KICK-OFF TIME: Princeton University women’s soccer player Natalie Larkin prepares to kick the ball upfield last season. Senior star and All-Ivy League performer Larkin will be counted on to again shore up the defense this fall for the Tigers, who get their 2017 campaign underway when they host Monmouth on August 25. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Sean Driscoll is facing a problem this fall in guiding the Princeton University women’s soccer team, but don’t expect any of his foes to be sympathetic.
With an abundance of skilled performers at his disposal, it isn’t going to be easy for Princeton head coach Driscoll to figure out the best way to deploy his resources.
“We have a lot of good players; I think we are probably two-deep at every position on the field which I haven’t been able to say until now,” said Driscoll, who is entering his third season at the helm of the program and led the Tigers to an overall 10-4-3 record and 2-3-2 in Ivy League play in 2016.
“We have a lot of depth and that has to be our focus, utilizing as many of the players as we can to stay fresh and to also put other teams in situations where we are constantly staying a little more fresh perhaps than they are. Our mentality in terms of rotation of players may slightly change from what it was, certainly from two years ago when we basically played 14-16 players. We have a lot more ability to rotate this year.”
At forward, junior star and top returning scorer Mimi Asom (9 goals and 1 assist in 2016) boasts a lot of finishing ability.
“Mimi is the most focused I have seen her, she has a very good mentality about her right now,” said Driscoll, noting that sophomore Courtney O’Brien, sophomore Abby Givens (3 goals, 3 assists), junior Sam McDonough (4 assists), and senior Beth Stella should all see time up top.
“Mimi’s fitness level is the highest it has been. Her overall focus, which is the most important for her, is very high. She is a very good player.”
Princeton features a very good player to trigger the midfield in senior Vanessa Gregoire (3 goals, 4 assists).
“Vanessa has big time potential; I expect a huge year from her in terms of overall quality, her movement, and her endurance,” asserted Driscoll. “She looks fantastic.”
Driscoll has a lot of quality options in the midfield with such players as sophomore Tomi Kennedy (3 goals, 1 assist), sophomore Sophia Gulati (1 assist), senior Alessia Azermadhi (1 assist), and sophomore Emily Hilliard (1 assist) along with a pair of freshmen, Olivia Kane and Carolyne Davidson.
“It is deep, there are going to be a lot of battles,” said Driscoll in assessing his midfield.
“A lot of kids who have had the luxury of being the best at their position are now going to have to really fight, which is good competition. If nothing else, it is pushing to make them better and giving us a better rotation.”
Senior standouts Natalie Larkin (1 goal, 2 assists) and Mikaela Symanovich (2 assists) will battle hard on the back line. “They are the epitome of work rate, fitness, and competitive nature,” said Driscoll.
“They are both tireless workers. There is no way to duplicate them when they leave next year, there will be no replacing that kind of mentality. They both blow away the fitness test. Every year, they are the top two.”
While Larkin and Symanovich form a special one-two combination on defense, Princeton is expecting a number of other players to shore up the unit.
“Katie Pratt-Thompson, a senior, will be in there and you have sophomore Olivia Sheppard, a standout Canadian national team player at center back,” added Driscoll.
“We also have two freshman, Lucy Rickerson and Tatum Gee, who have done really, really well.”
The Tigers boast four goalkeepers in sophomore Natalie Grossi, junior Noelani Kong-Johnson, senior Gudrun Valdis Jonsdottir, and sophomore Kelli Calhoun. Grossi got most of the work last year in her freshman season, starting all 17 games with a 0.93 goals against average and four shutouts.
“Natalie looks good, she has done well; Noelani has also done well,” said Driscoll.
“We are expecting Gudrun and Kelli to make a little bit of a push here. Right now, I would say Natalie and Noelani have been the top two but I do expect the other ones to make it a competitive battle. We have a good group of goalkeepers, they are working hard.”
With Princeton going 1-3-2 in its last six games last fall after a 9-1-1 start, Driscoll is looking for his 2017 team to push harder at both ends of the field.
“I think we need to make sure that we don’t make any game-changing mistakes,” said Driscoll.
“We had some innocuous mistakes where we put ourselves in trouble last year on occasion. We need a greater focus and attention to detail on our defense as a unit. The bottom line is we need to identify where we can manufacture goals as a team. Everyone is going to be involved in helping us score.”
Based on what he has seen in the preseason, Driscoll is confident that the squad can manufacture a lot of wins this fall.
“I would say that we are very excited about the group of kids that we have, the chemistry, and the enthusiasm,” said Driscoll.
“We look forward to seeing how things go. We have a lot of young kids and we also have some good leadership. It is a really enjoyable group to work with.”
With Princeton hosting Monmouth (0-1-1) in its season opener on August 25, Driscoll knows his squad will have to work hard to beat the Hawks.
“Monmouth is a very hardworking, blue collar mentality team with tremendous athleticism and a lot of success,” said Driscoll, whose squad will be playing at Villanova on August 27 before heading south for contests against Atlantic Coast Conference foes North Carolina State on September 1 and at Wake Forest on September 3.
“They are coming off a tie and a loss this past weekend. They will be very hungry and fired up. It will be a good game; it is a cross state rivalry. They are going to be excited to play against us and our team needs to be equal to the task. It is opening night so I expect us to work extremely hard and have a good start.”