August 30, 2023

PU Field Hockey Featuring a Bevy of New Faces, But Confident it Can Maintain Winning Tradition

AMAZING GRACE: Princeton University field hockey player Grace Schulze, left, controls the ball in a game last fall. Senior forward Schulze, who tallied six goals and 10 assists in 2022, figures to be a key offensive catalyst for the Tigers this fall. Princeton, ranked No. 10 in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) preseason poll, opens its 2023 campaign by facing Louisville on September 1 and the University of North Carolina on September 3, with both games to be played at Ellen Vagelos Field in Philadelphia. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University field hockey team will feature a new look when they take on Louisville on Friday in Philadelphia.

The Tigers have to replace nine starters led by a group of seniors, including 2022 third-leading scorer Sammy Popper (9 goals, 2 assists), that graduated after helping Princeton go 13-5, win the Ivy League and reach the NCAA tournament. Princeton will also be without last year’s top scorer Beth Yeager (12 goals, 8 assists), the 2022 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, who is playing with the United States team that is working toward Olympic qualification.

“I think we’re very young,” said Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente, whose team was ranked 10th in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) preseason poll. “We’ve got a lot of new faces trying to fill in big shoes that have left. There’s a different vibe to the group.”

Princeton will spend the first few weeks of the season sorting out its most effective lineup. They will take on a ninth-ranked Louisville team (2-0) that will be in its third game and then a top-ranked North Carolina team (1-1) that will be on its fourth game Sunday, also in Philadelphia. Princeton saw some of the swings it expects early when it had a final scrimmage.

“It was good in parts, and frustrating in others,” said Tagliente. “I think that’s where we’re at. We’re still trying to figure out who we are.”

The Tigers will need leadership with such a young club. They have two returning starters in goalie Robyn Thompson (1.72 goals against average, .713 save percentage in 2022) and forward Grace Schulze (6 goals, 10 assists in 2022). The seniors are captains along with classmate Sam Davidson (7 goals).

“Robyn and Sam have been the two biggest vocal leaders,” said Tagliente. “Grace Schulze is right up there with them. They’re the three captains. Grace is more of a lead by example type of kid. Those three have done a great job. Liz Agatucci (2 goals) and Bridget Murphy, they are also in that senior class, and they work so hard. Their fitness level, Bridget is one of fittest players I’ve ever had play for me. They set this example of work rate and consistency and competitiveness that you really need on a young team like this.”

Tagliente is confident that everything will come together. The Tigers were picked to win the Ivy League, and the times when they have looked good show promise.

“I think the potential is high,” said Tagliente. “Having so many new players having to take on roles, you’re still at the point where we have a little bit of inconsistency and a little lack of connection on the field at times. The feeling is high. It’s just getting them to buy in and putting the work in to go through some of these growing pains is going
to be the challenge.”

The significant graduation losses have opened opportunities for others. Princeton has a mix of returning players and freshmen that are vying for playing time. Several of the returning players recognized and responded to the chance.

“Liz Agatucci, I don’t know where she’s going to play, but her fitness level is at a point where she put herself in a great position to be versatile and play anywhere,” said Tagliente. “Same with Bridget Murphy. Sam Davidson has really stepped up. She was primarily in the back. She could share time in the midfield in a defensive midfield role. She’s proved she can play that position which is great.”

Aimee Jungfer (1 goal) and Clare Brennan are juniors that have worked themselves into consideration for more playing time. They both figure to get chances during the regular season to cement a role.

“They have come from not really having much of a role to seeing themselves having bigger roles,” said Tagliente. “I think we’re still in the infant stages of seeing what they can do, but they’ve really stepped up and stepped into roles. They’ve done well to put themselves in position to be on the field.”

With so much turnover, there is also early opportunities for Princeton’s Class of 2027. The Tigers have a group that will be able to help at every level of the field.

“We’ve got some impactful freshmen this year with Ottilie Sykes, who can play center back, and Ella Cashman will play one of the center midfield roles,” said Tagliente. “Hope Delaney will probably come off the bench the first couple weekends, but then I think her ceiling is high and she could find her way into the starting lineup midway through the season if she keeps growing.”

Princeton anticipates growing plenty as a team. Its lineup may change as they adjust to playing together and find the top lineup to produce goals. They will be doing so with a young group unlike a lot of non-Ivy League Division I programs that can retool their teams with experienced transfers.

