GROUP EFFORT: Princeton University field hockey player MaryKate Neff, far left, along with Elise Wong, goalie Grace Baylis and Nicole Catalino take a break during a recent game. Sophomore star Neff scored goals in both games last weekend as No. 5 Princeton defeated Monmouth 4-1 on Friday and then topped No. 13 Delaware 4-2 on Sunday. The Tigers, who improved to 5-2 with the victories, were slated to host No. 3 Maryland on September 18 before starting Ivy League play by hosting Dartmouth on September 22. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
With one college season under her belt, MaryKate Neff is developing a knack for being in the right place at the right time around the goal for the Princeton University field hockey team.
“The way I like to play and the positions I get on the field helps me to find the last touch,” said sophomore midfielder Neff, a 5’7 native of Villanova, Pa.
“Most of it comes from the other people on the ball finding the back post and me making those runs, trying to get there. On the corners, I am in a prime rebound spot to put it back in.”
Against visiting Monmouth last Friday afternoon, Neff came through on a penalty corner in the first half, redirecting a hit from Maddie Bacskai into the cage to give Princeton a 2-0 lead.
“Maddie was looking to score and I know she tends to go certain places, so I knew to put my stick in and hopefully I got a touch on it,” said Neff.
The Tigers didn’t lose their finishing touch, pulling away to a 4-1 win over the Hawks.
“We really try to have our corners be efficient and we have been practicing them a lot,” said Neff. “They kind of fell a little bit in our last games. I think today, they were executed better; even if we didn’t get them all first, we got the second rebound.”
With so many returners from a 2017 squad that went undefeated in Ivy League play and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals, the Tigers have been showing a greater efficiency this fall.
“The core of our team is still the same from last year,” said Neff, who scored another goal last Sunday as No. 5 Princeton defeated 13th-ranked Delaware 4-2 and improved to 5-2. “It was just finding our identity and playing together a little more. I know where my role is on the team and that helped me settle in.”
Earning a spot on the U.S. Under-21 team this summer gave Neff the chance to sharpen her skills.
“I had the opportunity to play in a bunch of different tryout tournaments,” said Neff.
“Playing at that high level of hockey, playing with new coaching styles and new people helped me keep my game at a certain level and not to fall off, to keep skills and stay in shape. I had the opportunity to make the 21s, which is great.”
Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente likes the way Neff capitalizes on her chances around the goal.
“MaryKate is one that is opportunistic; she gets her nose in there and rolls her sleeves up,” said Tagliente of Neff, who has three goals in Princeton’s last four games and now has a team-high four on the season. “She is a gritty player and has one of those engines that doesn’t stop. It is good and timely as well, when we need them.”
While acknowledging that the Tigers could have been sharper against Monmouth, Tagliente still saw a lot of positives
“A win is a win and it feels good; I would like us to be a little more opportunistic with the chances that we had,” said Tagliente.
“Monmouth defends well, I think we had some nice goals tonight. Overall, we played nice hockey. We possessed the ball well; we were very close to executing on some more.”
Freshman Ali McCarthy enjoyed a nice moment on Friday, tallying her first career goal.
“That was helpful because I think she struggled out of the gate to get going; hopefully this is a boost to her confidence,” said Tagliente of McCarthy, who added another goal in the win over Delaware on Sunday. “I think she had a nice game today; she almost broke open a couple more.”
Senior star Sophia Tornetta has given the Tigers a big lift in the early going this season.
“Sophia has gotten off to a good start; she has played extremely well all over the field,” said Tagliente of Tornetta, who has tallied three goals and two assists. “She has been a big bright spot for us so far; her confidence is super high.”
Tagliente is confident that her squad’s best hockey is ahead of it.
“We are playing good hockey,” said Tagliente, whose team was slated to host No. 3 Maryland on September 18 before starting Ivy League play by hosting Dartmouth on September 22.
“I don’t think we have played our best hockey yet, which is fine. We have room for growth. Their responsiveness to ‘take each game as it is and not look ahead’ has been good. I am happy with the potential that we have. We have done really well, but we have not quite hit our stride yet, especially in the attack end. So when that happens, it will be good.”
Neff, for her part, senses that the Tigers are on their way to a very good season.
“I think our team is really, really special this year. There is something about the way we show up to practice, everybody has this energy and everybody is willing to put the work in,” asserted Neff.
“Every single person on the team has the capability to play on the field and make an impact; everyone always gives 100 percent and it brings out the best in everyone. The attitude of everybody on the team is so positive. We are all genuinely like a family and that shows on the field.”