August 23, 2023

Tiger Women’s Soccer Bringing Hunger Into Fall, Motivated to Earn Spot in 1st-Ever Ivy Tournament

ON THE BALL: Princeton University women’s soccer player Jen Estes looks to control the ball in a game last season. Senior midfielder and co-captain Estes is primed for a big final season for the Tigers. Princeton kicks off its 2023 campaign by hosting Monmouth on August 25. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The first-ever Ivy League tournament is a big carrot waiting at the end of the regular season this fall for the Princeton University women’s soccer team.

To get there, the Tigers will have to finish among the top four Ivy teams after they navigate a challenging schedule that begins with the non-conference portion this week. Princeton will get its 2023 campaign underway by hosting Monmouth on August 25 on Myslik Field at Roberts Stadium, one of four straight at home to open the year. They turn around and host La Salle two days later.

“We have a very tough schedule, and it should prepare us for conference play,” said Princeton head coach Sean Driscoll. “We’re putting ourselves in a position to play against teams that are going to challenge us and hopefully prepare us. That’s why it’s considered one of the Top 20 non-conference schedules in the country. We’ll learn a lot about ourselves.”

Princeton is a far more experienced team this year than the one that started last year 7-4 before finishing 9-7-1, including 2-4-1 in Ivy play to take sixth in the conference standings. The Tigers graduated four seniors from that team, including All-Ivy midfielder, defenders Kamryn Loustau and Gracyn Kuerner as well as Ella Gantman, who split time in goal with Tyler McCamey.

“Last year we finished low in the league; it’s not something at Princeton we’re used to,” acknowledged Driscoll. “There’s an expectation of excellence at Princeton across all 38 sports, and I felt we came up a little short last year. We did pretty well out of conference, but in conference we did not do as well as we expect. We didn’t manage games particularly well and we conceded way too many goals and we didn’t score enough. When you don’t score many and concede a lot, you have a lot of room for improvement.”

Princeton has to finish in the top four to make the Ivy tournament. It’s an opportunity that Ivy coaches have been asking for, and they expect it to enhance their players’ experiences.

“It’s going to give four teams a cool experience in the postseason, whether they qualify for the NCAA tournament or not,” said Driscoll. “They’re going to have that moment where it’s the win or go home. That’s a fun thing for these student-athletes to have. I’ve seen it in the basketball, I’ve seen it in lacrosse. It gives you a different experience. These kids deserve that.”

Last year’s lower finish left Princeton’s returning players with a chip on their shoulder. Driscoll likes that attitude coming into the season as the Tigers aim to be better across the board. They are filling the spots of the graduated seniors, and many of Princeton’s significant contributors return.

“We were very young,” said Driscoll, whose squad featured the Ivy League Rookie of the Year last fall in forward/midfielder Pietra Tordin, the leading scorer for the Tigers with eight goals and three assists. “We graduated four seniors that played an important role. We return a lot of good quality players. We’re a much more experienced team than last year. That’s for me the biggest difference — we went from being a pretty young team, especially on attack, to a pretty experienced team across the field. I’m hoping the kids that were here last year learn from it. The
freshmen are no longer freshmen and that year of experience is huge. We’re a much more experienced team. The way we move the ball now, I can see that in their mentality and preparation.”

On top of the six freshmen that are joining the team this year, the Tigers also get back a pair of game changers that were missed last year. Madison Curry and Marissa Hart did not play for the Tigers after helping the team win the Ivy League and reach the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2021.

“Madison Curry is an incredible talent, a professional level player,” said Driscoll of Curry, a first-team All-Ivy selection in 2019 and 2021. “Having her come back in the fold after being gone a year is huge for our team. She’s being looked at by all the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) teams. She’s a tremendous player. Add her into the mix and it changes automatically the complexion of how we play.”

Curry and Hart will impact both ends of the field. Hart is coming back from a knee injury that cost her last season.

“You don’t replace a Marissa Hart — she’s just a tireless worker and effortless runner,” said Driscoll. “She’s going to bring something. Just as an injection of some kids that missed last season is awesome for us. We lost some seniors, but you add those two players into the fold — they played as many minutes as anyone in 2021 — that helps in terms of not only experience but in terms of appreciation of time missed. They have this real excitement of playing again because they didn’t play for a year. That trickles down, and they’re two of our four captains so I think that helps. There’s a lot to be excited about.”

