November 15, 2023

Hiltunen Gets Lone Tally, Goalie McCamey Posts Shutout As PU Women’s Soccer Tops Michigan in NCAA Opener

TUNED IN: Princeton University women’s soccer player Lexi Hiltunen, right, goes after the ball in a game earlier this season. Last Friday night, senior forward Hiltunen scored the lone goal as Princeton defeated Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Tigers, now 10-5-3, will play at Texas Tech (16-1-4) on November 17 in a second round contest. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Lexi Hiltunen and Tyler McCamey could feel the pressure rising at opposite ends of the Roberts Stadium pitch.

The Princeton University women’s soccer team’s NCAA tournament first round game Friday against visiting Michigan remained scoreless through the first half and as the clock ticked toward the final 15 minutes of regulation. The Tigers had chances, twice hitting the cross bar, but hadn’t been able to score.

“I think I personally was a bit frustrated,” said senior forward Hiltunen. “I had one breakaway a few minutes prior and was kind of pulled back and wasn’t able to get the shot I needed to. So I was a little frustrated after that one. But we had had quite a few opportunities in that little span of time, so I think it honestly was about to come. Myself, I had that breakaway, and I believe Pietra (Tordin) had one right before I was able to score as well. I think it was coming, it was just a matter of time. That’s when it comes down to grit honestly.”

At the other end, Michigan had also had some chances, but junior goalie McCamey had turned them away and the Wolverines twice hit posts. There was the feeling that a goal at either end would make all the difference.

“I would definitely say it’s pretty stressful,” said McCamey. “The pressure definitely starts to mount, especially in the closing minutes – you start to realize someone’s going to have to come out of this on top. So it’s about keeping everybody locked in and staying focused yourself and knowing you’re going to have to make a big play soon and making sure you’re up to the task when you’re called upon.”

With 11 minutes remaining in regulation, Hiltunen took a centering pass from Aria Nagai and tried a left-footed shot that was blocked by a Michigan defender right back to her and she quickly used her right foot to deposit a shot past the diving Michigan goalie and into the lower right corner. It was the senior’s sixth goal of the season and 12th of her career in her final game at home.

“I would probably say it’s my biggest goal,” said Hiltunen. “I don’t think we’ve been in a situation like this where it’s honestly come down to one goal like that. I would definitely rank it at the top.”

McCamey made the goal stand up as the game-winner when she made a diving save with under five minutes left to preserve a 1-0 shutout win. McCamey finished with six saves for her fifth shutout of the season and the Tigers improved to 10-5-3 overall.

“You get a shutout and you talk about the goalkeeper, but the defense starts with Lexi and it goes through the whole field,” said McCamey. “I thought our whole team was so dedicated to having a really strong defensive game, everybody put so much hard work into it, and we really just didn’t give them a lot of chances. They got a few off the post that luckily went our way. I think it was such a tremendous group effort so getting a shutout was huge obviously.”

It’s the second time in three seasons that Princeton began an NCAA tournament with a shutout at home. Two years ago, it was a win over Vermont at home when Hiltunen was just a sophomore in her first season (there was no Ivy season in her freshman year due to COVID-19 restrictions).  The Tigers have now advanced to the second round for the fifth time in their last six trips to the NCAAs.

“I think pressure adds a lot to any environment, and the way that you can handle pressure is obviously based on personality type as well as experience,” said Hiltunen. “Being in the situation that we are in now previously has really helped me for that. I personally love playing under high stakes, high pressure. I think it creates such an enjoyable atmosphere, and it makes everything in my abilities mean so much more when it comes down to it. Having that under my belt — quite a few of us now have that where we’ve been under the pressure and felt it and a lot of us really enjoy it – I think that’s really useful for us.”

Princeton advances to the NCAA tournament second round at Texas Tech (16-1-4) on Friday. With a victory, they would face the North Carolina-Alabama winner in the round of 16 on Sunday, also at Texas Tech. The Tigers will be underdogs against Texas Tech after hosting Michigan.

