Sports » Women's Lacrosse

Tigers upset by Penn in championship final, look toward NCAA selection (updated)

Updated: according to Sunday evening’s selection announcement, round one will see Princeton travel to Charlottesville,  Va. to face No. 8 Penn State. On Saturday, April 26, the Tigers fell to the Nittany Lions by a score of 13-12. The tournament game will be played on May, 9.

The spectacular effort of Friday night’s win over Cornell could not carry the No. 16 Princeton women to a championship win on Sunday over No. 15 Penn. The Tigers (12-6 overall, 7-2 Ivy League) took the semifinal bout with the Big Red (7-9, 4-3) with a convincing 12-5 decision. Princeton and Penn (12-4, 8-1) then met for the championship game, with the second-seeded Quakers having snuck past a strong Harvard side with an 11-10 double overtime win. Under grey skies at Class of 1952 Stadium’s Sherrerd Field, the conference’s marquee matchup yielded a convincing 9-6 championship win for Penn, winner of three of the five postseason competitions in the tournament’s history.

Ivy League women’s lacrosse features some of the finest talent and coaching in the country, with top teams separated by slim margins. At this level and especially in the heightened pressure of the playoffs, it’s rare that a team can be so confident in victory pre-game and subsequently turn that confidence into sheer dominance on the field. This was the case in Princeton’s matchup with Cornell.

“The system we’ve put in, I’m biased, is probably the best system in the country,” senior captain and defender Colleen Smith said in a pre-tournament interview.

During the very first play of Friday night’s game, Smith went down with a left leg injury which would sideline her for the rest of the contest as well as Sunday’s. Leaving the field with help from trainers, the defensive leader held her head high and her emotions in check, a display of stoicism beyond her call of duty. After the conclusion of the tournament, praise came for the senior’s leadership.

Following the crushing injury to one of their best players, the Tigers proceeded to dismantle the Big Red with an advantage in all facets of the game. Head coach Chris Sailer said that it was “one of the best games, if not the best game, we’ve played all season.”

Junior attacker Erin McMunn scored her team’s first to earn a 1-0 lead. The start would be slow, however, as a scoring drought lasted until the 13th minute when Cornell’s Amanda D’Amico, a senior midfielder, provided the equalizer.

Around the 15-minute mark in the first, senior captain and midfielder Sarah Lloyd assisted McMunn — this is perhaps the conference’s finest connection — to start a 5-0 Princeton run. Sophomore attack Alexandra Bruno put one home and junior midfielder Blake Dietrick provided one more. But the story of the half and the game would be the sensational play of McMunn, who had a trio of scores by halftime.

The Big Red struck first early in the second half, but it would be too little too late. Princeton’s advantage was insurmountable both in terms of physical prowess and team understanding. Sophomore midfielder Anya Gersoff had back-to-back goals in the final frame.

Junior goalkeeper Annie Whoeling had 10 saves split 5-5 in the two halves. The win marked her 10th of the year.

A member of the all-tournament team and a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection, McMunn finished the game with seven goals and one assist. This point total is one shy of her career best. Only twice before has a Tiger scored more goals in a contest.

The junior’s season so far has yielded 40 goals. Her 10 total in the tournament breaks the competition’s individual record (8 from Dartmouth’s Hana Bowers in 2013). It appears that the All-Ivy attacker has an understanding of every string in her stick and every blade of turf in the offensive zone.

Characteristically humble, she deferred talk of her success to praise of her team’s complete effort. “I don’t think it was anything I did in particular,” she said. “It was more the feeds coming from MK [senior attack Mary-Kate Sivilli] and [freshman midfielder Olivia] Hompe. I was really lucky that they were looking to hit me today and that my shots were falling.”

Coach Sailer, in her 28th season with the Tigers, said of her team’s mindset after the win, “We have a confidence that’s really built on our work ethic. I think it comes from a legitimate place. Because we know that we’ve done the work, we’ve prepared well. We have each other’s back. We play well together. I think that gives you confidence. And I also think that it’s not hubris. We know that we’re not invincible.”

