February 12, 2020

Having Dominated Ivy League in Recent Years, PU Women’s Lax Looking for Deep NCAA Run

READY TO ATTACK: Princeton University women’s lacrosse player Tess D’Orsi heads to goal in a 2019 game. Senior tri-captain and star attacker D’Orsi, who had 80 points on 64 goals and 16 assists last year, is primed for a big final campaign. Princeton opens its 2020 season by playing at Temple (1-0) on February 15. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

The Princeton University women’s lacrosse team has developed into a dynasty despite playing in an increasingly competitive Ivy League.

The Tigers will be starting their drive for a seventh straight Ivy regular-season title and third straight Ivy League Tournament title (sixth in 11 years) when they open the season at Temple (1-0) on February 15.

“We’ve been having great practices this whole week,” said Princeton head coach Chris Sailer. “It’s really clear the kids worked hard in the offseason, particularly in December and January. They came back fit and sharp with their skill work. Things are starting to take shape and come together for us.”

Princeton has a number of big question marks after winning their sixth straight Ivy crown and the Ivy tournament before falling to eventual national finalist Boston College in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. The Tigers graduated two of their starting attackers, all of their starting midfielders and pair of top defenders from a team that finished 16-4 overall and 6-1 in Ivy play, but the core of four All-Ivy selections from a year ago Marge Donovan, Sam Fish, Tess D’Orsi and Kyla Sears leads a reloaded group.

“There will be a lot of new faces and a lot of new names in the lineup, a lot of new kids stepping up into new roles,” said Sailer, who begins her 34th year at the helm of the Tigers. 

“At the end of the fall, I wasn’t sure how the offense would develop but we look very dynamic and balanced. I think we have a lot of kids who will be able to put the ball in the net and make plays together. It’s not just going to be Kyla- and Tess-focused. We have a lot of kids who are stepping up and really playing well so much so that the starting lineup isn’t going to be easy to pick and we’ll have some good depth.”

D’Orsi and Sears lead an attack that should still be among the best in the country. Sears, a junior, is a three-year starter who showed tremendous balance with 55 goals and 40 assists last year. D’Orsi, a senior tri-captain, had 80 points on 64 goals and 16 assists last season. They are the unquestioned leaders on offense with their experience and ability.

“They’re just fantastic in their ability to play-make both as feeders and as drivers,” said Sailer. 

“Their game is at such a high level that that helps bring along everybody else around them. It’s like, Tess is doing this move or Kyla can shoot this shot so I want to try this shot, or Tess has this great fake around goal and so now you have more kids working on that great fake around goal. If you’re a player, you have two kids right there who you can model yourself after who are raising the bar every day and you can see how your own skill set can continue to grow and develop. They’ve seen it all from zones to faceguards, the different kinds of defenses, and they can both help with organizing and making sure that we’re taking smart shots and working our offenses through.”

Elizabeth George, the 2019 Ivy League Attacker of the Year who had 87 points a year ago, and Julia Haney, who had 36 points, graduated and will be replaced as starters by senior tri-captain Katie Reilly and freshman Grace Tauckus, who will open the year ahead of capable attackers in Kate Mulham, Lauren Pansini and Tara Shecter.

“Katie Reilly is really bringing so much great energy to the team and a really nice dynamic presence as a crease attacker for us,” said Sailer. “Grace Tauckus, a freshman from Long Island, is becoming an awesome power dodger.”

The midfield will have a new look as senior tri-captain Annie Cory returns after missing all of last year due to injury to lead a unit that will be young.

“She probably brings about a year and a half of real playing experience, and she’s the most experienced kid in that bunch,” said Sailer of Cory. 

“We have some sophomores who have a year under their belt. We have a freshman who is brand new but doing awesome, Kari Buonanno. That’s going to be a young unit but a talented unit for us. We’re excited about them.”

Princeton does boast depth in the midfield. Cory and Buonanno likely will be joined by Shannon Berry, and Lucie Gildehaus, Maria Pansini, and Shea Smith all figure to play and help. They augment a dynamic attack.

“Our middies are capable scorers,” said Sailer. “Annie is a great inside threat and can shoot the outside shot. Lucie is a dodger and a shooter and Kari is an incredible cutter and dodger. She has a complete game. Maria is improving as an attacking threat as well. I think we have a good number of kids who can put the ball in the cage and set each other up. We seem to be working really unselfishly and making good decisions as a unit. We’ve come a long way from the fall in terms of that.”

D’Orsi and Sears will garner plenty of defensive attention, but Princeton can still be effective because of the development of their supporting cast.