“We have lots of potential,” said Tagliente. “We’re definitely going to play a different style a little bit. Ottilie is a big-time player coming out of England who can really outlet and hit big balls out of the back so we can open teams up more. But to put nine new players on the field and expect continuity right away is tough.”

How the Tigers will score is a big question mark as they enter the season. Princeton lost two of last year’s top three scorers. Scrimmaging and practicing have emphasized how important finding more scorers will be.

“We get a lot of play inside the attacking 30 zone, but not a lot of outcome,” said Tagliente. “We really need to draw corners because Ottilie is kid in on corners that can score. If we draw corners like we did last
year — I think we led the nation — we’ll be in good shape because I think our conversion will be higher this year, even losing Beth. We replace her with someone that can score equally well, just in a different way.”

Schulze is the Tigers’ leading returning scorer with her six goals and 10 assists last fall. Davidson is the leading returning goal scorer after she notched seven goals a year ago. Grace Anne McCooey is a sophomore who has impressed early and started at points in the preseason. But the scoring will fall on multiple people.

“I think we have talent,” said Tagliente. “I don’t think we have someone that’s going to have to bear the burden of scoring. We just need to play our system.”

Connecting the defense to the offense will be a midfield that is still a work in progress. The Tigers’ staff has been working on how they will transition the ball out of the defensive end through the midfield to the offense. They have some pieces that they expect to be able to rely on in these major roles.

“We’re still building,” said Tagliente. “Ella Cashman and Bridget have been playing a lot in the middle together. I think Sam Davidson may end up in the middle with Cashman a lot. You’ll see Cashman on the field a lot. That kid is going to log a ton of minutes. Liz has been doing a great job at outside left and outside right. Aimee Jungfer has been playing a lot of left midfield. And Hope Delaney has been playing a lot in the midfield.”

Local product Talia Schenck (2 goals, 2 assists) could also see more time in the midfield after slotting mostly as a forward in her first year. The Lawrence High graduate is poised to make a bigger impact in her second season with the Tigers.

“Talia is one who could have a breakout year,” said Tagliente. “This kid can score goals. If you ask me up front where goals can come from, definitely from her. Skillwise, she has the best skill on the team, and she’s the best goal scorer on team. She’s at the phase in her development where she’s just trying to transfer her play in practice to a bigger field and get the ball more, and be more effective on the ball.”

The defense also is still developing. The Tigers have a rock-solid goalie in Thompson, who started all but one game a year ago. She will have some new parts around her, starting with Sykes in the middle.

“We’re not quite set on what that’s going to be,” said Tagliente. “We’re going to have to do a little trial and error the first couple games.”

The first couple games will pose significant challenges, but Tagliente is determined to see her team give a sharp effort. She doesn’t expect flawless execution yet, but the effort Princeton plays with will hopefully be enough.

“My challenge is to focus this week,” said Tagliente. “This next weekend is game on. It’s not like it’s opening weekend, but it’s their third game and our first. There are no ‘buts.’ We’re going and we’re going in to win. I think we’re a little over this moral victory first weekend situation. I really want to go at both of these teams. They’re both very good. I still think we can play with them and I still think we can win.”

The non-conference schedule was put together to help prepare Princeton to defend its Ivy crown. The Ivy League has grown more competitive, said Tagliente, with Cornell and Yale also looking to vie with Harvard to threaten Princeton. In addition, the league will be holding its inaugural postseason tournament which will include the top four teams in the regular season standings with the victor earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Tigers’ non-conference schedule that includes Louisville, North Carolina, Maryland, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Syracuse is among the toughest in the country.

“It’s very good; it’ll definitely prepare us down the stretch,” said Tagliente,
referring to the gauntlet of tough contests. “We’ll be pushed and challenged. If we’re not on our game, we’re going to pay the price. But I’d rather that than us play teams that aren’t going to push and challenge us. Ivy play is so important. We have the tournament, but we still have to get to the Ivy tournament and to run the table is another challenge in front of us. All of these games are just a build-up in helping us prepare as we go through the season. Win or lose each game, we still have to have a takeaway from each game and get better each day.”

It begins this weekend with two challenging games. It’s the first step in a long process for a young Princeton team that hopes to compete with the best from start to finish this season.