PU Women’s Soccer Falls in OT to TCU in NCAAs But Defeat Can’t Diminish Memorable Campaign
NEAR MISS: Princeton University women’s soccer player Aria Nagai dribbles the ball upfield in a 2-0 win over Vermont in the first round of the NCAA tournament on November 12. Last Friday, sophomore midfielder Nagai picked up an assist in a losing cause as Princeton fell 3-2 to TCU in overtime in the second round of the NCAA tourney. The defeat left the Tigers with a final record of 15-3-1. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Rutgers University played host to two major landmark moments in the Princeton University women’s soccer season in 2021. Both visits showed just how good the Tigers were this year.
Back on September 5 in just the fifth game of the season, the Tigers rallied for a 4-3 overtime win over a Rutgers team then ranked ninth in the country. On the heels of a 1-1 tie with then-No. 8 ranked Georgetown, it set expectations high for the remainder of the year.
Princeton did not disappoint over the course of a memorable season that ended at 15-3-1 overall after a 3-2 double overtime loss to fourth-seeded Texas Christian University (TCU) on Friday at Rutgers. The Tigers were less than two minutes away from extending a season that had included a second-place finish in the Ivy League, a home NCAA tournament game that they won, and the third-most wins in a season in program history on the heels of a full year away from competition.
“I absolutely adore the group, I love the group,” said Princeton head coach Sean Driscoll.
“That’s what makes losing so difficult because I wanted to keep the season going. As I said to them Thursday in training, I want to keep it going because I don’t like the idea of not having a tomorrow with you guys, that’s all it comes down to.”
Princeton came out strong against TCU, which won their first-round game, 8-0, in a show of power against Prairie View A&M. The Tigers built a 7-4 shot advantage in the first half, and led 1-0 at halftime on a goal in the 36th minute by Lily Bryant after a takeaway and assist from Aria Nagai.
“It was almost a picture-perfect first half,” said Driscoll.
“We outshot them 7-4 and forced their keeper to make three good saves in the first half. I thought the kids did a good job of understanding the game plan and how to go about it and executing it. I was really happy with that.”
Princeton kept TCU in front of them, and worked tirelessly in the midfield. The resulting Horned Frog turnovers gave the Tigers more opportunities to attack, and they had the better of the scoring chances overall in the first 45 minutes.
“I felt we did a really good job of negating some of their strengths,” said Driscoll.
“And one of their strengths is penetrating passes in the midfield. They create all sorts of challenges with their movement of their front three as well as their middle three is really good. The other thing they really do well is they set play and use their two center backs to quarterback their team and set their offense.”
Using a smaller rotation to stick with TCU’s athleticism, the Tigers began to fatigue over the second half. Princeton held TCU’s attack at bay until there were just 20 minutes left in regulation. The first of three goals by Horned Frog star Messiah Bright broke a scoreless stretch by the Tigers defense that had spanned their previous six games, including their 2-0 win over Vermont in their NCAA opener. Princeton came right back with a goal from Jen Estes assisted by Gabi Juarez and Caroline Noonan.
“We concede the game-tying goal and two minutes later, we take the lead again, and then you’re fighting again for it,” said Driscoll.
“The game could have switched at that moment when it was tied, 1-1, and it didn’t. We took the lead again and that’s when I thought we were going to figure it out and find a way to get it across the line.”
Bright’s second goal of the game was a heartbreaker. There were less than two minutes left in regulation when TCU tied it and sent the game into overtime.
“You know normally when that happens and you concede, the odds are typically in favor of the team that scored last because momentum swings in their favor,” said Driscoll.
“You could visibly see the wind go out of our sails a little bit, but the one thing about this team and we got back together before overtime started, and you could hear the spirit of the group, you could hear that we weren’t done and they gave what they have.”
The Tigers gave everything that they had. Princeton was not at full strength after tri-captain and center midfielder Emma Davis began to cramp 80 minutes into the game. Exemplifying the squad’s resolve, she went back into the game twice, but could not continue.
“What more could you ask for than that?” asked Driscoll.
“She’s literally the embodiment of giving absolutely everything you have. It was depicted by her in that moment when she came off the field. I gave her the biggest hug and said, thank you and I’m so proud of you.”
The Tigers were down one of their top players and did not have the momentum after the late goal, but they still had a chance to advance if they could get one goal in overtime.
“One of the things I’ve learned about Princeton student-athletes in general, and this particular team, is you should never count them out because they have a resolve in them,” said Driscoll.
“These kids are always testing, whether it’s on the field or in the classroom or on the basketball court or on the tennis courts or in the pool. You name it, kids are always tested at such a significant level that their resolve is massive. And so it’s amazing to watch what they do when their backs are against the wall.”
Princeton and TCU played a scoreless 15 minutes of the first overtime. Bright scored in what was the 106th minute of play to end the Tigers’ run. TCU went on to lose to Rutgers in the Sweet 16 on Sunday in a penalty shootout.
“I couldn’t ask more from my players,” said Driscoll. “They fought valiantly. We had a couple of moments where we made some mistakes and we still found ways to get out of those challenges. And then we created some opportunities where we could potentially get another goal and it just didn’t come. We also thwarted a number of their chances.”
The season ended the Princeton careers of nine seniors. They played an integral part in leading the Tigers to one of their best seasons in program history.
“The best senior classes in my opinion have one thing in common — that’s selflessness,” said Driscoll.
“Teams are molded based on senior classes. I don’t care what any coach says, I firmly believe when you’re tough at the top of your pyramid, they are your captains, they are your seniors, and if your seniors do not buy in and embrace and respect the role that they’re given, you have an issue.”
They had the added task of leading a Tigers team that had the difficulty of trying to return from a year in which they did not play or practice together due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ivy League canceling last year’s season.
“What these kids did was remarkable; every kid that put on an Ivy League uniform across the league,” said Driscoll.
“What they did speaks volumes of all those student-athletes who had something taken away from them last fall. A lot of Power 5s played last fall and last spring. Everyone played last spring except for the Ivies. Everyone got a head start on what their team would look like in the fall. We went based on a really good group of skillful student-athletes, passionate student-athletes. Make no mistake, we had to start very far behind everyone else. To make up the ground that they did, to play with the energy that they did, to show the resolve that they did, it was truly remarkable.”
The Tigers started to feel better as they got back together in August. There was a feeling of gratitude and excitement to resume playing.
“You could feel it in preseason there was such a joy of being around each other,” said Driscoll. “There was no hierarchy in place. It was all of us together, back together for the first time in effectively almost two years.”
Princeton’s potential emerged through the season. They were unbeaten against Top 10 teams until the TCU game. They returned from the year off with a resolve and worked to earn an NCAA home game and finish with 15 wins.
“I do think we lost some things in that year, but we also gained some things like a true, unabated hunger to represent our University,” said Driscoll.
“That would not have happened without the time away because of COVID. The silver lining was you take a bunch of passionate, driven, talented female soccer players, and you take away something they love for almost two years, and then you give them an opportunity to go do it again, watch out. And that’s what we saw.”