PU Women’s Lax Falls to Syracuse in NCAA Tournament, Marking the End of an Era in Final Game for Coach Sailer
TOUGH SAILING: Princeton University women’s lacrosse player Kari Buonanno gets stymied by a Yale defender in recent action. Last Sunday, sophomore midfielder Buonanno tallied three goals in a losing cause as Princeton fell 13-9 to fifth-seeded Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The loss left the Tigers with a final record of 15-4 and marked the last game for legendary Princeton head coach Chris Sailer, who is retiring after this season. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
After the Princeton University women’s lacrosse team fell 13-9 to Syracuse last Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament, many fans in Class of 1952 Stadium rose for a standing ovation and the Tiger staff exchanged hugs on the sideline.
While the result was disappointing, the show of affection recognized the end of an era as legendary Princeton head coach Chris Sailer left the field for the last time heading into retirement with the Tigers seeing their 2022 campaign come to an end.
While Sailer had hoped to see her squad make it to the Final 4, she had no qualms with the effort she got from her players this spring as they posted a 15-4 record.
“I couldn’t be prouder of how they have competed all year long in the journey we have been on,” said Sailer, a 2008 inductee to the U.S. Lacrosse National Hall of Fame, who ended her 36-year tenure at Princeton with a 433-168 record, three NCAA titles (1994, 2002, 2003), 16 Ivy League titles, and six Ivy Tournament Championships.
“We had so many young kids on the field for us. We had a lot of freshmen and sophomores who were really frustrated because there was no competition last year. We had great senior leadership. I am really proud of how far we have come, how we competed, and how well we represented Princeton.”
Last Sunday, the Tigers competed well from the opening draw, jumping out to a 3-0 lead over the fifth-seeded Orange. But high-powered Syracuse responded by outscoring the Tigers 6-3 in the second quarter to seize momentum and edge ahead 7-6 at halftime. The Orange then went on a 4-1 run after the break and never looked back on the way to the 13-9 win.
“I thought we were playing great offense and great defense,” said Sailer, reflecting on her team’s promising start. “The shots were fairly even in that game, 31-32. We had our opportunities and I think we are kicking ourselves a little bit. In the first and second quarters, we had plenty of really good looks at the cage and on a normal day we bury those. We are very good shooters but today with nine goals on 31 shots, that is not a typical day for us.”
After the break, Princeton couldn’t find a rhythm as it managed only two goals in the first 25 minutes of the second half.
“We were getting off shots but especially at the second half off the game, they were collapsing really well on inside feeds,” said Sailer. “We were getting looks with our backs to the cage. They weren’t the best scoring looks that we could get. I think that is really what happened, they really tightened up defensively.”
Senior star attacker Kyla Sears, who tallied three goals in the defeat, credited the Orange with making things hard for the Tigers.
“They are a great team, we knew they had a lot of success,” said Sears, who finished the season with 100 points and will graduate as Princeton’s all-time leader in goals (209), assists (98), and points (307).
“They communicate well, they came out hard on our hands. They were awesome players. It was a really good battle in the eight. I am really proud of how the younger girls stepped up. I think we handled it really well, we were composed.”
Senior standout defender Marge Donovan believed that the Tigers battled hard to the end.
“I am just proud of us, we are young and there is a reason why we had all of the five years come back to be part of this team,” said Donovan. “It is incredible, the team that Chris, Jenn [Cook] and Kerrin [Mauer] have fostered. I am so proud to be part of it and more proud of everyone on the field and how we carry ourselves as teammates and as people.”
Donovan acknowledged that Syracuse proved to be a tough team to overcome.
“They are good, they have great players,” said Donovan, who had four ground balls, five draw controls and four caused turnovers in the loss and is leaving the program as the career leader in draw controls (214).
“I have a lot of respect for them. They go hard, they are extremely skilled. It takes a whole team to win that game from top to bottom. We put our hearts out on the field.”
Playing for Sailer was a great experience for Donovan. “It is just gratitude, that is the word that comes to mind,” said Donovan, with her eyes tearing up. “I am so blessed to have played for Chris.”
A weepy Sears echoed those sentiments. “There are very few words to express it and how we really wanted to give her this run in the NCAA,” said Sears of Sailer.
“We are happy with what we did this year. We are thankful for the way she has impacted us as people off the field.”
Sailer, for her part, is thankful for her 36 years at the helm of the Tigers.
“I have so many memories, just being out on this field,” said Sailer with her voice cracking as she fought back tears. “It is a great place to play. We have had so much fun together, as a staff, as a team over the years. There are so many kids on this team and on all of our teams who just fight their hearts out. We laugh, we dance, we sing, we just have a good time together. It really is a family and that is what made it as good as it has been.”
While Sailer is looking forward to having a good time in retirement, she will be still thinking about her Princeton family.
“I am going to go to the beach, I am going to be living in my place in Rehoboth Beach,” said Sailer with a smile.
“In the winter, I will hopefully be in Florida a little bit. I am going to play some pickleball, some golf, and go biking. I am just going to enjoy some time with family and friends. These days you can watch a lacrosse game on TV basically every day starting in February, so I won’t be too far from lacrosse. Hopefully I will be making some trips up to watch the Tigers. I will be their biggest fan, it will be fun to be watching with some of my alums in the stands.”
It is safe to say, though, that the game of women’s lacrosse won’t be quite the same without Sailer on the sidelines.