September 13, 2023

With Senior Agatucci Bringing Versatility, Energy, PU Field Hockey Battling Tough Foes in 1-3 Start

FINISHING TOUCH: Princeton University field hockey player Liz Agatucci controls the ball in a game last year. Last Sunday, senior midfielder Agatucci scored the lone goal for No. 15 Princeton as it fell 2-1 to No. 12 Rutgers in overtime. The Tigers, now 1-3, play at Maryland on September 14 before hosting Connecticut on September 17. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Liz Agatucci has done a bit of everything for the Princeton University field hockey program.

After her class lost its freshman year to the COVID-19 pandemic, Agatucci began her career on defense for the Tigers. Last year, she moved to forward, and this year she has established herself in the midfield while also taking on a new leadership role as a senior starter.

“We joke about it all the time,” said Agatucci. “I’ve been everywhere.”

Her versatility and growth are helping the rebuilt Tigers sort out their strengths. No. 15 Princeton fell to 1-3 on the young season with a 2-1 loss to No. 12 Rutgers in double overtime Sunday in the Tigers’ home opener. It was Agatucci who provided the lone goal for Princeton to force overtime following a long delay to tend to injured goalie and reigning Defensive Player of the Week Robyn Thompson who was hurt in a collision with a Rutgers player. Freshman star Ottilie Sykes drove the penalty corner toward the goal and Agatucci dove to get her stick on it and redirect the ball to tie the game.

“I don’t think I was expecting to dive,” said Agatucci, a 5’2 native of Chapel Hill, N.C. “In the moment, it felt right. I just saw the ball going and I was too far out so I just went for it. I really wanted that one.”

A Princeton team that lost nine starters from a year ago, and was further thinned when another captain, Grace Schulze, was lost to injury for the season in a 2-1 overtime loss to No. 1 North Carolina a week earlier, could not muster another goal after Agatucci’s, and Rutgers scored on a penalty corner to end the game, the fourth 2-1 game of the season for Princeton. Their last three games have gone at least to overtime, and Princeton picked up its first win of the season less than 48 hours before the Rutgers loss with a 2-1 double-overtime win at Delaware on Friday.

“There’s definitely some fatigue there,” said Agatucci. “We’re already a small team considering we graduated eight or nine starters last year. We were already going into the season with a brand new team and brand new girls and we’re learning how to gel together. Two double overtimes in one weekend is going to wear anyone out. But I will say this team is pretty resilient. We play with heart and we play with passion. We’re ready for anything.”

Princeton’s first win came off the stick of Bridget Murphy, who tapped in a tipped shot from Agatucci. Agatucci scored the Tigers’ first goal against Delaware and a 1-0 lead that they held until barely one minute remained in regulation. The late Delaware goal did not deflate Princeton, who survived a near-game winner by Delaware that was waved off as a dangerous play. Princeton didn’t have long to celebrate its hard-fought win before it had to take on Rutgers. And it won’t have time to ponder what went wrong against Rutgers before playing at Maryland on September 14 and then hosting Connecticut on September 17. Princeton has played the toughest schedule in the country according to Massey Ratings.

“I don’t want to make excuses but I see this happen every year where we haven’t played together for that long and we have enough talent on this team that when we start to come together, they will really come together,” said Agatucci. “It happens every year. We do get a slow start, but we do have two really tough games in our opening weekend. And every year we get better and better and better, and so that’s what I’m taking from this. Things will change and we will improve. With this team and the talent we have, things will improve. I’m not worried at all.”

Agatucci is relying on experience gained through the ups and downs of her career. She came to Princeton after growing up five minutes from the UNC campus. She honed her game under the guidance of one of the premier coaches in the area.

“I grew up going to all the games and all of that,” said Agatucci. “I played for a club team there, so I was trained by Grant Fulton who isn’t at UNC anymore, but he was my coach growing up and he was amazing. There’s not a ton of field hockey down there. I’m grateful that I grew up in a place where it was growing and there was a club team that was starting when I was pretty young. I’m lucky that I grew up there and got to be trained by some amazing coaches. It’s definitely growing down there.”

Agatucci played in a couple games as a defender in her sophomore year before moving to forward as a junior. She notched her first goals of her career last year in that role, and this year head coach Carla Tagliente has her helping at both ends of the field as a midfielder.

