Princeton Women's Lax Edged by No.1 Northwestern, Falling in NCAA Quarters for the First Time Since '99
By Bill Alden
Chris Sailer couldn't stop smiling as she assessed the effort put forth by her Princeton University women's lacrosse team in its rousing win over Maryland last Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"I'm incredibly proud of our team and how they came out and performed today," said coach Sailer, reflecting on her team's 16-8 whipping of the visiting Terps which came just eight days after Princeton had fallen 13-12 in four overtimes at Maryland.
"We really wanted to get to the next round and we just came out and played really hard. Come tournament time, we are a team that just kicks it up a notch."
That win earned eighth-seeded Princeton a trip to Chicago to face top-ranked and top-seeded Northwestern last Sunday. With a chance to earn its sixth straight trip to the Final Four, Princeton misfired as it fell 8-6 to the undefeated Wildcats before a crowd of 1,200 at the Thomas Sports Complex.
A subdued Sailer was at a loss to explain how things went so awry just 72 hours after the sterling performance against Maryland. "It was unfortunate, I would say it was not our best performance," acknowledged Sailer, whose team finished with a 13-5 record.
"They definitely worked harder on the field than we did. We didn't bring our best effort; I'm dumbfounded by that. If we had played with half the passion, energy, and intensity that we showed against Maryland, we would have been OK. We were an entirely different team and I don't know why."
Straying from the friendly confines of the Class of 1952 Stadium where Princeton had won nine straight NCAA tourney games may have played a role in Princeton's struggles.
"The travel takes a little bit out of you," said Sailer, who got two goals apiece from seniors Lindsey Biles and Ingrid Goldberg in what turned out to be their final Princeton appearances. "I think we left the field with regrets and that isn't the way you want to end a season."
The combination of Northwestern's defense and its patient offensive approach also were key factors in Princeton's demise. "They did a good job defensively on me and the other players," noted Biles in assessing a day in which Princeton committed 19 turnovers and mustered just 13 shots, nearly 15 less than their season average. "But I feel like we really didn't have enough possession of the ball during the game."
Sailer admitted that the Tigers really never got on a roll this spring like they had in recent seasons. "We did some very good things and had some good performances," said Sailer.
"We never caught that wave; we were inconsistent. We did get better defensively and our offense had its moments. We were definitely young and we had some growing pains. If the season had ended better, maybe we could feel more positive."
The players may have subconsciously assumed that they would waltz into the Final Four because that is all they had known in their careers.
"It was a great run," said Sailer, whose program took national crowns in 2002 and 2003. "Maybe Sunday will reinforce that such success isn't a given. When you've been at that level, it's easy to expect that to happen. The players here now don't know the struggles and the hard work put in by those who came before them. I hope it will make us appreciate the work that goes into this. We didn't always take care of the little things this year."
The veteran head coach, who has now completed 19 seasons at the helm of the Tiger program, appreciates what departing senior stars Elizabeth Pillion and Lindsey Biles have given to the program.
Pillion, a fiery and speedy midfielder, ended her career with 150 points on 104 goals and 46 assists. She was named as an All-Ivy performer three times and will likely earn All-American recognition for a third time when those selections are announced later this month.
Biles, a gifted attacker, ended her tenure second in program history in goals (175) and points (221). She was the 2005 Ivy Co-Player of the Year and earned All-Ivy recognition three times in her career. She was a first-team All-American last season and should garner the same honor this spring.
"If every player would come on the field with the heart and intensity that Pills shows, we would win the national championship every year," said Sailer, noting that Pillion's struggle with a late-season hamstring injury hampered Princeton in the loss to Northwestern.
"Lindsey has had consistent numbers all the way through. She didn't have the most experienced supporting cast around her and she still had big numbers this year. She is so quick and has such good hands."
While Princeton will miss Pillion and Biles next year, Sailer hopes the team can gain some valuable lessons from how this spring ended.
"I hope we can learn from this," said Sailer. "I think that we have had so much success that this is part of the cycle. You need to experience disappointment to make you work harder and realize what it takes to be at that level."