August 22, 2018

After Stunning Run to NCAA Quarters Last Fall, No. 13 PU Women’s Soccer Has Target on Its Back

GOOD SHEPPARD: Princeton University women’s soccer player Olivia Sheppard goes after the ball in a game last year. Junior midfielder/defender Sheppard’s versatility makes her a key performer for the Tigers. Princeton kicks off its 2018 campaign by playing at the University of New Hampshire on August 24. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Sparked by an uncommon competitive fire, the Princeton University women’s soccer defeated Monmouth, N.C. State, and perennial powerhouse North Carolina in the NCAA tournament last fall as it surged to national quarterfinals.

As Princeton head coach Sean Driscoll looks ahead to the 2018 campaign, he is hoping that his squad, which starts the season ranked 13th nationally, can rekindle that intensity.

“We have got the national ranking to start the season; it is one of those things you either embrace or fear,” said Driscoll, whose squad lost to UCLA 3-1 in the NCAA quarters to end the fall at 16-3-1. “I think the team is embracing what happened last year and learning from that experience.”

Driscoll, for his part, is embracing a coaching challenge as he deals with roster turnover.

“We are a completely different team; that is the way it is every year,” said Driscoll, who is entering his fourth season at the helm of the Tigers and has guided Princeton to a 40-11-5 mark over his first three campaigns.

“No two teams have the same personality or the same character. That is the beauty of coaching: every new team is a puzzle and you you have to figure out how the pieces fit.”

The Tigers boast some valuable pieces at forward in senior Mimi Asom (10 goals, 3 assists in 2017), junior Abby Givens (12 goals, 6 assists), and junior Courtney O’Brien (9 goals, 3 assists).

“Any time you have kids who are used to putting the ball in the back of the net it is good,” said Driscoll.

“Mimi is exceptionally strong and very, very quick; she can play with her back to the goal. Courtney is exceptional in the air and can put her body in any sort of position to score goals. Abby is more of a slashing player who is very good in one-versus-one situations as well as on her runs. They all score goals in different ways so they complement each other really well.”

As for the Princeton midfield, Driscoll is still assessing which players will complement each other the best in that spot.

“We are trying to figure out if we are going to play with four or three in the midfield,” said Driscoll.

“We have Tomi Kennedy (4 assists) who is returning along with Sophia Gulati. Olivia Sheppard (1 assist) is both a center back and a center midfielder. We have two freshmen who are really good in midfield as well; we have some returners who didn’t play as much last year due to sheer numbers who have improved quite a bit.”

Having lost three key performers along the back line in Natalie Larkin, Mikaela Symanovich, and Katie Pratt-Thompson to graduation, the Tiger defense will have a new look with sophomore Lucy Rickerson and junior Sheppard leading the way.

“Lucy is one of our top backs and Olivia played a lot in the midfield last year because of the stability we had in the back, but she can also play in there,” said Driscoll.

“Right now we are trying to sort out what the best group of backs are. We are looking at players who played in the back and we are looking at a lot of players who never played back there before who have good tendencies, kind of like Mikaela. She was converted to a back and had a great career.”

In goal, junior Natalie Grossi, a two-year starter who had a goals against average of 0.57 in 2017 with 11 shutouts, gives the Tigers stability in the net.

“She is going to have to continue to work really, really hard; it is still very much a competition,” said Driscoll, noting that senior Noelani Kong-Johnson, junior Kelli Calhoun, and freshman Grace Barbara, a former Princeton Day School standout, are also in the mix.

“Everybody is doing well with the goalkeeping. Noelani has done a good job and Grace has done a good job as a freshman. Kelli has done well in the times she has been in goal. Natalie has a lot of experience. It is healthy competition, which is what I want.”

Opening the 2018 season with games at the University of New Hampshire (2-0) on August 24 and at Boston University (0-2) on August 26 will give the Tigers plenty of tough competition.

“I think they are both going to be very good games. New Hampshire is coming off two overtime wins and is always very organized defensively,” said Driscoll.

“Against Boston, you are going to play against a legend in Nancy Feldman, one of the all time great coaches in the game and one of my mentors. If you look at what they do every year, they play the most competitive non-conference schedule. Their slate of games is unbelievable. We are their opening game at home; it is a very tough team to beat. I think it is a very tricky weekend up there.”

In Driscoll’s view, the Tigers have a talent level that will make them tough to beat.

“I do like our depth, I do like the quality of our players,” said Driscoll, noting that the squad’s freshmen group excelled in the team’s opening scrimmages last weekend.

“I like our skill set. You are going to see different faces in different places. That is part of the fun of the job, trying to figure out who goes where. Sometimes you think a player will do really well in a position and you realize after the fact that they are better suited elsewhere. We have a lot of question marks, but not in terms of talent. It is, how do you get the players on the field, how do you make it so you can rotate players easily, how do you make sure you build the system so it satisfies the most players? As always, you have to remain healthy.”

In the end, Princeton’s success this fall will come down whether its players can exhibit the fiery spirit that carried it to the NCAA quarters a year ago.

“We have to be maintaining the level of energy and enthusiasm that recognizes that we are going to be everybody’s biggest game this season,” said Driscoll.

“You have a bull’s eye on your back and how you handle that dictates a lot of seasons. It is going to be more of the intangibles, the grit, desire, and hunger that we were so good with last year. There was never a question of whether we would put forth the effort. The question is would the ball bounce in our direction on certain occasions, but the relentless energy level last year and the grit that we showed and the willingness to grind is what made us so successful. We are just as talented this year; we will find out if we have that willingness to grind through games.”