September 13, 2017

O’Brien Produces Breakout Performances As Tiger Women’s Soccer Improves to 6-0

RISING STAR: Princeton University women’s soccer player Courtney O’Brien, center, rises up to head a ball in recent action. Last Thursday against visiting Rider, sophomore forward O’Brien enjoyed a breakout game, scoring her first two college goals as the Tigers prevailed 2-0. On Sunday, O’Brien added two more goals to help Princeton defeat New Hampshire 3-1. O’Brien was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week for her heroics. The Tigers, now 6-0, host No. 3 West Virginia (5-2) on September 15 and Delaware (2-2-2) on September 17. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Courtney O’Brien picked a very good time to score the first goal in her career with the Princeton University women’s soccer team.

With Princeton locked in a scoreless tie against visiting Rider early in the second half last Thursday evening, sophomore forward O’Brien fought off some defenders in the box and knocked a volley into the back of the net to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead 42 seconds into the half.

Having battled back from a knee injury which limited her to 12 appearances in a reserve role last fall with no points, O’Brien was thrilled to finally get on the scoresheet.

“It was an accumulation of excitement, like this is going in because it has to,” said O’Brien, a native of Studio City, Calif. who came off the bench midway through the first half against Rider.

“Maybe that was just coming a little from frustration but also just excitement for me to get out there to prove myself. I haven’t had that much playing time to get in there and show what I can do.”

Minutes later, O’Brien showed hops and skill, leaping high in the air to head a Vanessa Gregoire corner kick into the goal.

“It was one of those balls where you just know you have got it; you just feel it is in your range,” said O’Brien.

“When you want that goal, you will do anything, you will dive head first straight for it.”

For O’Brien, finding the range meant a lot. “I finally feel like myself again so I definitely see a turning point for me in my confidence playing on the field,” said O’Brien, who added two more goals on Sunday to help Princeton defeat New Hampshire 3-1 and improve to 6-0. “It is exciting.”

With Princeton coming off an exciting Labor Day weekend which saw it win 2-0 at No. 20 North Carolina State on September 2 and then beat No. 18 Wake Forest 2-0 two days later, O’Brien and her teammates were looking to show those triumphs weren’t a fluke.

“It definitely shows that we have a ton of potential and that we are at a really good starting point,” said O’Brien, reflecting on the trip to North Carolina.

“We have a lot more to do because it is only the beginning of the season and once again we want to prove that wasn’t just a lucky weekend and that is what we are capable of. We have a lot more time to get used to playing together and get our flow and get a lot more wins.”

Princeton head coach Sean Driscoll saw the wins in North Carolina as evidence that the Tiger have the ability to compete with anyone.

“There is no other word to describe it than magical,” said Driscoll. “It was a weekend where we didn’t know what to expect. You just go down there and try to put up the best fight you can. We played really well against N.C. State and got a lot of confidence out of that game and then, lo and behold, we came back and played even better against Wake Forest. This team is very deep, our strength is in our depth. We showed that by playing 19 kids against Wake Forest and 18 kids against N.C. State. We don’t lose anything when we go to other players.”

Driscoll sees O’Brien’s breakthrough as proof of that depth. “I am happy for Courtney; she has had a great attitude,” said Driscoll of O’Brien, who was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week for her heroics last weekend.

“She is coming off a major injury two years ago. She was getting back to herself last year and we have seen a real improvement this spring and then again this fall. She has incredible leaping ability as you saw on the second goal. She has been very determined; no one wants to score more than that kid. It just gives us another weapon and the more weapons that we have and the more danger we present with multiple people, the better we are going to be.”

With Princeton producing shutouts in its first five games, the team’s back line has been providing some incredible play.

“Natalie Larkin, Mikaela Symanovich, Katie Pratt-Thompson, Olivia Sheppard, and Lucy Rickerson are the five that have played back there and have rotated,” said Driscoll.

“They have been incredible, to play against the level of competition we have played against and to not conceded a goal. It is wonderful. Natalie Grossi, the goalkeeper, played really, really well in North Carolina. It goes to show you the determination, the effort, and the willingness to just really roll up their sleeves and work as hard as possible. They take tremendous satisfaction and pride in the position and when they get a clean sheet it means a lot.”

Noting that Princeton got off to a 9-1-1 start in 2016 before getting hit by some key injuries and ending up 10-4-3, Driscoll’s excitement over his team’s start is tempered by that experience.

“It is a very close-knit team, I think they are very supportive of one another,” said Driscoll.

“Across the midfield and with all of the forwards, we rotate every player a lot. That is the key to keep confidence high and keep legs fresh. It is exciting. The only caution is last year we started off in a very similar fashion and then hit a speed bump. We are cautiously optimistic.”

O’Brien, for her part, is optimistic that she can emerge as a key piece in the rotation this fall.

“It is fun to come off the bench and make a difference and prove that I can add something to the team,” said O’Brien. “I want to help so being that spark feels good. I am excited for more.”