February 15, 2023

With Coach Cook Taking the Helm of PU Women’s Lax, Tigers Starting New Era When They Host Virginia in Opener

ON THE ATTACK: Princeton University women’s lacrosse player Kate Mulham heads upfield in a game last season. Senior attacker Mulham, who tallied 35 goals and 13 assists in 2022, figures to be a key offensive weapon for the Tigers this spring. Princeton, which will be guided by new head Jenn Cook, the successor to Chris Sailer, who retired last spring after guiding the program for 36 seasons, opens its 2023 season by hosting No. 13 Virginia on February 18. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

A new era kicks off at noon Saturday for the Princeton University women’s lacrosse program when it hosts Virginia in Class of 1952 Stadium.

It will be the first game at the helm for new head coach Jenn Cook, the successor to Chris Sailer, who retired after her 36th season with the Tigers concluded last spring. Cook brings familiarity to the program as a former assistant to Sailer, but also a different energy and approach in her first head coaching job. She, her staff and her players are ready to prove that Princeton is as good as ever.

“It’s been awesome,” said Cook, who is entering her 11th season with the program, having previously served as an assistant coach and associate head coach. “Our kids are tremendously motivated and hungry. They have come back ready to go.”

The Tigers are focused on who they have, not who they don’t have, after several marquee players moved on from both ends of the field. Kyla Sears, whose 100 points (70 goals, 30 assists) were 42 more points than anyone on the Princeton team a year ago, graduated as the unanimous Ivy League Attacker of the Year. At the defensive end, four-year starting goalie Sam Fish graduated after earning Ivy Goaltender of the Year. So did defensive stalwarts Marge Donovan (the unanimous 2022 Ivy Defender of the Year who is finishing her college eligibility at Maryland), Mary Murphy and Olivia Pugh.

“I think for us it’s about confidence and focusing on us and right now and being where our feet are, and not necessarily what we’re losing but we have,” said Cook. “It’s really about being in the moment — playing our best and really showing how hungry we are and capable of stepping up in big moments.”

Cook and her players are plenty familiar with each other from her years as an assistant to Sailer. It has been a benefit for both to not start completely from scratch.

“Our players really understand our coaching style and really understand how we think about the game and know how we lead and what our expectations are,” said Cook. “I think that leads to a really great comfort level and freedom and joy when our kids play. They don’t feel like they’re walking on eggshells or can’t make mistakes. We say mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow, and so our girls know our coaching style and that leads to a level of comfort.”

Cook is also plenty familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of her returning players. She has appreciated the way they have embraced her points of emphasis, like returning from winter break highly conditioned and ready to focus on strategy and the nuances of the game. Fall ball had given the Tigers a sneak peek at how they will look against other teams, and they had a final preseason tune-up against Army a week and a half ago to gauge themselves one final time before the season starts.

“It just gave us a really good read of where we are with our stickwork, with our conditioning, with different defensive systems and different offensive plays and just where we were,” said Cook. “It’s been a really great start for us.”

The attack won’t have Sears, but otherwise there are plenty of familiar faces. Princeton’s next eight leading scorers are back from last year’s team that finished 15-4 overall and was a perfect 7-0 in the Ivy League, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“Kyla Sears was an incredibly prolific player and she meant so much to the program, but I know myself and (associate head coach) Kerrin Maurer are extremely excited for the group that we have out on the field,” said Cook. “They’re extremely dynamic. They work really, really well together. They play off of each other really, really well. I think in years past, everybody’s eyes kind of went to Kyla, even on-field, and I think that limits the opportunities for the other people playing within that offense. I don’t think that’s the case this year. Chemistry-wise they play extremely well off of each other and it’s really about setting each other up for the best opportunities and the best possible look that we can get as an offensive unit.”

Junior Grace Tauckus is the top returning scorer after tallying 47 goals and 11 assists in her first full season — she played five games before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and then the Ivies had no season in 2021. Kate Mulham, a second-team All-Ivy selection in her first full season last year, was 10 points behind with 35 goals and 13 assists. Tauckus returns with the best shooting percentage on the Tigers. Mulham is blossoming into a key leader.

“Grace Tauckus is amazing,” said Cook. “I think she’s going to have a great year. I also think Kate Mulham, senior captain who’s had maybe not the easiest journey — she tore her ACL and then COVID happened — her real experience came last year as a junior in terms of real on-field experience. I think this year she’s going to have an incredible year. She has this mentality and this resilience grittiness about her that really shows in her play. She’s a kid who wants the ball at the end of a game in a big moment. She doesn’t shy away from that.”

McKenzie Blake (36 goals, 10 assists) was a breakout player as a starter in her first year last spring. Nina Montes, another sophomore, had 23 points (18 goals, 5 assists) a year ago, one point behind junior Ellie Mueller (14 goals, 10 assists). Princeton has a first-year this season who could make a similar impact. Jami MacDonald comes from Canada and brings another threat to their attack. The older veterans are taking on bigger leadership roles and setting the tone for the attack. Each player has the chance to be a bigger contributor this year.

