolina. Davey was later named to the NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team along with teammates Julianna Tornetta and Emma Street. The Tigers ended the fall with a 16-5 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Something had to give when the Princeton University field hockey team faced North Carolina in the NCAA championship game last Sunday afternoon in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Ninth-ranked Princeton brought a 13-game winning streak into the contest while defending national champs UNC had posted 45 straight victories.

Continuing their sizzling play, the Tigers jumped out to a 1-0 lead over the Tar Heels 2:13 into the game.

“I thought we had a great game plan for them; we started off great, it doesn’t get much better to go up 1-0 a couple of minutes into the game,” said Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente, whose team started regular season play by falling 4-3 to UNC in early September. “I thought defensively we had a good plan to contain Erin Matson.”

But when Princeton midfielder Julianna Tornetta had to leave the game due to injury, the tide turned in favor of the Tar Heels as they scored two unanswered goals to take a 2-1 halftime lead and never looked back, pulling away to a 6-1 triumph with a pair of goals in the third and fourth quarter.

“I still thought we were OK to halftime but things opened up quite a bit in the middle when we lost her in the game,” said Tagliente, whose squad ended the season at 16-5.

“In the first half I felt like we closed a lot of lanes with Matson. In the second half, they had their way with us in the midfield. We couldn’t come back from that.”

In order to earn the spot in the final, Princeton had to overcome a 1-0 deficit to defeat Virginia 2-1 in the semis.

“We didn’t have a great start to that game, we had to make some adjustments in that first quarter,” said Tagliente, who has guided the Tigers to three Final Fours in her four years at the helm of the program.

“Hannah [Davey] connected with Ali [McCarthy] on that equalizing goal; that was fantastic.”

Sophomore striker McCarthy helped set up the winning goal as she hustled to get the ball to junior star Tornetta, who banged it home with 4:50 left in the third quarter.

“Ali made a great play on the ball that Julianna scored,” recalled Tagliente.

“It was going out of bounds and she knocked it back up to the stroke mark and Julianna got the game winner there.”

From there, the Tigers were able to hold off the Cavaliers. “I think defensively we did a nice job in the back and through the midfield,” said Tagliente.

“It took us a little bit of time to organize our front line pressure. Once we got connected collectively, I think we did a great job.”

It was a great moment for the Tiger players as the program advanced to its first NCAA final since winning the 2012 national title.

“It was very emotional, the seniors had been twice and got knocked out in the semis,” said Tagliente.

“I think overall it was very exciting and very emotional. If you look at the pictures of the celebration, I think they say it all.”

Looking back on the team’s late surge, Tagliente pointed to the team’s 5-4 overtime win at Duke on October 6 which saw the Tigers overcome a 4-1 deficit at a critical moment in the campaign.

“We had high expectations in the beginning; we fell short in a couple of games and then had some big wins,” said Tagliente.

“That Duke game was a big turning point and we went on a long winning streak. It really was a process. People kind of wrote us off with that first stretch of games with the UConn, Maryland and UNC losses.”

Tagliente, though, never lost faith in her players. “I think we are quite a good team, it took us some time to get on track and find a way,” said Tagliente.

“This team peaked at the right time. People may say we exceeded expectations. I think we finished right where I thought we would. I was really pleased.  A lot of times you have teams that underachieve and don’t quite get there.”

The keys to success for the squad came down to intangibles according to Tagliente.

“Their competitiveness, their resilience and their, never give up attitude,” said Tagliente, when asked what qualities made the 2019 team special.

“They just weren’t satisfied with those close games with Maryland and UConn early on, they wanted better. You sensed that they were going to keep at it with the competitiveness and the internal leadership. It was driving the team forward to where we ended.”

Princeton’s quartet of seniors, goalie Grace Baylis, defender Carlotta von Gierke, striker Taylor Nolan and midfielder Krista Hoffman, provided leadership and a positive tone.

“I am going to miss them a lot, they all had varying roles; Grace and Lottie started almost every game and then you had Krista and Taylor coming off the bench,” said Tagliente.

“They had pivotal roles in the minutes they played. They are such a nice group of kids, they are a pleasure to have around. They were really loved within the team and really respected. They were great teammates and really selfless players.”

With Princeton welcoming back six All-Ivy League performers in junior Clara Roth, freshman Sammy Popper, and junior MaryKate Neff along with Tornetta, McCarthy, and Davey, the Tigers are poised for another great run.

“We are pretty happy with what we have got returning; we only lose two starters and we have a group coming in that is really, really talented,” said Tagliente.

“The future looks good. We get Maddie Bacskai back (from injury), she is a first-team All-American. Those were big shoes to fill at center back. The core group coming back is going to train hard over the offseason. I expect them to come back in the fall even better than where they were this year.”