“I got recruited as a defender, but I grew up playing every position; I played center mid for my high school team, and I played a little forward for them as well,” said Agatucci. “But I was mainly a back and a midfielder for my club/travel team. In terms of my evolution, I try to look at it as I said to Carla, ‘Just put me out there. I’m happy to step in anywhere, I just want to be a contributor.’ It’s obviously a little harder when you have some of the best players in the country. It’s a little harder to get out there and try to contribute. I was fine going anywhere. I had a blast playing forward last year. It was new to me. And I’m happy to step in the back whenever as well because that was my original position. But I’ve really enjoyed the midfield so far because I get a little bit of both. I get that attacking, I get to score goals, which is really exciting. I also get that defensive experience as well.”

In addition, Agatucci has assumed more of a leadership role. With Thompson and Schulze both injured, the only senior captain left on the field Sunday was Sam Davidson. In the time while Thompson was being treated, Agatucci was one of the players addressing her team.

“I’ve definitely taken on more of a leadership role,” said Agatucci. “I feel more responsibility to look out for my freshmen, make sure they’re doing OK, and make sure they’re settling in. For me, it being my last year — I lost my first year to COVID which was pretty devastating — so this being only my third season is a little sad, but it’s definitely changed my mentality. I definitely want to just have fun and enjoy it.”

Agatucci hasn’t taken long to figure out her role. She knows that she can contribute to the Tigers in a variety of ways on and off the field. She has tried to set an example with her leadership and her style of play.

“The way that I’ve always played is just bring the energy because that’s really something that’s contagious on the field,” said Agatucci. “That’s where I found my leadership role. It’s bringing the energy and also calming everyone down between quarters and telling each other to keep composure, keep calm and work together. As somebody who’s in their third season and last year, I’ve been around the block. I’ve played every position, and so I kind of know if things get too frantic, we need to calm it down. If things are hard we need to have somebody step up and calm everybody down. I’ve seen it from girls that graduated and learned it from them and stepped up into the role that they played.”

It seemed fitting that Princeton’s goal after Thompson’s injury came from a fellow senior. After a long delay, it took Agatucci just three minutes to tie up the game. The goal lifted the Tigers’ spirits after they lost Thompson, whose playing availability and severity of injury was not disclosed as of Monday.

“I think we were just a little frustrated, the same happened when Grace got injured in our UNC game,” said Agatucci. “When something like that happens to somebody you’re really close to, you just want to do it for them. It gives you some sort of purpose. Aside from that, we weren’t playing the way we normally play. That might be some fatigue setting in there from the Delaware game. After halftime it was a huge switch-up. We just wanted to go out there and said we really need to pick it up and change things here. With what happened to Robyn, it fueled that fire even more.”

For Agatucci, it was her second goal of the season and already equals her best production of her college career. She credits being in a better headspace with her productivity.

“I’ve kind of struggled with a mental hump for the last three years as many athletes struggle with,” said Agatucci. “I think this year I was just kind of done with feeling kind of stuck. I just looked at it like it’s my last season and I want to go out there and have fun and I want to enjoy the sport I love and have loved the majority of my life. I’m in a better place now and I’m in a place where I can go out there and zone in and have a good time and just not think, not overthink, not underthink, just play. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I would say it’s a mentality switch for me.”

Agatucci is motivated to make the most of her final season with Princeton. The sociology major isn’t sure if she will use her final NCAA season of eligibility elsewhere. She’s drawing on her experience to help Princeton meet its potential in her last year. The improvements that the Tigers are used to seeing will come as the players learn each other’s styles and strengths.

“We’re a talented team,” said Agatucci. “We’re all extremely talented. We don’t need time in that aspect. It’s just the passing that needs to be connected better. We saw that in (Sunday’s) game as well. There were several passes that were just a little too hard or a little too out in front. I think with time that will come together.”

Princeton is confident that its arduous schedule will pay off when it opens defense of its Ivy League title. The Tigers haven’t had the results that they have wanted, but they are showing progress even through the daunting challenges of the new cast, difficult schedule and injury bug.

“I think every single person on this team is willing to work and will work,” said Agatucci. “Everybody is giving 110 percent on the field, to the point where we’re having to call for subs. It’s really important and it’s refreshing to see that, especially from the freshmen. To see them come in and push themselves where they haven’t had a ton of time on this team, seeing them work this hard, it’s helpful for us. That’s the one thing that I love about this team is that everybody is willing to hustle and give 110 percent every single game, every single play.”