Curry and Hart are captains along with fellow seniors Jen Estes and Morgan Wiese. The quartet balance each other in leadership styles and characteristics as well as what they can each bring to the pitch. Princeton also has Lexi Hiltunen and Aria Nagai to round out the senior class that will take the reins this year.

“What you want from your seniors is to end your careers in a place that’s better than where you started,” said Driscoll. “And I feel like all six of these are in that exact place. Our hope is that they bring their own unique strengths.”

The Tigers got the first look at their side against outside competition when they scrimmaged Thomas Jefferson University and Gwynedd Mercy University last Sunday. It gave Princeton a chance to see their team in action before the season opener.

“I liked our mentality,” said Driscoll. “The extra four days of preparation has been really good for us. We’ve been a little more methodical with how we do things. I think we’re making things a bit clearer for the team. I thought we had a really good platform for how to play. We did a good job in certain areas, specifically defensively and how we wanted to position ourselves to retain the ball quicker when we lost it. I also thought we did a pretty good job in our overall build-up and spacing. I think overall there were a lot of positives.”

There were also plenty of points to improve in this early juncture of the season. Driscoll was going to have the team study film from the scrimmage and sort out the areas to develop for the lead-up to the game against Monmouth.

“What we’re banking on is that this team has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder and we’re going to work on those details and be very conscientious about individual responsibilities,” said Driscoll. “I think the other piece for us is we have a lot of talented players, but it’s not about having the best players — it’s about having players that play really well together, that understand their roles and responsibilities and why they’re doing what they’re doing. As I say to the kids all the time, ‘If you know the why, the rest is easy.’”

Driscoll, though, expects plenty of challenges with a schedule stocked with accomplished opponents. Seven of Princeton’s opponents this year played in the 2022 NCAA tournament. Two others won their conferences in the regular season. The season begins with Monmouth and La Salle, then the Tigers will follow with non-conference games against Rutgers, Army, Penn State, Lafayette, Georgetown, Quinnipiac, and Bucknell.

“All those teams are going to give us some challenges and all of those teams are going to be in the running for their own league,” said Driscoll. “If you want to have a chance at an at-large bid, you want to play against those teams No. 1, and if you get to the NCAA tournament you want to be able to deal with different philosophies of how teams play, different systems and you want to challenge yourself against the best. If you get into the NCAA tournament, you don’t want to be shocked by what you’re about to face. These kids come to this school and this program because they want to play great
competition, and it’s our job to make sure they see that.”

The non-conference slate will augment an already tough gauntlet of Ivy League foes. But the addition of the Ivy tournament takes just a little pressure off each regular season game. Whereas in the past a pair of losses would have ended any chance for the postseason, the Ivy tournament will keep teams alive deeper into the season.

“Allowing the games to be a little bit different — they’ll still be incredibly challenging and taxing and physical and there will be a lot of passion on the field — but there will also be this understanding if we lose our first game, the season is not over,” said Driscoll. “Last year, if we’d had this, as we’d gone to the last week six teams would have been in contention for those four spots. Normally there’s two teams for a spot if you’re lucky. There’s a big, big difference of student-athlete welfare, mental health perspective and the overall experience. I think it’ll be wonderful for the league.”

The Ivy tournament is still far away. The focus on the path there is making sure that the Tigers develop through their daunting schedule. They will open with Monmouth and La Salle, two teams that already have played a couple games. Monmouth rebounded from a 1-0 loss to Lehigh with a 4-0 win over Fairleigh Dickinson. La Salle also split their first week with a 2-1 loss to Towson followed by a 1-0 win over Albany.

“It’s going to be two really good games to see where we are, and we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves,” said Driscoll. “We need to be physical — we’re going to be very clinical, and we have to value the ball when we have it and do our very best to kill the space so they can’t play in behind us. We’re going to have to be very, very good in both of those games. I’m excited to see how we do. We have to be sharp because both of those teams have a couple games under their belt and we do not.”