Hosting Defending National Champ UNC in Opener, Youthful PU Field Hockey Will Need to Grow Quickly
BACK IN THE SWING: Princeton University field hockey player Hannah Davey gets ready for a big hit in a 2019 contest. Senior Davey and the 13th-ranked Tigers open their 2021 campaign by hosting three-time defending national champion North Carolina on September 3. It will mark Princeton’s first game since losing to the Tar Heels in the NCAA title game on November 24, 2019. Two days later, Princeton will host fifth-ranked Louisville (2-0) to wrap up a busy opening weekend. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
When the Princeton University field hockey team last played North Carolina, it was for the 2019 national championship.
It’s also the last time that the Tigers played a game because the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Princeton will return to action for the first time since that November 24, 2019 matchup with some familiar faces when it hosts the three-time defending national champion Tar Heels on September 3 on Bedford Field, but also a ton of inexperience on the field.
“Our potential is high,” said Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente, whose team went 16-5 overall and 7-0 Ivy League in 2019 on the way to the program’s fourth appearance in the national championship game.
“The goal is to continue to move the needle and improve throughout the year. We are very, very young. We have a large junior class and a lot of them reclassified, but they also have only played two seasons. They didn’t play last year. We have a lot of room to grow. We just don’t have much time in preseason to figure it out and iron out the kinks. We have to do that as we go.”
Gabby Andretta, Hannah Davey, Ali McCarthy, and Sammy Popper all started in that 2019 title contest that North Carolina won, 6-1. Ophelie Bemelmans, Claire Donovan, and Zoe Shephard also played in it. Now they’re at the top of the ladder as juniors on a team without a single senior and they bring a veteran presence to the two classes below them that have yet to play a college game.
“The leadership and experience of having been there and done it before, having been through preseason and been through a full season and been in the grind a bit,” said Tagliente.
“Their experience and wisdom of how to handle situations and how to prepare. They’re great role models. They’re mentors to the younger players. It is very helpful that we have such a large group with the amount of experience we have.”
Davey, McCarthy, and Popper will serve as team captains this year. Popper, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2019, was selected to the United States Junior Pan American Championship team, but elected not to play last week and reported to Princeton’s preseason training. Added to the experienced junior group is a highly touted sophomore group of six that did not get to play last year and another solid group of six freshmen who are looking for their first playing time as well.
“I think there will be a number starting in each class and a number rotating in off the bench,” said Tagliente, whose team is starting the season ranked 13th nationally.
“We don’t have a very big team comparable to past years. We only have 19 field players, which isn’t that much in the bigger scheme of things once you get a couple injuries. We’ll go pretty deep into the bench and those first two classes, they’ve played a lot of minutes in the two scrimmages we’ve had and are going to have to step up early.”
Tagliente saw significant improvements from Princeton’s first scrimmage with St. Joseph’s to its second scrimmage against Penn on Saturday, even as her team battled through early injury woes in its first eight days of practicing.
“We’ve had two scrimmages in that amount of time which is a lot; it’s been a big load,” said Tagliente.
“The St. Joe’s scrimmage, they’re a very good team and that was helpful to open with them to get a litmus test of where we’re at. They had seven or eight more days of training under their belts than we did. It was humbling for sure. It was a good contest. We just finished with Penn. We got to build on St. Joe’s a little bit and we ironed out some stuff. Normally we don’t have two scrimmages because the Ivy League only allows us one, but they gave us the opportunity to have two this year which has been very helpful because you don’t get that chance to have a second one and fine tune anything before you open your first game normally. This was helpful.”
Injuries have forced Princeton to juggle its lineup. It’s also given more players a chance to prove themselves in different spots. The Tigers are looking to solidify their lineup through the first weeks of the season as their injured return to play.
“It’s always good to see what we’ve got and where we’re at,” said Tagliente.
