August 31, 2022

Featuring Battle-Tested Veterans, Talented Freshmen, Princeton Field Hockey Primed for Stellar Campaign

POP STAR: Princeton University field hockey player Sammy Popper controls the ball in a game last season. Senior tri-captain Popper will be looking to shore up the Princeton backline this fall as she is moving to the center back spot. The 13th-ranked Tigers open their 2022 campaign by playing at second-ranked North Carolina on September 2. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Carla Tagliente has seen a different confidence about her Princeton University field hockey team through its preseason.

Much of it stems from having everyone back from a Tiger squad that had no seniors last year plus adding a freshman class that bring necessary depth as they prepare to open at second-ranked North Carolina on September 2.

“You wouldn’t think on paper it would make much of a difference because they’re the same people, but in terms of experience it’s a huge difference,” said Tagliente, who is starting her sixth season as Princeton head coach. “You look at it last year and we had missed the year as well and it kind of resets things back in terms of where we’re at and what we need to go over. The recency of things is not there because they haven’t played in so long. It’s a way different feel this preseason than last year in terms of the confidence across the board.”

Princeton went 10-7 overall and 6-1 Ivy League a year ago after Ivy teams did not compete in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tigers lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Harvard to finish second in the league standings and had a couple narrow losses cost them a bid to the NCAA tournament. That season may not have ended the way Princeton wanted it to, but the experience has value as the Tigers prepare to start this season.

“That’s the big difference between this year and last year with so many back,” said Tagliente, whose team is ranked 13th nationally. “The sophomores hadn’t really played a game so we had 10-11 players that were having their first experience with it and we’re going over such basic things. Whereas this year, it’s just the six freshmen that we’re having to bring on board and the older players, they’ve checked those boxes and they’re not taking steps backwards. So I’m really happy in that regard, that we’re not taking a step back collectively and having to go over certain things. I really feel like we can lean on these returners to come back and perform and lead the way.”

Princeton scrimmaged St. Joseph’s on August 23 in their only look outside of the program before the season opener. St. Joe’s, which is ranked 16th in the preseason, gave Princeton strong competition to help evaluate where they stand.

“We’re a lot further along than we were last year,” said Tagliente. “In terms of some of the things that we always find we’re trying to clean up after the scrimmage — the defensive organization, some pressing, and some areas — we think we don’t have to touch on as much and we’re focusing on other things.”

Statistically last year, the Tigers were among the best in the country offensively. They ranked second in assists — partly due to a reliance on scoring off penalty corners — and eighth in goals scored. No opponent shut them out all year. At the other end, Princeton ranked 31st in goals against average.

“What really hung us up last year was our defensive organization and transition,” said Tagliente. “We loved to attack, attack, attack, but we left no one home to protect the house a lot of the time and we can’t play like that all the time. Just some small structural things need to change. We do need to grow a lot in our goal-scoring ability in the field of play. We were OK in scoring, but we didn’t score a lot of field goals. I think the jury is out with this group yet. We haven’t seen enough competition yet to know how good we’ll be in the field of play. We can’t live and die by penalty corners, it’s just not sustainable.”

Princeton has eight
seniors, three of whom are captains. Hannah Davey was a 2021 first-team All-Ivy selection. She has played both offense and defense for the Tigers in her career, but this year will be doing a bit of both as she moves to midfield.

“I do think that will help shore up the defensive transition,” said Tagliente. “It’s pivotal where she plays, she has a presence where she plays. She’ll probably slide into the middle. Her first year she played outside right. Last year she played right back. This year, she’ll probably play defensive center mid which I think has been a long time coming. I don’t think she was quite ready for it. I think she’s finally ready to play there and that will help on both sides of the ball.”

Another captain, Sammy Popper, is making an even bigger move. She will slide back to center back, though she is quite an offensive threat. She was second on the Tigers in goals (8) a year ago, but moves back to help the Tigers fill in for first-team All-Ivy defender Gabby Andretta.

“Sammy has a skill set where she can hit a ball 75 yards just on a pinpoint laser,” said Tagliente. “Her defensive ability is nowhere near Gabby’s but her ability to outlet and break lines is way better than Gabby so we’ve been rolling with it. Gabby is still not fully cleared to be back so we kind of don’t have a choice. She may miss opening weekend, but she sneakily might force her way in and get cleared. Even if that’s the case, I’ll probably put Gabby on the outside back where Hannah was last year. Popper has a whole new position and I think it suits her.”

Another first-team All-Ivy selection last year, Ali McCarthy is a captain who will lead a forward line that is fast and athletic. McCarthy was second on the team in assists (7) and third in goals (6) last season.

“Ali has been having a great preseason,” said Tagliente. “I didn’t play her a ton in the scrimmage, mainly because I don’t need to see a lot of her. She and Talia (Schenck) have been the top two forwards out there. I’ve been pretty happy with her. I don’t want to push her too much, like in the scrimmage. We need her in the long haul.”