“I think going into Friday everyone is super excited,” said McCamey. “We’ve had a few games this year – Georgetown (a 3-2 win on September 14) is a good example – where we went in as an underdog, and we’re kind of fueled by that and get a lot of inspiration from that. This week it’s about staying focused, staying locked in, enjoying the moment and enjoying the time together and knowing that we’re going to have to do a lot, but we’ll do whatever it takes to keep trying to elongate our season.”

Hiltunen was happy to be able to provide the goal to extend Princeton’s season. The biggest goal of her career came in a big spot and the impact of it made the tally that much more special.

“It means a lot in terms of the work I’ve been putting in,” said Hiltunen. “My one goal doesn’t equate to the hundred other things that people had to do to make that happen. I think my position is one that’s extremely defensive most of the time and I’m not really touching the ball. It’s a lot of our midfield, and outside forwards and defense all doing a lot more than I am a lot of the time. It’s mostly about when I’m in that position I need to be able to finish it. I got it, but it’s moreover the team that got it.”

Princeton was coming off its only two-game losing streak of the season. The Tigers had fallen 1-0 to Columbia on Senior Night at home, then lost 4-2 in the Ivy League Tournament semifinals to Harvard but had a strong resume and received a home game for the NCAAs. Princeton just had to regroup to get by Michigan.

“The Ivy League Tournament definitely didn’t go the way that we wanted it to,” said McCamey. “When we got the bid and the seed to be at home for the NCAA, it was the spark that we needed to say, ‘Let’s go make this count.’ We had to put the Ivy tournament weekend behind us and go make our mark in this game, which luckily we were able to do. I think we made it a great night.”

It’s a game that Hiltunen will long remember. She set a goal at the start of the season to try to enjoy the year more. Her goal helped a strong Princeton senior class win what was ultimately their final home game.

“It was a really historic moment,” said Hiltunen, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla. “The whole game was honestly still right now a blur to me. I think the atmosphere here makes it so incredible to play in. Having that be my last game at home, it was just the best way we could have gone out of it. So I’m really grateful for that, and that our season wasn’t over, and our last game prior to that was not our last home game. Having the incredible fans that were there and just the atmosphere as a whole especially it being a high stakes game like it was, was really incredible to be a part of.”

For McCamey, it was her first real NCAA experience. She was a backup in the Tigers’ last NCAA run. She has built off last year’s first season of starting to become more reliable and confident.

“Goalkeeping is a lot about experience,” said McCamey, who hails from Atlanta, Ga. “Grace Barbara (a former Princeton Day School standout) was in my freshman year. She did a great job. Trying to fill in those shoes last year as a sophomore, I think a lot it was just trying to get my feet under me and trying to get into the college pace. This year, like Sean said, I think it’s a more confident year for me. I’ve had a season under my belt so I’m going into knowing more what to expect and how to own my space in the box.”

The Tigers are feeling good about the way they are playing after their NCAA win. It’s been a season with some ups and downs, but Princeton has set its sights on continuing to play together.

“I think we are at our peak right now, which is where we need to be now at the right time, which is all that’s important no matter what happened during the season,” said Hiltunen. “I think that’s the best thing that could have happened, and we’re on the right track.”

Princeton’s win Friday added to their confidence, which it will need going into the next round. Texas Tech got a late goal for a 1-0 win over Florida Gulf Coast in its NCAA first round victory. Princeton lost to Texas Tech, 3-0, in the 2018 NCAA tournament and will be an underdog.

“I think it gives more of an edge,” said Hiltunen.“Being an underdog in anything, it gives you an impression at least to other people of nothing to lose mentality, but it honestly drives us forward and it shows we have something to prove and playing with that chip on our shoulder of our last season and just showing the country that we are a name that you shouldn’t be overlooking.”