March 15, 2023

Adding to Tradition of Family Athletic Success at Princeton, Mueller Emerging as Key Performer for PU Women’s Lax

QUICK DRAW: Princeton University women’s lacrosse player Ellie Mueller goes after the ball in recent action. Last Saturday, junior Mueller scored a goal and had nine draw controls to help Princeton defeat USC 11-8. The Tigers, now 3-2, host Penn State on March 18. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Ellie Mueller came to Princeton University like her father, but she has competed in lacrosse not basketball like Kit Mueller, the former men’s hoops star who was named a Legend of the Ivy League this winter.

The women’s lacrosse team is grateful for that after seeing significant returns from finally using the junior attacker to take the draw control. Last Friday, Mueller, who was taking the draw for the first time in her college career, had nine draw controls to help the No. 16 Tigers defeat No. 20 USC 11-8 at Class of 1952 Stadium.

“I thought it went really well,” said Mueller. “We definitely saw in the first couple games those possessions are huge. So anyway that we can get in there and win those, or make it 50-50 — I know we went over a little bit in this game which was great — but any chance we can get to have even possessions with the other team is massive. It takes the pressure off our defense. I’m just really happy everyone worked and hunted the ball really hard. It was fun.”

Princeton improved to 3-2 overall by bouncing back from a 15-10 loss to Yale on March 4 in its Ivy League opener. The Tigers host No, 25 Penn State (5-2) this Saturday at Class of 1952 Stadium before three straight road games.

“They’re always great, athletic, fast,” said Mueller of Penn State. “We’re looking forward to seeing them next week. It’s exciting to have a good week ahead of practice to work over spring break without any other distractions. I think we’re looking forward to making more progress. The win against USC was great, but we still have more work to do for the season.”

Improving the draw control was a huge point of emphasis after the Yale loss left them .500. Draw controls were a significant factor in that loss as the Bulldogs owned a 22-6 advantage, and something that the Tigers worked to fix.

“That really was our focus all week,” said Princeton head coach Jenn Cook. “It was really about draw possessions and playing what we see and what we know we’re going to see.”

Princeton ranked last in Division I with a 30 percent draw control percentage after the loss to Yale. They turned to 5’10 Mueller, who had been a basketball star at Radnor (Pa.) and left as the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, but also had more than 250 goals and 250 draw controls in high school lacrosse. She relied on that athletic background and her instincts to do well against USC.

“I took the draw in high school,” said Mueller. “I’m on the draw team for our team. We have a bunch of great draw takers and a bunch of great circle girls. I’d never taken a draw in a game. Luckily this was a pretty opportunistic
matchup for me, being a big girl and able to box her out because she wanted to win it to herself.”

Princeton had a 16-7 draw control advantage against USC led by Mueller’s debut. Kari Buonanno won four draw controls, Samantha DeVito had two, and Sammy Filippi had one.

“Our circle girls played amazing,” said Mueller. “It was Kari, Sam DeVito, Sammy, getting into girls and boxing out, and we had a lot of success. It was very exciting.”

It was only the second game this season in which Princeton has had double-digit draw controls. They had 14 in their win over highly regarded Rutgers. Mueller found success winning the ball herself or getting it to teammates.

“Ellie was thrown in there and she did incredible,” said Cook. “I think we found the first part of that solution and we’re going to continue to look for solutions throughout the season. I think it comes back to looking at the little pieces that lead to possession and lead to success in games.”

Princeton had seen Mueller take the draw a few times in fall ball, and was willing to try her in a game after some more practice in the week ahead of USC. Kerrin Maurer, the associate head coach who focuses on the draw team, liked Mueller’s combination of hand speed and height as the team continued to evaluate potential answers.

“Sometimes your true attackers have the hand speed,” said Cook. “You look at kids that are feeding the ball and they have to be able to get it out of their stick quick. I think that had always been in the back of our minds, looking at kids, where they are on field and what’s required of them to be in certain positions. If you’re a low crease kid and you’re expected to make a feed on a dime, you probably have a quick release which means you probably have quick hands. Ellie was a basketball kid so she just reads and hunts the ball well.”

Mueller was happy to have the opportunity to help the team more. Last year, she was one of the top six scorers for the Tigers on the attack. She remains an offensive threat on pace to at least meet last year’s production.

“Last year was my first time playing low crease,” said Mueller. “I really like the role. I’ve been learning how I can best help our team that way, looking for those feeds and the drives around the crease and now working with our new freshman Jami [MacDonald], she’s amazing down the left. I’m learning a lot from her and learning a lot from my other attackers. It’s been really fun to integrate more into the offense and feel like I’m playing a role there.”

Mueller looks to be adding a bigger responsibility on the draw. Though the Tigers may need different matchups, taking the draw control may be the biggest way that she can help the team going forward. It’s a big change.

“It was crazy to take every one,” said Mueller. “That’s something I had to adjust to, but it was fun to be involved in that 50-50 ball and then come down to the offensive end. It was a different look. I enjoyed it.”

Princeton still ranks 89th of 125 Division I teams in possession time, but Mueller’s draw success helped the Tigers take some pressure off their defense, which has been under constant fire this year. At the defensive end, Princeton goalie Amelia Hughes continued her strong start. The freshman made 14 saves, and ranks second in the country at 12.25 saves per game after facing quite a barrage through five games.

“Amelia has been so steady in cage and composed and really seeing the ball, saving the ball,” said Cook. “She’s making really good choices off the clear as well. Her play has been incredible and shored up the defensive side of the ball. I also think our defenders have grown in leaps and bounds from our first game.”

Princeton’s defense has been under pressure with so little possession. The Tigers have worked to become a unit that works better together in covering opponents and setting up shots that Hughes can handle thanks to working with goalie coach Molly Dougherty. Princeton has tightened its defense each week.

“I think it’s two-fold,” said Cook. “Amelia’s been playing incredible and just is so composed. I credit Coach Molly for doing a ton of scout work with our goalies, but I also credit our D for growing where we needed to grow from that first game until now. And my hope is that that continues and we continually evolve and get better week by week throughout the season.”

At the offensive end, it was a balanced attack that helped Princeton by USC. Grace Tauckus had two goals and an assist, McKenzie Blake, Kate Mulham, and DeVito all had two goals apiece and Jami MacDonald and Buonanno each had two points on a goal and assist.

“When you scout us offensively, it’s extremely difficult,” said Cook. “If you take away a Jami, then you’ve got a McKenzie. If you take away Grace, then you’ve got Jami. It’s tough. Us sharing the ball and spreading the ball and really setting each other up for success has been fantastic.”

Princeton is still working on being more efficient on offense. They are 37th in the country in the percentage of shots that they score on, and can be more dangerous if they limit turnovers — they had 22 as a team against USC — and are more focused shooting. They will have more chances to improve those areas if they can continue to gain possessions on the draw, and that area of development was key against USC.

“In general, the big difference maker for us was the draw, as simple as that,” said Cook. “It’s possessions and taking care of the ball on the clear and getting some stops. We did that to give our attack the opportunity to have the ball in their sticks even with some turnover hiccups that they had.”

The improvements and a top-20 win have the Tigers feeling better as they head into a tough stretch with Big Ten opponents Penn State and Maryland. If they can come up with possessions, and get more scoring chances, it will take some pressure off the defense and give Princeton a chance against anyone.

“I think we’re growing as a team in confidence,” said Mueller. “On both sides of the ball, we work really well together and we communicate really well. That’s a big tribute to our coaches Jenn, Kerrin, and Molly who are out there every day with us, really pushing us to achieve our potential, and I think that we’re going to keep growing throughout the season under their leadership. We’re all really excited.”