December 4, 2019

With Senior Star O’Connell Rising to Occasion, PU Women’s Volleyball Psyched for NCAA Run

MAG FORCE: Princeton University women’s volleyball player Maggie O’Connell, right, blasts the ball in recent action. Senior star O’Connell helped Princeton defeat Yale 3-1 (25-23, 21-25, 26-24, 25-15) on November 22 in a playoff match for the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Tigers, now 17-7 overall, will be playing at 11th-seeded Penn State (24-5) on December 6 in the opening round of the NCAA tourney. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications

By Justin Feil

One of the greatest players in Princeton University women’s volleyball history is winding down her career.

Maggie O’Connell is looking for a signature win to cap it when the Tigers, 17-7, play at 11th-seeded Penn State, 24-5, on December 6 in the first round of the NCAA Championships.

“That would be amazing,” said senior star O’Connell, a 6’4 native of Katy, Texas.

“Our first goal is always to win the Ivy League, but all four years, it’s been the goal to get past the first round of NCAAs. We have to play good clean Princeton volleyball and rise to the occasion. We have to have every single person on the team believe it and buy in. It would be a pretty big upset. We like to train with an underdog attitude. This provides us the opportunity to see how tough we can be.”

O’Connell has been a part of one of the most successful classes in Princeton volleyball history. This is the third NCAA appearance in four years for the Class of 2020 which also includes Jessie Harris, Devon Peterkin and Natasha Skov. Three of the four have started every year of their college careers.

“My class in general, we’ve always tried to be leaders,” said O’Connell.

“Senior year, it’s nice to have an influence on people and talk about our past experiences and how you have to fight every game. That’s been good. Something that is special on our team is everybody gets to have a voice. It’s not just the seniors. We rely on everyone to have energy and bring something. Jessie, Devon and Natasha, they’re the most natural leaders I’ve ever gotten to play with. We speak a lot in the huddles, but everybody’s voice is respected on the team whether you’re a senior or freshman, and that’s helped a lot.”

Having gone 10-2 in the Ivy League (two wins over Penn were declared non-conference wins when they forfeited their season) in their final campaign, the group helped the Tigers share their 18th Ivy title with Yale after splitting the two regular-season matchups against the Bulldogs. Princeton, though, earned the right to represent the Ivy League in the NCAA Championships with a 3-1 playoff win (25-23, 21-25, 26-24, 25-15) on November 22 at home before a raucous Dillon Gym crowd.

“It really meant a lot,” said O’Connell, who had nine kills and three blocks in the win over Yale in the playoff match.

“We battled through some sickness that hit the team that week. It’s nice to see us come together and still manage to play together like that. Getting to go to the NCAA tournament as a senior is exciting. We got to go twice before and now we’re excited that the grades below get to go for their first time now. It’s such a great group to get to go with. It was such a great atmosphere in the gym. We had a great turnout. It was a great game to play in our last time in Dillon.”

Sophomore Elena Montgomery had 19 kills and two blocks in the win, Skov had 16 kills and three blocks and junior Clare Lenihan had 13 kills and four blocks. Sophomore Cameron Dames, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, led Princeton with 23 digs as the Tigers earned their eighth trip to the NCAA tourney.

“We feel good,” said Princeton head coach Sabrina King. “We were able to handle pressure better this year. Going into the tournament, it’s not necessarily our goal to win the whole thing. It would be really nice to win the first round.”

Princeton has the veteran presence and star power to pull an NCAA upset with O’Connell having been a steady force for the Tigers during her career.

“She is just super clutch,” said King. “I think she makes impressive kills. It’s not just a point, it’s a statement. It’s very intimidating to play against her. She’s been super productive for us. We go to her a lot late in games. Her blocking has gotten better this year so she’s shut down some very good outside hitters on other teams. That’s a huge part as well of our success. She’s just a great person. She’s a hard worker. She always shows up. She’s been huge for us for the last four years.”