“Your offense won’t be great if you just revolve it around two kids,” said Sailer. “It’s nice to see other kids come along. Clearly we expect them both to have phenomenal years. I think they’re both two of the best attackers in the country. They’re so quick and great sticks and great poise and toughness. Having other kids around them who can set them up and be set up by them and who can take some of that load will take a little pressure off them too. They are phenomenal. They’re certainly key to our offense. They will be highly marked kids all year long.”

A solid defensive group gives the Tigers more confidence. Donovan, Mary Murphy, Olivia Pugh and Maddie Staczek all made starts for Princeton. Fish, an All-Ivy goalie, also returns after saving 48 percent of all shots. They must make up for the graduation of Nonie Andersen and Alex Argo.

“Defensively, we’ve lost Noni and Argo, which is a lot of speed and a lot of grit, but we have four returners that have a lot of playing together,” said Sailer. 

“So we’re anticipating that’s going to be a solid unit. We’ve got Sam back in the goal cage, which is a good thing for Princeton lacrosse.”

Princeton’s main area for concern is the draw control. The Tigers don’t want to rely too heavily on their defense to get the ball back, but their entire draw control unit led by George is gone. 

“We’re going to be having new kids at the draw circle, on the circle, new kids taking the draw,” said Sailer. 

“Right now, it could be a little draw-by-committee. We’ve been working a number of different kids in. Georgie took primarily all of our draws. Sometimes we would put Lillian Stout in and we’ve lost her due to injury. We’ll see how that unit develops, but I think we have some kids that hunt the ball and some kids with quick hands. That will be a bit of work in progress for us as we identify who our top draw takers are going to be and probably switching that throughout the year depending on who we’re going against and what their strengths are.”

Replacing their draw controls will be a bigger challenge than replacing the goals lost to graduation as the Tiger attack has more proven players back.

“I don’t think we’re going to be a pushover on the draw,” said Sailer. 

“We’re going to get after it. We’re continuing to work on technique. We do have scrappy kids as well. We just have a lot of kids in the mix. We’ve been trying different kids out and different kids are better at different things. We have some options for who we can use when we need some different draws.”

Princeton can rely on its veteran leaders to keep the team pointed in the right direction. The Tigers’ trio of captains has given them great leadership in the intangibles.

“They have made it from Day One their mission to have a high energy, inclusive, fun environment at practice,” said Sailer.

“They’ve been incredibly supportive and welcoming — things we’re known for all the time — but more so there’s just a great feeling on the team from player No. 1 to player No. 30. That carries you a long way. As a coach, it’s awesome seeing the improvement in all the players on our team, not just the kids who might be in starting roles or getting more playing time. Across the board, we are performing in practice at a higher level than we did last year at this point in time. Hopefully that’ll translate well when it comes time to play other people.”

The 2020 season will start at Temple, a team that the Tigers beat, 16-7, last year. Sailer expects some first-game jitters, especially with some new starters in the lineup, but wants to see her team set the tone for the season early.

“Just to come out and play with confidence, and not sit back and see how the game goes,” said Sailer. 

“It’s our mentality that we go out from the first draw and take control of the game. We try to build momentum and we’re resilient through the inevitable miscues in the course of the game. We want to play that high energy, team oriented game and work to exert our will over another team. The best teams don’t need big plays to give them energy. Their energy enables them to have big plays. I know we’re going to be so excited to get the season under way.”

Princeton will make its home debut on February 22 against a highly regarded Virginia team. The Tigers play six teams in the Top-20 while also navigating through the Ivy schedule that has plenty of power.

“Penn returns virtually their whole offense and midfield, maybe they have a couple defensive grads,” said Sailer, whose team starts Ivy play with a game at Columbia on February 29.

“They’ll be really, really tough. Dartmouth, like us, lost a few, but they still have a lot of good young kids. Harvard gave us a game and they have a lot of kids returning. Brown beat us, even though they didn’t do well overall in the Ivies. Cornell is good. There’s not a team you can take for granted. It’s definitely a one game at a time mentality. We’ll have to show up ready to give our best every day and compete hard if we want a chance to win the regular season.”

For the last six straight years, Princeton has managed to find a way to overcome all in the Ivy regular season. Their regular-season success has set up dominant Ivy tournament appearances and put them in position to advance deep in NCAA tournaments. The goals remain the same even with a different look this year.

“The energy is really good; they’re excited every day to come out there,” said Sailer.

“They’re really focused and coachable and really focused on implementing what you’re putting in. Obviously it means execution is high. There’s good communication. Offensively, there’s great ball movement and kids are looking for each other. They’re coming in knowing the plays and the sets that we’re running. Defensively, they’re able to execute what we’re asking them as well.”