Freshman Neff Making Impact in Midfield, Starring as PU Field Hockey Tops Columbia
By Bill Alden
Mary Kate Neff has faced a steep learning curve this fall in her freshman season with the Princeton University field hockey team.
“It is just learning to play the system and play the role the team needs me to play,” said Neff.
“It is a higher speed, it is a lot of aggression and just being able to sustain that level to play smart and make good decisions throughout the whole game. I find myself all over the field but I really do enjoy midfield, getting to play on both sides of the field and helping out where I can.”
Neff proved to be a big help last Friday against visiting Columbia, scoring a pair of goals in a 24-second span in the second half as 14th-ranked Princeton broke open a tight 1-0 contest on the way to a 3-0 victory.
“The first one it was just a really good insert on a set play,” said Neff. “We practice corners over and over again; it is nice to be finally able to execute one.”
Neff’s second tally of the evening came on a deft pass from childhood friend and fellow freshman Julianna Tornetta.
“Julianna spoon-fed the ball to me; we have known each other since we were real young,” said Neff, a 5’7 native of Villanova, Pa. who now has five goals this season, second-best on the Tigers behind senior star Ryan McCarthy (10).
“She is such a high level player and she makes everyone around her look better. She put the ball in the right spot at the end.”
Neff and her teammates knew they needed a high level of intensity to subdue a pesky Columbia squad.
“Ivy League games bring out the most grit for everyone on the team,” said Neff.
“It is a lot of pride and a lot of passion; everyone likes to win because we only face each other once. We have a lot of respect for each other off the field but on the field everyone looks to win.”
The win over the Lions moved Princeton to 3-0 in Ivy play as the Tigers look to regain the league crown after seeing their 11-year title streak snapped in 2016.
“I am happy we stacked our schedule so hard in the beginning because I feel like now we have come into our own,” said Neff. “We are just improving every single game. As you could see tonight, we strung a lot of passes along.”
Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente is excited with the improvement she is seeing from Neff.
“MK did a great job today; she has been doing really well game by game,” said Tagliente.
“She has really come a long way, step by step. Each game we will look at something with her and improve it. It is mostly tactics with her. She has really been a sponge with picking things up and making changes game by game.”
Tagliente is looking for the Tigers to improve on their play around goal.
“We’ve just got to do better about making the ball dangerous in the circle,” said Tagliente.
“I think we hold it a little too long and just look to set up a shot. They are just not pulling the trigger; it is like they are looking for the perfect situation to shoot the ball.”
Princeton produced one of its better defensive efforts in blanking Columbia.
“They did a great job, I think this team is challenging to play against,” said Tagliente.
“They have some big bodies up front who play with their backs to our defenders. We had a little bit of a hard time in the first half. Once we weathered that storm, we were fine.”
As the Tigers go through their Ivy campaign, Tagliente is hoping that they can storm past their league competition.
“The league isn’t easy and we are young,” said Tagliente.
“Part of it for these guys is figuring out really how to establish themselves and play and create some separation between these teams.”
Being more opportunistic will help make things easier for Princeton going forward.
“We have got to be able to score more goals on corners,” added Tagliente, whose team fell 5-3 to No. 1 Connecticut last Sunday to move to 6-6 and plays at Brown on October 14 and at Northeastern on October 15.
“We hit a couple of posts today. The execution was good; we just didn’t get as many goals as I wanted. It will come.”
Neff, for her part, sees good things ahead for the Tigers. “We have been talking about finding our identity,” said Neff.
“We want to be known as a team that plays with a lot of composure and discipline but is also very aggressive and attacking, using our speed to our advantage. We are all feeling really confident.”