October 27, 2021

PU Field Hockey Drops Nail-biter at Harvard, Will Look to Rebound Down the Homestretch

FIRING AWAY: Princeton University field hockey player Gabby Andretta fires the ball upfield in a game earlier this season. Last Saturday, junior defender Andretta spearheaded a strong performance in a lost cause as 14th-ranked Princeton fell 2-1 to 12th-ranked Harvard in a game decided on penalty strokes after the teams tied 1-1 through 60 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime. The Tigers, who moved to 8-6 overall and 4-1 Ivy League, play at Brown on October 30. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Knotted in a 1-1 tie at Harvard in an Ivy League showdown last Saturday, the Princeton University field hockey team made adjustments in the fourth quarter and threw everything it could into overtime.

But the 14th-ranked Tigers could not score a game-winner before ultimately falling 2-1 to the 12th-ranked Crimson on penalty strokes.

Harvard converted its first three strokes while Princeton’s first three strokes were all stopped.

“We’re not particularly strong at them,” said Tiger head coach Carla Tagliente.

“It’s not like we haven’t trained them. We have, but what I’ve seen out of us at practice, we haven’t shown that we’re really good. I wasn’t really confident going into it. We were pushing everything we could going into overtime to try to get the result before that happened.”

It is the first time in six years under Tagliente that a game has gone to a shootout following two scoreless overtimes. Princeton’s loss in a battle of Ivy League unbeatens makes the postseason a long shot. Princeton saw its five-game winning streak snapped as Harvard improved to 13-1 overall and 5-0 in the Ivies while the Tigers slipped to 8-6 overall, 4-1 in Ivy play.

Following Tuesday’s scheduled game against Monmouth, Princeton would need to win at Brown on October 30 and then defeat Columbia on November 6 while Harvard would have to lose twice in Ivy play for the Tigers to get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Otherwise, they would have to hope for one of eight at-large spots.

“I’ve looked at it, and it would have to be a miracle,” said Tagliente.

“Because the Big Ten did so well, they’re going to scoop up most of the spots and the ACC will get a couple. It’s a tight race for last spot between us, Virginia, and Boston College. I think we’re a hair above Virginia and a hair behind BC. I just don’t see how we’ll get ahead of BC with what they have left and what we have left. But anything can happen. If the committee doesn’t go strictly by criteria, maybe.”

Princeton is 16th in the October 24 RPI rankings. Boston College is 14th and Virginia is 17th. Harvard moved to 11th. After taking Sunday off, Princeton looked to bounce back in preparation for its October 26 game against Monmouth.

“I’m sure there’s still a lot of disappointment and a lot of reflection,” said Tagliente.

“How they react and how they bounce back, we’ll see in next few days, in the next few weeks. It’s definitely tough. My message to them is this is where we’re at right now.”

Princeton got off to a great start Saturday at Harvard. The Tigers scored in the first quarter when they had a 4-1 advantage in penalty corners. It was a broken corner play in which they scored. Sam Davidson stayed with the broken play and sent the ball toward the goal where Sammy Popper redirected it into the goal for a 1-0 lead.

“Sometimes with a broken corner, it’s hard to have a plan for what to do,” said Tagliente.

“They were set in their defensive corner structure and we had two players standing in front of the goalie. Sammy Popper just happened to be standing there and tipped it around the goalie. It was a little bit of luck in that situation and fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”

The Tigers still had a lot of possession, but didn’t create as many opportunities in the second quarter. Harvard evened the game before halftime, and neither team could manage a goal for the remainder of regulation and two overtimes. Princeton outshot Harvard, 11-8, and held a 7-3 edge in corners.

“We tried to move some things around and see if we could get something without going into overtime, and I think it created a little bit more chaos and we weren’t retaining possession very much,” said Tagliente of the fourth quarter.

“We had three really strong corners overall. I thought we really dominated them in overtime, we just had nothing in the tank for some of our counterattacks. If it was a game won on possession time, we would have won by a lot, but it’s not. You have to put the ball in the net.”

In the shootout, Princeton had no luck with all three of its strokes while Harvard scored its first three to pick up the win.

“They had a game already with UConn that they lost in shootouts earlier in the season,” said Tagliente.

“It helps when you have one under your belt. It’s a lot of pressure on individual players, and it’s not our strength. It’s definitely something we need to look at and train more of.”

Training had been paying off for the Tigers. After starting the season 3-5 following a loss to No. 3 Rutgers on September 26, the Tigers earned five straight wins. It started with an Ivy win over Yale, then momentum built with an overtime victory over No. 18 UConn. Wins over Dartmouth and Cornell preceded a 3-2 overtime win over a Penn State team on October 17 that is fifth in the RPI rankings.

“We’ve really improved in all areas,” said Tagliente. “Defensively we’ve cleaned up a lot and we’re playing really solid defense and pressing with our strikers. It’s not like we didn’t get opportunities early in the season with UNC and Louisville and Duke. We were putting over 20 shots on the board, we just weren’t converting. I think our execution in the circle is just a lot better, our corner execution is a lot better. We’re getting better in all areas.”

She attributes much of that to the experience gained in the tough game in the early season. Gabby Andretta, Hannah Davey, Ali McCarthy, and Sammy Popper are the lone starters who had significant playing experience from 2019. Seven other starters and those that come off the bench gained in the early going this year.

“We were ironing out some big kinks early in the season, ones that you probably would have ironed out in the previous spring normally,” said Tagliente.

“We were having to live through those growing pains early in the season. Just getting over that and getting some games under our belt, we have a ton of new players playing, not just the freshmen and sophomores. Seven of our 11 starters are either freshmen, sophomores, or juniors like Ophélie (Bemelmans) and Sam Davidson, these guys that didn’t really play in 2019. It’s a significant number of players to get broken in and brought up to speed.”

Beth Yeager has gotten up to speed quickly. The freshman added her 16th goal of the season against Penn State to build on her program record for freshmen.

“She’s a special player,” said Tagliente. “I think if we were a little deeper and could sub her out a little more and had a stronger cast around her, she’d probably have even more. She’s been doing a lot and carrying big load and not getting much of a break. She’s a very unique, very rare player. It’s not a fluke for sure.”

The defense, too, has grown significantly over the season. Andretta, Davey, and either Sam Davidson or Autumn Brown are the back three. They knew they could not give up much to Harvard, which has a stingy defense, and the Princeton defense gave the team a chance with a strong effort.

“There have been big improvements from them, not just the back three but collectively on the defensive side,” said Tagliente. “Same with the Penn State game and same with Cornell. They’ve been playing very, very good. I’m hoping things continue. The defense hasn’t been the issue in some of these closer games down the stretch. It’s really been we’re getting great opportunities. We’re just not finishing. If we could be a little more opportunistic in these games, the spreads would be a little bigger.”

Princeton is looking to continue to gain experience as well as wins to finish out the regular season. Even if the year ends without a postseason bid to the NCAAs, the Tigers know they have taken strides to become a more dangerous team.

“This whole team is back next year; there’s a lot to play for in the long run,” said Tagliente.

“To get shortsighted and get bent out of shape about what’s going to happen at the end of the season isn’t really worth it. We really had to dig ourselves out of a hole from not playing and losing the seniors and leadership we lost and not having training last year. We’ll be in good position next year with the returners and the freshman class we have coming in. You have to keep framing it positively and looking forward.”