With Hiltunen Tallying Game-Winning Goal In Double OT, PU Women’s Soccer Tops Columbia, Stays Alive in Ivy Race
TO THE HILT: Princeton University women’s soccer player Lexi Hiltunen, left, battles a foe in a game earlier this season. Last Saturday evening, sophomore Hiltunen scored the game winning goal in double overtime as Princeton edged Columbia 1-0. The Tigers, who improved to 10-2-1 overall and 3-1 Ivy League with the win, play at Harvard (9-1-1 overall, 3-1 Ivy) on October 23. (Photo by Greg Carroccio, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
Lexi Hiltunen’s chip shot in double overtime last Saturday against Columbia kept the Princeton University women’s soccer team in the Ivy League championship hunt.
It also earned the Princeton sophomore forward a spot at the bottom of a dogpile of her teammates following the dramatic 1-0 win over the Lions on Saturday night at a wet and cold Class of 1952 Stadium.
“The pain of the dogpile was taken away by the fact that I was warmed up,” said Hiltunen. “It was a little comforting.”
Hiltunen makes it no secret she does not like the cold. While other teammates got in their first semester on campus last spring, she remained in West Palm Beach, Fla., and took classes online in part because of the warmer weather at home. She has already broken out a winter coat to get around campus.
A steady rain made the cold more miserable Saturday and made controlling the ball on the slick field difficult for all. Hiltunen was glad to end the game when she took a long pass over the top from freshman Lily Bryant and sent it over the charging goalie for the lone goal of the game.
“I was honestly just wanting to go shower and be warm,” said Hiltunen.
“I don’t do well in the cold. Lily played the ball, and I was thinking, if I shoot maybe she’ll miss it or rebound it like she had been. We just had to do everything to put it away. It was just ‘go forward, go forward’ was our tactics. I saw her step out of the goal and I was like, ‘I’ll take my shot for it.’”
The win came after a critical second-half save by former Princeton Day School star goalkeeper Grace Barbara, who finished with 10 saves. The Tiger senior deflected away a low shot after a quick giveaway and centering pass to keep the game scoreless.
“That was an insane save by Grace,” said Hiltunen. “She’s just amazing at hyping up the team altogether. Her making that save put more perspective on we really needed to finish this game out.”
Hiltunen then made the most of her chance in the second overtime to keep Princeton in second place in the Ivy League, one loss behind Brown, which stopped the Tigers, 3-1, the week before Columbia.
“The thing about this team is that I can honestly say they put forth incredible effort all the time,” said Princeton coach Sean Driscoll after improving to 10-2-1 overall and 3-1 in Ivy.
“That’s never a question with them. For us, it often comes down to execution in certain areas of the field, but I can never fault these kids for their effort. It’s a really good group of incredibly talented players but also very, very driven and willing to do what it takes to get a win.”
After its final non-conference game against Lehigh scheduled for Tuesday, Princeton has another key Ivy game when it plays at No. 16 Harvard (9-1-1 overall, 3-1 Ivy) on October 23. The teams are tied for second, and both are in contention for a possible at-large bid to the NCAA tournament even without an Ivy crown. Harvard just lost for the first time this season, falling 1-0 to Brown last Saturday, while Princeton returned to its winning ways.
“I think it does add a lot of motivation,” said Hiltunen. “We have to keep building on what we’re trying to do with the team. Hopefully it won’t rain and we can possess the ball a little better. If we are given the chance to play the way we play, I think it’ll be a great game.”
Hiltunen is one of the new players who have come on lately for the Tigers. She did not have the chance to play as a freshman when the Ivies canceled all fall sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has worked to adjust to the college game this year just like the first-year players.
“I hadn’t played in a game in two years when we first started the season,” said Hiltunen.
“It was really hard. I was definitely challenged physically just not having game fitness or consistently playing in games that are as straining as the ones we’re playing in right now. I had a pretty rough start with that, as well as getting your touch back and feel with the ball. You can practice as much as you want to, but game type situations you can’t really simulate unless you’re playing a game. I think I struggled personally with the adjustment.”
While having started twice this season, Hiltunen has come off the bench most of the time. She has scored three goals in the last four games. She also added an assist in a 6-1 win over Bucknell on September 28.
“In general it’s difficult to be a freshman,” explained Driscoll.
“If you talk to those first-year kids in the program, it is a roller coaster ride and there is a learning curve. It’s very rare to just walk in and hit the ground running and have everything go perfectly. We have kids who started off really well and tailed off, and kids that started off slowly and progressed. You have to be really, really mentally tough to get through that first year.”
Hiltunen has spent the season adjusting to her role for an attack that has only been shut out once this season. The 26th ranked forward recruit in the Top Drawer Soccer Class of 2020, Hiltunen has started to come on for the Tigers at just the right time.
“My fitness has drastically improved,” said Hiltunen. “And I’m just getting used to the team because I’ve never played with anyone on this team before. You have to understand what kind of players you’re playing with, who’s on the field at a certain time, and what you can do with those particular players. That’s been a really big adjustment for me, especially with my position relying on a center mid that I can play with. And we rotate quite frequently because we have incredible depth.”
The depth has paid off all-around for the Tigers. Princeton has had 13 different goal scorers this season provide a total of 34 goals. It makes it hard on opponents to figure out how to defend all of the different weapons the Tigers can deploy. Princeton has been sending out waves of attackers and it has seen the approach wear down opponents as it has tallied 21 second half goals this season.
“It is hard when you have a lot of talented kids fighting for time and they’re trying to do their best when they are out there and give you something, and they have the motivation and the drive,” said Driscoll.
“It’s a dangerous combination. I’m a huge fan of sharing the goals and assists and the more involved, the better.”
Hiltunen didn’t enter the Columbia game until midway through the first half, then remained in until halfway through the second half. She came back in during the overtime. Hiltunen has been happy to get a chance to contribute in her first collegiate season no matter when she gets into games.
“It didn’t really affect me a lot,” said Hiltunen. “I didn’t come in with expectation I’d be playing a lot. I just knew we had an insane team. When I go in I make an effort to make an impact in any way I can. I personally like how we rotate. I think it keeps fresh legs on and each player brings something different and it tends to work really well when we switch it up on teams.”
Princeton’s on-field improvement is only one part of the development of the team. Hiltunen believes the biggest growth this season has come off the field. The Tigers finally have gotten the chance to come together this year after the pandemic disrupted their 2020 season.
“I’ve never been a part of a team that is so family-oriented,” said Hiltunen. “We do everything together. There’s no problems on our team between players, no drama, nothing off the field that hurts us. Bringing that onto the field is what I think really makes a difference for our team. I’ve been on plenty of teams where off the field has really caused a big problem. The culture of our team is just so strong, especially this particular group of girls. It’s incredible.”
It all starts with the oldest members of the team. They knew exactly what their young teammates were missing out on when their season was canceled last year, and they have set the tone for this year’s Tigers group to return with a successful season.
“I go back to the chemistry of the team, the attitude of the senior class and the fact that it has welcomed this group with open arms and that has allowed these first-years and sophomores to have a feeling like they belong on the team,” said Driscoll.
“If you’re going to get the best out of anyone, they have to feel like they belong. I think that group of seniors and our captains have done a fantastic job of that. I think that’s why Lexi is flourishing – she’s feeling more comfortable, more at ease, and I think that is happening across the board with a number of kids.”