Katie Reinprecht felt awful last Sunday morning just hours before the Princeton University field hockey team was slated to face the University of North Carolina in the NCAA Championship game.
“I woke up around 4 a.m. and at first I thought it was nerves; I was having stomach issues, going back and forth to the bathroom,” said Tiger senior midfielder and tri-captain Reinprecht.
“I met with one of the trainers right before breakfast and they thought it was food poisoning. They gave me medication and I was trying to get liquids. I knew I was going to play but I thought I might be running to a trash can during the game.”
As game time approached, Reinprecht was ready to take the field in Norfolk, Va. “The medication settled my stomach and I had two bottles of Gatorade right before the game,” said Reinprecht. “I had so much adrenaline, I had plenty of energy.”
By Sunday afternoon, Reinprecht was experiencing something she had never felt before as she helped second-seeded Princeton rally to a 3-2 win over the top-seeded Tar Heels and earn the program’s first-ever national championship.
“I was still thinking about hitting the ball but I saw Jules [younger sister and Tiger star defender Julia Reinprecht] collapse behind me so I knew it was over,” said Reinprecht, reflecting on the moment when the clock hit 0:00.
“It was an incredible feeling. It was such a team accomplishment. I knew this end was possible if we gave 100 percent.”
For much of the contest, it didn’t look like Princeton was heading to a happy ending.
The Tar Heels had the better of the play in the early going and jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Charlotte Craddock goal at the 11:26 mark.
“In the first 10 minutes, we were being outplayed,” said Reinprecht. “The goal went in and we looked at each other and there was no sense of fear. We stepped it up from there and showed how badly we wanted it.”
Less than six minutes later, Reinprecht stepped up as she fed classmate and fellow captain Kat Sharkey on a penalty corner and the latter slammed in the tying goal.
The teams went into the locker room knotted at 1-1 at intermission and then 11 minutes into the second half Princeton found itself trailing again as Katie Plyler found the back of the cage for the Tar Heels.
Princeton, though, was unfazed. “No one likes to go down in a game like that but we had been in those situations before,” said Reinprecht. “I thought we had the momentum and I didn’t doubt that we could score.”
Reinprecht’s faith proved justified as Allison Evans notched the tying goal at 56:44 and then Amanda Bird tallied three minutes later on a penalty stroke to give Princeton its first lead of the contest.
The Bird tally set up a stomach-turning finale as Princeton held off a dangerous and desperate North Carolina team.
“It was the longest eight minutes; a timeout helped,” said Reinprecht. “We had a defensive priority, even Kat Sharkey was in the defensive circle. We didn’t want to let this slip away, we said we can’t let them tie this up. We had confidence and trust.”
That trust was critical as Princeton lost freshman star Teresa Benvenuti to a hamstring injury in warmup and then senior stalwart Molly Goodman went down with a knee injury 10 minutes into the contest.
“That was one of the most powerful things about the title game, everyone contributed in that game,” asserted Reinprecht. “People had to step up who weren’t used to that role and they rose to the occasion.”
As Reinprecht returned to Princeton this past August after spending a year away from school training with the U.S. national field hockey program and playing in the London Olympics, she was determined to step into a positive leadership role.
“When I came back from the national team, I knew what it was like to play with a talented team but that winning doesn’t correlate unless you put it all out there,” said Reinprecht, who was joined in her year with the national program by her sister along with teammates Michelle Cesan and Sharkey.
“I didn’t want the four of us to be unapproachable; we needed to fit in with the family. Everyone on the team had to be equal.”
Princeton head coach Kristen Holmes-Winn points to team unity as the key factor in Princeton’s title run.
“Of course we have talent but it is much more important to have chemistry; I have been around talented teams that didn’t do as well as they should,” said Holmes-Winn, whose squad went 21-1 this fall, setting a program record for most wins in a season.
“I told them before the Duke game [the season opener on August 31] that you will become a family and you will love each other. It is not how talented you are but how hard you are willing to fight for each other. They looked each other in the eyes before the Maryland game [a 3-2 win in the NCAA semis on Friday] and they were ready to play for each other.”
The Tigers were ready for a stiff challenge as they prepared for the clash with the 23-1 Tar Heels, whose roster included former Stuart Country Day standout Jackie Gaudioso-Radvany.
“They are strong at every position,” said Holmes-Winn, noting that Tar Heel forward Craddock and midfielder Kelsey Kolojejchick caused Princeton particular concern.
“We needed to lock down their game changers. We had to limit Craddock’s touches so we put a center mid to overlap in her zone. We told the midfield to run with Kolojejchick but don’t tackle her. We needed to stay in the play. I am proud that we showed the discipline to do that for all the game.”
That task was made harder by the injuries to Benvenuti and Goodman. “To beat North Carolina full‐strength is a huge challenge, but to do it accessing the depth on the bench the way we did is a product of our team’s hard work and preparation,” said Holmes-Winn.
For Holmes-Winn, seeing her players produce a national title evoked a deep sense of pride.
“To win at a place like Princeton is a colossal achievement; we don’t give scholarships,” said Holmes-Winn.
“They are students first and foremost. To be able to do everything they do in the classroom and also be the best in a sport is special. They are so inspiring to be around. As coaches, we can look in the mirror and feel so good about how we do it. They have a wonderful experience as students and athletes.”
As Princeton headed to the University of Virginia for the opening rounds of the tournament two weekends ago, Holmes-Winn had the sense that something wonderful was going to happen.
“I will remember how we went into turbo tournament mode,” said Holmes-Winn.
“We won the league and that was great. We dominated the play-in game [a 6-0 win at Lafayette] and you could feel the energy going into the tournament. Getting on the bus to Charlottesville, I was so excited. I knew we were going on a special journey and I could feel the belief and talent.”
Reinprecht, for her part, won’t soon forget the road she travelled to the national title.
“I am a very, very lucky girl to end my career like this,” said Reinprecht, who was named the 2012 Longstreth/NFHCA Division I Mid-Atlantic Region Player of the Year and totaled 156 points and 50 assists in her four seasons, good for fourth and second in program history, respectively, in those categories.
“It has been an incredible year and an incredible journey. It is fantastic to share it with this group of girls and coaches, they are such high quality people.”