“I think the growth for our offense is they’re going to be getting more touches and just getting used to that,” said Cook. “I think it is different. But I think they’re more than capable — all of them collectively — of stepping in and being comfortable with that because of how hungry they are and just their mentality and the approach that they’ve had. Ellie is more confident behind cage, making feeds, working on timing and developing that chemistry with people. McKenzie is a lefty and Jamie is a lefty, reading each other and setting each other up, they’ve really been growing in that this past year and developing that chemistry which has been really fun to see.”

The defensive end has more significant changes. Junior Sammy Filippi is a returning starter to build around. Princeton will slide an All-Ivy honoree Maria Pansini as well as fellow senior Shannon Berry out of a deep midfield back to the defense that graduated so much.

“There are always middies that prefer the attack end or the D end a little bit more,” said Cook. “And both of them had always excelled and really loved the defensive side of the ball, and when those spots opened up they jumped at the opportunity to shore up that end and make it as strong as possible. Their leadership and understanding and how hard they work and how motivated they are has really brought along the rest of the young ones in that group and maybe less experienced players in that group. I think it’s really, really helped strengthen us.”

Shea Smith, another senior, has made big jumps to help the defense as well. She was in the defensive rotation a year ago. Sam Whiting is just a sophomore, but also has developed well since earning time in the rotation last season. Junior Caroline Burnett and first-year Dylan Allen add to the depth at the defensive end. “There’s plenty of options and plenty of opportunity for a lot of different people,” said Cook. “So it’s pretty exciting on that end.”

Who is in goal behind the defense hasn’t been decided as of yet. Cook and her staff — which includes former goalie Molly Dougherty from 2018 national champion James Madison — are evaluating first-year Amelia Hughes and sophomore Tia Reaman. Reaman returns after playing just 15 minutes total behind Fish. Hughes comes from Wilton, Conn.

“Tia is a returner,” said Cook. “She’s comfortable. She knows all our different schemes. She played behind Sam Fish, so she had a really good window into what that role is and how to operate in it and she really got to see from the best. And then you have a really talented kid in Amelia Hughes, who has really phenomenal hands and gets the ball out early on a clear and is really even keel. I think they’re both ready to go.”

Cook plans to go with one of them for the entire game, not split halves as some teams do. She is also adamant that whoever does not start is ready to play.

“They’re both extremely important for us the entirety of the season regardless of who gets the nod come next Saturday,” said Cook. “We’re going to need both of them. Anything can happen at any part of the season, and everyone has to be ready for their moment.”

The Tigers only moved Pansini and Berry back to defense because they felt they had a luxury of depth at the midfield position. Led by Kari Buonanno, the team’s fifth-leading scorer a year ago with 27 goals and 10 assists, the unit will be important in connecting the defense and attack. Buonanno is primed for a statement year.

“She makes plays all over the field and is also an incredible leader and sets an incredibly high standard for understanding both sides of the ball and having an impact on both sides of the ball,” said Cook. “Sam DeVito is a junior and returner and she’s quiet, but she’s not quiet in the way that she plays. It’s really been fun to see both of them continually develop and grow. We also have returners in Lillian Stout in the midfield and Sophie Whiteway.”

Lane Calkins and Haven Dora are first-year players who will contribute in the midfield as well. Stout and Whiteway also are important for taking the draw. As much as Donovan was commended for her defensive play, her play on the draw control was just as big. She won 112 of Princeton’s 264 draw controls. How the Tigers replace her most effectively will play out over the season. Dora will be on the circle to show off a quick first step. Buonanno and DeVito have a nose for the ball which makes them valuable there.

“That is a loss with Marge on the circle,” said Cook. “But we all feel really confident with the players that we have on-field that we’ll be fine in closing that gap, just like we feel fine in closing that point gap on the offensive side of the ball, and the defensive side of the ball too.”

Princeton, who is currently ranked 16th nationally in the Inside Lacrosse media poll, will be tested right from the start of the season as No. 13 Virginia (2-0) opened its year with a 14-11 win over early season darling Stanford and then topped UC Davis 16-12. The Tigers also will play highly regarded Rutgers, USC, Penn State, Maryland, and Loyola in out-of-conference action.

“It’s a great opportunity for us and a great challenge for us,” said Cook. “Looking at our out-of-conference play really sets us up for Ivy play. It’s a dogfight. Every single Ivy game is incredibly important and could go either way. For us, those out-of-conference games are really prepping us for our Ivy League and conference games. We like seeing people in Big Ten and ACC and different conferences than us because overall that body of work is going to prepare us not only for our regular season play, but our Ivy League tournament play and potentially into the future.”

The preseason media poll selected the Tigers to repeat as Ivy champions, but Cook is preaching that her team stays hungry and humble and not focus on rankings. Yale, which was picked second, remains a team on the rise and the rest of the league has shown potential.

“Yale has done an incredible job with their kids,” said Cook, who was college roommates at North Carolina with Yale head coach Erica Bamford. “I think they’re all competitive. I can’t rattle off a game where you think it’s a gimme. That’s a good thing. We want as many Ivy teams to be as strong as possible nationally.”

Princeton just hopes that it is the Ivy team leading the way by the end of the season. The Tigers begin their season Saturday with a chance to show just how good the program can be.

“It’s really been cool to see the progress that everybody has made and the adjustments and growth everybody has had in the time that we’ve had together since the fall through our preseason,” said Cook.