“We’ve sustained a number of injuries in this first week so we’re really learning about who’s versatile and who we can shift around, which you’re going to have to do. It’s better to have to do it now and figure out where people can play now than have to do it later on in the season for Harvard or a bigger game. We’re kind of in a scramble mode of reshuffling players and figuring out who can play where.”
In addition to the aforementioned juniors, Princeton is looking to sort through its younger players to find who can fill spots. The sophomore class includes goalie Robyn Thompson and field players Liz Agatucci, Sam Davidson, Gracie McGowan, Bridget Murphy, and Grace Schulze. The freshman class consists of Clare Brennan, Aimee Jungfer, Phine van Zijl, Lily Webb, Peggy Winterborn, and Beth Yeager.
“We look strong,” said Tagliente. “We have a lot of depth up front. We look strong in our midfield. We do have a little bit of experience in our midfield with our side middies. We’re a little bit inexperienced in the back, but I think we’ll be OK. We have a lot of speed and a lot of athleticism. It’s just going to be honing that in and trying not to play so fast all the time that we put ourselves in a position where we just can’t maintain possession and we get into a chasing match and end up countered on defense. We just need to value the ball a little more. We’re very eager to go forward, go forward, go forward, which is good, but you have to temper that a little bit with some possession.”
Princeton took some significant steps in one week. It’s the sort of progress that the Tigers will need to continue to carry through the year. With such a young team, they have a lot of room to progress. Their growth between St. Joe’s and Penn was encouraging.
“It was a big difference,” said Tagliente. “We were able to see a lot of improvement and growth in confidence. We scrimmaged three or four days in, which is too soon, but we don’t have much of a choice the way the Ivy League has it. We can’t scrimmage a non-Ivy opponent this weekend – everyone opened with games. So our only option is to schedule three or four days in. We’re never quite ready, it’s always a bit of a humbling experience, but we figure out where we’re at, look at a lot of film and make adjustments and get feedback from team, which was helpful. They felt like things were slightly off in different situations and we’re able to make adjustments to that.”
Princeton hopes to see more growth when they take on a North Carolina team that lost its season opener, 3-2, to No. 2 Michigan last Friday in a rematch of last spring’s national championship game and then fell 3-1 to third-ranked Iowa two days later. Notwithstanding the Tar Heels’ 0-2 start, the Tigers expect a stiff challenge from the visitors, who started the fall ranked No. 1.
“We just have to have the mentality to step in and compete and go toe-to-toe with them,” said Tagliente.
“Obviously, we talk a lot about this process and the journey through the season. This first game is important and we’re very excited and eager to get going, but where we are in this opening weekend is not going to be an indication of where we’re going to finish. Whether we’re on the high of winning or the low of losing, the mentality is to stay in the moment and stay in the process and we just need to continue to grow.”
Princeton won’t have much time to reflect either way. The Tigers host 5th-ranked Louisville (2-0), another top five team, on September 5. They host their third straight game against a top-15 team when 12th-ranked Duke visits on September 11.
“There’s just not really enough time to fixate on one opponent and get too high or get too low,” said Tagliente.
“North Carolina is a great opponent. We will strategize and game plan for them and put it out there. We need to stay in the moment, put our best foot forward and compete and from there just grow into the next game. The season is quick, and our lineup of teams we play is tough.”
The Tigers were selected to win the Ivy League in the preseason poll. There are plenty of challengers as they look to take the title and make some noise when the NCAA tournament begins. In addition to the first three ACC teams, Princeton also plays at Delaware (on September 17) and at Maryland (on September 21) before opening Ivy play at Penn on September 24. Rutgers, UConn and Penn State are scattered between Ivy games.
“Some of these teams have super teams really,” said Tagliente.
“They have a whole class of seniors that got to take an extra year. They have fifth-year seniors that got a free year and they got the bonus of an additional freshman class coming in and they’ve had more time together. We’re running uphill right now trying to catch up, but we’ll get there.”