Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 9 Princeton (Women)
Princeton has been a sleeping giant since its last NCAA women's lacrosse final four appearance in 2004, when Virginia denied it a third straight national title in the championship game. After advancing one step further in the NCAA tournament in each of the last three years — and with Olivia Hompe leading the way — the Tigers could be primed for a return to Memorial Day weekend.
Princeton at a Glance
2015 Record: 16-4
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Scoring comes and goes, but Princeton’s defense has been perhaps its most consistent aspect the past five years. It’s no coincidence that as the Tigers saw gradual improvement in that area the last three seasons, they’ve also advanced further in the tournament. With everyone back on defense, look for them to be even stingier this year.
1. Princeton’s defense is loaded.
The Tigers were among the top 20 in scoring defense last year, and they should be even better this year with goalkeeper Ellie DeGarmo returning, along with four starters. “Having that experience is really important and should help us run a high-risk, high-reward defense and try some new looks,” said senior Liz Bannantine, whom Sailer calls the anchor. Princeton isn’t known for causing a lot of turnovers, but Sailer said being more aggressive on takeaways, while still playing smart, is an emphasis this year. “We do force mistakes and low-angle shots our goalie can save … and we’ve been effective against some great teams,” she said.
2. Freshmen add speed and athleticism.
Sailer expects the freshman class to make a big impact this year, as one of the strongest she’s seen in a while. Inside Lacrosse ranked Princeton’s Class of 2019 as the No. 10 recruiting class coming into the 2016 season, highlighting players like George, Hallett and defender Alex Argo. “Our freshmen are picking things up quickly, and they’ve really elevated our team in terms of speed and athleticism,” Sailer said. She is hoping the mix of youth and experience — just two starters graduated — provides the depth the Tigers need to take the next step forward.
3. The offense needs to step up.
The Tigers need their attackers and midfielders to make up for the production lost from the graduation of McMunn and Slifer. Hompe already has proven reliable on attack as the leading goal scorer last year, but McMunn and Slifer were her biggest feeders. Princeton has “more challengers this year,” Sailer said, so you might see a more direct attack than in years past when the majority of goals were assisted. “Shot selection is big for us, how to keep a possession going when you don’t have a good look and then knowing your time and space and finishing around the goal,” Sailer said.
* returning starters
The 2015 Ivy League Tournament MVP led the Tigers in goals (54) and ground balls (27), then received an invitation to try out for the U.S. national team last summer. She will especially face more attention with Erin Slifer and Erin McMunn graduated. “She’s getting more and more dynamic,” Sailer said. “Her shot fakes are exceptional.”
Midfielder Elizabeth George is the most touted player from the freshman class, but Hallett really shined in the fall. “She’s just so explosive, a really good defender, and she gets up and down the field so fast,” Sailer said. “She’s just a dynamic kid.” A four-year starter for Manhasset (N.Y.), Hallett had 20 goals and 13 assists as a senior.
Coming from Washington state, Sullivan was an unknown when Sailer found her, but she made an impact right away, playing in every game as a freshman and finishing with nine goals, four assists, 21 ground balls and six caused turnovers. “She’s tough as nails, goes so hard and is good at both ends,” Sailer said.
Senior Liz Bannantine anchors a stacked Princeton defense that plans to be more aggressive in pursuit of takeaways in 2016. (Courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
Biggest Question Mark
With Anna Doherty reportedly out with an undisclosed injury, that leaves three freshmen (George, Hallett and Julia Haney) and two sophomores (Sullivan and Ellie McNulty) in a young and somewhat untested midfield. How those kids develop likely will have a lot to do with Princeton’s success this season.
What rival coaches say about the Tigers
"Has the Ivy League's best player in Olivia Hompe returning. Should be able to challenge again for a final eight tourney slot. Crafty attackers that play well together."
"Very disciplined, and a solid lineup. One of the best in the Ivy League. Olivia Hompe's a senior, but graduated big-time players Slifer and McMunn."
"Sleeper team. 2015 Ivy Champ has three straight NCAA appearances and rose to the elite eight last season, after knocking off three top-10 teams. Can they take the next step in 2016? The Tigers should once again be the favorites to win the Ivy League and should be dangerous come NCAA tournament time."
"Chris is a great coach. They have a lot of kids back. Olivia Hompe is one of the best players in the league attack-wise. She’s a tough kid to play. They have a very good freshman class. They’ll always be one of the best in the league."
The percentage of non-free-position goals that were assisted last year. The Tigers had almost twice as many assists as their opponents (105-55), and just 88 goals in the run of play were unassisted. Slifer and McMunn accounted for 49 of those assists.
March 16 at Penn State
The Tigers fended off the Nittany Lions for a 12-11 win last year, and they will be another good test in the midst of a five-game road stretch that ends at Delaware —the lone unranked team to beat Princeton last year. The Tigers split games with Penn State in 2014, losing the regular-season finale but winning a first-round NCAA tournament matchup.
Princeton is playing Notre Dame for the first time since 2002, which marked the only meeting of the teams and was a win for the Tigers. That matchup begins the five-game road stretch, followed by four straight at home. Sailer said they will have to “be road warriors” this year.
This senior class has gone further in the NCAA tournament each year, progressing to a quarterfinal finish last season. A final four berth might be a stretch, but the Tigers have the depth to contend.
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