Featuring a Large Group of Young Performers, PU Women’s Soccer Looking to Mature Quickly
GETTING UP TO SPEED: Princeton University women’s soccer player Heather MacNab races upfield in a game last fall. Coming off a superb freshman season which saw her tally three goals and seven assists, MacNab should be a key weapon for the Tigers this fall. Princeton opens its 2022 campaign by hosting Colgate on August 26 at Class of 1952 Stadium. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Youth will be served this fall for the Princeton University women’s soccer team.
“There are a lot of new players, we are really, really young,” said Princeton head coach Sean Driscoll. “We have 17 freshmen and sophomores on the team and we have eight upperclassmen.”
The young players are benefiting from the legacy left by the 2021 squad that went 15-3-1 overall and 6-1 Ivy on the way to making the second round of the NCAA tournament as the program returned to action after the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“The culture of last year’s team has trickled to this year’s team,” said Driscoll, whose team opens the 2022 season by hosting Colgate on August 26 at Class of 1952 Stadium. “When you had COVID going on, there was a down time. The post-COVID year has given us a greater sense of appreciation and gratitude. In terms of culture, we are definitely farther ahead, just moving forward on last year.”
While the Tigers may experience some growing pains this fall, he believes they have the depth to overcome that.
“We are talented attacking-wise but we are different than we have been,” said Driscoll, whose team is looking forward to the opening of the new Roberts Stadium later this fall. “We have different skill sets, it is exciting. We have option A and we have option B. We have got options in certain situations and other options in different situations. We have a lot of pieces who we can play for different reasons. They have very different skill sets. When we make our rotations during the game, we are going to ask different questions of our opponents. It is going to be a different thing that people have to cope with.”
At forward, Driscoll is looking for sophomore Heather MacNab (3 goals, 7 assists in 2021) and junior Lexi Hiltunen (4 goals, 3 assists) to cause problems for Princeton’s opponents.
“They are doing well,” said Driscoll. “They are both in good shape, they are both training hard. It is all you can ask of your players.”
While Driscoll doesn’t want to ask too much of his freshmen, he believes his crew of newcomers, Drew Coomans, Kelsee Wozniak, Pietra Tordin, Ally Murphy, and Summer Pierson should spice up the Tiger offense.
“We got some pretty special abilities with the freshmen, they have a lot of speed, skill set, and physicality,” said Driscoll. “It is a really athletic group. They are exciting because each one of them gives you something different. As a bunch of different pieces, they give you a pretty cool puzzle.”
In the midfield, the Tigers boast some skill in a group of veterans that includes junior Jen Estes (3 goals, 3 assists), junior Aria Nagai (4 assists), sophomore Lily Bryant (6 goals, 4 assists), senior Grace Sherman (1 goal), sophomore Ella Midura (1 goals, 1 assist), and sophomore Kate Toomey (2 assists).
“Jen is a returner at forward but we are probably moving her to midfield, she is doing really well there at the moment,” said Driscoll. “Aria is a high IQ kid who does a really good job for us. She will feature in there along with Lily. Grace was injured last year in our first training session; she is back and healthy. Kate is also showing pretty well. Jen and Ella just blew away the fitness test, they got the highest scores we have ever seen.”
Along the back line, senior Kamryn Lostau (1 goal, 1 assist), senior Morgan Wiese, senior Gracyn Kuerner, sophomore Ryann Brown, and sophomore Kiley Hamou along with freshmen Caroline Kane and Pia Beaulieu will shore up the Tiger defense.
“It is a good group,” said Driscoll. “It is older, we have some upperclassmen there.”
At goalie, sophomore Tyler McCamey (0.26 goals against average, .917 save percentage in five games last fall) and senior Ella Gantman (0.00 GAA in one game) are vying for playing time.
“They are pushing each other, they are both doing a good job,” said Driscoll.
In order to continue its tradition of success, the Princeton players will need to support each other.
“We always have to value the culture and what matters most,” said Driscoll. “The reality is that you can only get to a certain level of accomplishment if you prioritize the things that are most important which are the non-negotiables on our team. It is being great teammates, being great human beings. We already know that they are great students and athletes, we have to prioritize the human element. We read the book Energy Bus this year. Every season we read a book and try to make that a priority for us. It is all about getting everybody on the bus and everyone buying into what we are doing and no one detracting from what needs to be there with the positive energy. You are either bringing to or detracting from where we are trying to go. There is no in-between, you can’t just exist.”
That positive culture can help the squad get through the ebbs and flows of the season.
“Things don’t always go perfectly and that is going to happen when classes start — the starting lineup is put out there and we have a game where don’t play as well as we would like,” said Driscoll. “In the end, you have to go back to what matters most and the non-negotiables chart the course. That, for me, is always going to be 100 percent the priority.”
Another priority for Driscoll is making sure the squad is fresh to keep players from getting hurt.
“The No. 2 thing is that we have to stay healthy, we have already incurred two injuries,” said Driscoll, noting that sophomore Kayleen Gowers and senior Marissa Hart are sidelined due to injury.
“Every team has its talent, every team has its depth. At some point your depth gets tested and the good news is that if there are injuries, other people get an opportunity to play. But at the same time, once you start using some depth, you can’t incur more. Staying healthy for us will be really important.”
If the Tigers can stay healthy, they have the chance to develop a winning chemistry.
“The other piece for us is how well and how quickly this team meshes together — two-thirds of the team is young by college standards,” said Driscoll.“We just need to figure out the right combinations and that will work itself out. Last year we had 15 different goal scorers.”
A busy opening weekend, which includes a home game against Fairfield on August 28 in addition to the opener against Colgate on Friday, will give Princeton the chance to come tougher quickly.
“They are both good programs and teams that I think will be in contention for their respective leagues,” said Driscoll of Colgate and Fairfield, where he coached before taking the helm of the Tigers in 2015. “We need to play teams that we feel will give us a challenge. I think everyone is going to give us test. When you are young, it is exciting but also you don’t know. We are relying upon our seniors and our upperclassmen to lead by example. We have to hope for a very quick maturation of these kids. A lot of our sophomores got many important minutes last year so I think that helps.”
Driscoll relishes the annual challenge of developing a team into a title contender.
“It is a giant puzzle; you take all the pieces that have different shapes and you try to put them together and eventually you figure out what that puzzle is,” said Driscoll, who has guided the Tigers to three Ivy League crowns and four NCAA tournament appearances in his tenure. “At the end of the season, you throw that whole thing into the box and it scrambles up again.”
No matter how that puzzle comes together this fall, Driscoll is determined to savor the process.
“It is a wonderful group to work with, I have enjoyed it,” said Driscoll. “I think COVID certainly refocused all of us. We keep reminding the team, it is a gift, privilege and honor to put on the jersey for the people who have played here before, the people that play after you, and the kids in the stands that are hoping to be you one day. You have to approach everything with tremendous gratitude. We have already had it taken away. Since that time, for me it is about appreciating the journey far more that the destination. I was always worried about where we were going to finish and not about what is going on today. It is let’s just appreciate it and every second we have together. I think we just need to grab it with both hands and take it a day at a time.”