Penn proved immensely more challenging than Cornell, as the level of intensity on Sunday far surpassed that from Friday. Despite having taken the regular season matchup in decisive fashion, Princeton struggled to match up with their traditional rivals.

A 6-0 Quaker run began the championship game. This created a deficit that even the Tigers, whose offensive sharpness had allowed them to run rampant the previous game, could not overcome.

The Penn offense was impressive throughout, shooting at a high velocity with accurate placement. Attacker Tory Bensen, who was clinical against Harvard, added two assists and ended up taking home the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. The Quakers’ scoring was incredibly balanced in the championship game, as four players registered two goals. Midfielder’s Lindsey Smith and Iris Williamson were particularly impressive with their pace on the field and in shooting.

Star Princeton midfielder Lloyd had her side’s first at the 9:08 mark in the first period. Her bounce shot just got past Penn’s goalkeeper Lucy Ferguson.

The Tigers would sneak one more in before the half, as McMunn finished low and unassisted at the first half’s 1:14 mark to cut the Penn lead to an approachable 6-2.

Sivilli finished strong on a free position opportunity to make the score 7-3 about 11 minutes into the second half. Just before the 15-minute mark, one more free position chance gave Penn one more goal. Princeton’s next two would come from McMunn. The Tigers’ fifth goal and McMunn’s third was assisted by junior midfielder Erin Slifer, marking her 100th career point. Freshman midfielder Olivia Hompe would notch one more with 4:18 to play, but it would not be enough to stop the powerful Penn side.

Whoeling was particularly impressive, facing 21 shots — Princeton managed only three — and tallying six saves over the first 30 minutes. Credited with the loss, the junior goalkeeper would not register any more stops in the second half.

Seven turnovers came from Princeton in the first period and four more in the second, totaling a crippling 11. Penn only gave up possession six times by comparison.

There certainly was a sort of “tale of two halves” reflected in play and on the statistics sheet. Penn’s 7-2 draw control advantage in the first frame was reversed to a 6-1 second half margin for Princeton. Ground balls were similar, with the visitor’s recording eight to the home side’s two in the first half. The Tigers had a second half 5-4 advantage on the ground.

In her introductory remarks at the post-game press conference, Sailer congratulated Penn, saying, “They really came out and took the game today. I think you have to give them a lot of credit.”

A lack of possession frustrated the Princeton attack. “We didn’t really have the ball in the first half of the game,” attacker Sivilli said. “You can’t win a game without the ball.”

At that point, McMunn chimed in, “Very true.”

Sailer picked up the question by saying, “That’s really very true. More than that, it’s the mentality piece. We have to go after what we want. We’ve got to be ready from the first draw. Things are going to be hard, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t prevail.”

Tonight the NCAA collection committee will decide whether or not the Tigers move on to the national tournament. Their case is very strong, but the margins are very thin for the 26-team field.

When asked if Princeton had earned a bid, Sailer replied, “It’s so hard to say what they’re going to do. I think we have. Our RPI is pretty good.”

“We had hoped to take care of business today and not put it in the selection committee’s hands,” she explained. “But we’ll rest on our body of work and see what happens.”

One Penn goal led to another as the visitors dominated possession and capitalized on the opportunities Princeton afforded them. At one point during their opponents’ 6-0 first half run, the Tigers, as a team, held their respective crosses up in the air. This tradition, carried out a number of times throughout the season at critical moments, represents the spirit of solidarity which characterizes Chris Sailer’s side.

An injured Smith put one of her crutches in the air, her presence lacking on the field but her leadership still felt from the sideline.

“It’s hard to lose a player like that, who brings so much to the field in terms of her energy level and her spirit and competitiveness,” Sailer explained. “She’s our inspirational and vocal leader. Having said that, we’re a team of 29 kids.”

“It’s really hard to make up for Colleen,” Sivilli said. “But we actually wrote her number on our wrists today. We played for her, keeping a piece of her with us the whole game. Unfortunately it’s not the same, but we tried to embody her presence.”

However, while their schedule may be out of their hands, their fate is singularly their own. They have put together an impressive season with stretches of stellar play towards the conclusion. The NCAA committee would be very mistaken should they leave out the Tigers, who can run with any team in the country.

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