O’Connell’s significance has been recognized in the league. She was Ivy Rookie of the Year in 2016, then became the first Princeton underclassmen to be named Ivy Player of the Year in 2017. She and 2009 graduate Parker Henritze are the only Tiger players to ever win both accolades in a career, and O’Connell this year became a four-year first-team All-Ivy honoree.

“It was definitely an honor to receive some of the accolades,” said O’Connell.

“It’s tough with individual accolades in volleyball because it’s such a team sport. I’m lucky to have amazing setters and passers. I couldn’t have had success without them. I’m just glad I did as much as I could to make the team successful and help us do as well as we could. There are so many players that make that possible.”

Having such a talented group to play with has made the Tigers even tougher to beat. Harris and Lenihan were also named first-team All-Ivy. Dames, Peterkin and Skov were second-team All-Ivy selections this year. They came into the season with high expectations after coming up just short of another NCAA bid last season. They went through the ups and downs of the beginning half of this season before winning nine of their final 10 matches.

“I think our early tournaments weren’t great,” said King, the Ivy Coach of the Year for the third time in five seasons.

“We started off the Ivy season doing fine, but it just didn’t feel like we were flowing well. There were games where it just felt like we couldn’t put the nail in. We just weren’t dominating. That was a little concerning early on. Then we had that loss early on to Cornell at home. That was a good thing to have early on in the season just because it was a wake-up call that this is a tough season and we have a target on our back. We refocused after that. We got confidence with the Yale game at home. From there, we battled. The game at Cornell, we lost the first two sets and then won the next three. The fifth set we were down, 11-6. We showed we could grit out some stuff which was nice because we felt like last year we dominated everybody but then when the going got tough we couldn’t overcome it.”

O’Connell believes that the 3-0 win over Yale on October 13 in the regular season was the turning point in the year. It showed that the Tigers had some resolve to get an Ivy crown and the NCAA bid. Over O’Connell’s career, she’s seen Princeton’s ability to rally. Just two years ago, the Tigers recovered from a 17-7 first-set hole to come back to beat Yale in the 2017 Ivy playoff.

“We’ve had many a time this season and in previous seasons where we had to come back,” said O’Connell.

“It was nice this time around after we got off to kind of a slow start and then were able to pick it up and come back. It was nice as seniors to provide some leadership and lean on the young kids for the energy. The underclassmen really wanted us to get to the NCAA tournament in our last year and we wanted them to get to their first. It was playing for each other. That’s been our key all along.”

Having a boisterous crowd on hand for their final appearance at Dillon Gym didn’t hurt. It gave the Tigers energy to bounce back after losing the first set and made for a memorable finish at home, one that they are hoping to build on in the NCAAs.

“I think it’d be a really, really nice farewell for the seniors to do really well in the first-round game,” said King.

“Whether or not we win that match or not, hopefully they’re feeling good about themselves and how we leave their final match. I think a lot of that was accomplished with that playoff game against Yale. We were disappointed we didn’t finish off the season at Yale and we felt like we should have won that (regular-season) game. It left a bitter taste in our mouth that we had to share the title with Yale. But coming home on our court and having an amazing crowd and beating Yale the way we did, it felt like a really awesome finale to the last game they were going to play in Dillon. That was an awesome moment for them. What would even make it better would be finishing with a really great end to the season. I wouldn’t say it’s the most important thing, but this group is ultra-competitive and they don’t just play games to play games.”

In the last four years, Princeton has posted 73 wins. Adding a 74th victory would top off quite a run for one of the greatest players and classes in program history.

“It’s really just surpassed anything I could have imagined,” said O’Connell.

“I chose to come to Princeton because I’m in chemical engineering and it provides a good opportunity to balance engineering and volleyball. The games are fun. The people I’ve gotten to meet and the people supporting us, and the friendships I’ve made, it’s incredible. We’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of success in our time. Even if the wins and losses had gone the other way, I still would have felt it’s a special place.”