Beth Yeager is another headliner for the Tigers. The Ivy League Rookie of the Year and Ivy Offensive Player of the Year set the Princeton freshman record for goals in a year with 16. She will have the chance to play a more offensive role that suits her better than last year’s defensive midfielder spot.

“Beth is too attacking to play in that role,” said Tagliente. “She’s like a dog and a ball, wherever the ball is that kid wants to be there and wherever the goal is that kid wants to be there. You can’t really rewire that, and why try? She’s one of our better players and she has the skill set to play a defensive midfielder, but when you pull her back that hurts us. If we push her up, we’re a lot better on the attack side and we’re also a lot better than the defensive side.”

Yeager missed the final three games due to a stress fracture. She is healthy and playing better than ever after a summer in the U21 training camp.

“She looks good,” said Tagliente. “Her drag flick, I didn’t think she could make it that much better in one summer. But wow, it’s pretty good. I say we can’t live and die by penalty corners but if we draw them, her drag flick is probably the best in the country. She has that ability.”

Schenck is a local product who could help the Tigers offense in her first season. The Lawrence High graduate set the New Jersey record with 113 goals in a season last year, and her transition to college has been quick.

“She’s exceeded my expectations — not that I didn’t think she could do it,” said Tagliente.

“I always think I’m a little hard on Talia because I’ve known her for so long. I think it’s a good thing and it might be tough for her at times. I’ve known the kid since she was like 12. A couple first days, typical first-years, they look like chickens with their heads cut off. But she has really come along quickly in the preseason. I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but she’s been playing very well. She doesn’t look like a first-year player. She’s confident on attack. She’s probably top two in terms of technical ability on the front line in terms of what she can do with the ball. She’s come such a long way — her development in the last year and a half has come so rapidly. I hope she has a great season. I think she can.”

Schenck is part of a six-person class of freshmen that will be a big help to the Tigers. Even if they’re not all on the field immediately, they bring depth, something that was sorely lacking last year.

“If we stay healthy, we have a nice rotation,” said Tagliente. “The hard part last year was we were so thin in numbers, that Beth had to play too many minutes, Hannah had to play too many minutes. These freshmen coming in will give us a healthy rotation in the midfield. It’s a long season. We can’t lean on them to play 60 minutes a game.”

The Tigers are excited about the potential of their freshmen to contribute during their careers. Ella Thorburn may have a chance to rotate in goal with returning starter Robyn Thompson. Both are tall keepers, and Thorburn moves well in the cage. Ella Hampson will aid the defense with a hard-working attitude. Helena Grosse and Ava Dempsey can shore up the midfield, and Grace Anne McCooey will work toward giving the forward line even more depth.

“The freshmen will play a vital role, but I don’t think we have a high need that they come in Game 1 and contribute,” said Tagliente. “Not to say that they won’t play, but in past years you’re graduating big shoes and you’re relying on some kids to come in and fill those and it’s a lot. I don’t feel like we have to. It’s like we have the luxury that most of them will play.”

Princeton will be a senior-driven team this year, and the Tigers are counting on their experience to set the tone. The benefits of experience have shown through with not only seniors like Davey, Popper, and McCarthy excelling, but also Ophelie Bemelmans and Zoe Shephard making key jumps and enjoying terrific preseasons in their final year at Princeton. The Tigers need more than just their seniors’ playing skills as they look to return to the NCAA tournament.

“You need someone that really puts this team on their back — not in terms of performance, but in terms of belief — and doesn’t let them stop believing,” said Tagliente.

“It’s such a long road. You hit a couple hiccups here and there, what are you going to do? I need that kid in the locker room that says, ‘Forget it, we’re moving on, this is what you need to do.’ And they keep knocking on the door. You can’t really groom that player, it organically has to come out. I’m kind of waiting to see if we have that. And if we don’t have that one, do we have that collective resilience to push through? It’s not always going to be smooth sailing for us.”

Not with a schedule that does not let up for a month. Princeton will remain in North Carolina to take on Louisville there on September 4. Beyond that is a murderer’s row of Syracuse (at home September 9), Rutgers, Delaware, Northwestern, and Maryland. All come before the Tigers open Ivy play by hosting Penn on September 23. Harvard, with which the Tigers have split every other Ivy title for the last five years, will come to Bedford Field on October 23.

“We were in every game last year,” said Tagliente. “We were up against Louisville by two or three goals and lost the game. We were up against Maryland by a couple goals and lost the game. If we win those games, we go to the tournament. That’s my discussion with these guys — stop worrying about the record. Start worrying about the game you’re in and putting it away. And game by game, we’ll start building our portfolio for the committee and we don’t have to worry about Harvard anymore and we’ll get in.”