Column: Field hockey team dominates Ivy to unprecedented level
Take a minute to consider this question: Compared to its counterparts at peer schools, which Princeton sports team is the most impressive, based on its year-in, year-out success?
Your first thought, as a Princeton sports fan, might drift to the men’s basketball team. Certainly, the men’s basketball team has an impressive history, having won 26 conference championships and delivered more than its share of memorable March victories. In a recent ranking of the top 50 men’s basketball programs of the past 50 years, ESPN.com ranked Princeton tied for 22nd; only three non-major-conference teams were ranked higher.
But that isn’t quite the team I have in mind. The men’s basketball team may have been great for most of the past half-century, but some of its peer schools have had great teams as well, most notably Harvard and Cornell in recent years. And who was tied with Princeton on ESPN’s list? Naturally, it was archrival Penn.
Maybe you thought of Princeton’s traditional “niche” sports, squash and crew. Over the past decade, Tigers have won 13 national championships in those two sports alone, including at least one in every year. But look at the teams Princeton competes with in those sports: Squash is totally dominated by private schools in the Northeast, many with a touch of ivy on their campuses; rowing has historically been the same, though outsiders such as Virginia and Michigan have changed that lately. Princeton has a fantastic rowing and squash tradition, but many of its peers can say the same thing. I’m looking for a different sort of dominance.
You might have come up with the men’s or women’s lacrosse teams, which have a pretty good case, with a combined nine national championships in the last 20 years. That’s awfully impressive, but in recent years, similar teams have caught or even surpassed the Tigers’ lax bros and gals. Before Princeton went 6-0 last spring, Cornell had won nine straight men’s Ivy League championships (many of which, admittedly, were shared with the Tigers), while Penn has won six straight women’s titles.
Plenty of other teams can be a part of this discussion — maybe the women’s swimming and diving team, which has won 10 of 13 Ivy League titles since 2000, or their male counterparts, who could be in the early stages of a similar run. And I’m certainly not disparaging these teams, or any others; it’s a credit to the athletic department that so many programs have been impressive. But one squad stands out, in terms of how thoroughly it has dominated its peers: the field hockey team.
Like many of the teams I’ve mentioned already, Princeton field hockey is a national power. The Tigers are currently ranked fourth in the nation, and yesterday afternoon, they beat fifth-ranked Maryland 3-2 on a rain-soaked Bedford Field. Princeton reached the NCAA semifinals in 2009 and seemed headed for another Final Four run in 2010, with victories over several top-10 teams, before injuries doomed them to a quarterfinal loss.
Last year, six college players were selected to join the U.S. senior national team — four of whom were Tigers. This isn’t just a recent fad driven by a couple of good players: From 1996–98, the Tigers reached the Final Four every year and played in the championship game twice, though they lost both times.
So, what sets the field hockey team apart from Princeton’s other national powerhouses? It’s the fact that none of the Tigers’ peers have ever done anything like this. In the history of the NCAA field hockey tournament, Ivy League schools have combined for 20 victories; 18 of those have been Princeton’s doing.
In Ivy League field hockey, Princeton simply operates in a different stratosphere: Since 1994, its record in conference play is an absurd 121-5. The Tigers have won 17 of 18 league championships in that time (finishing one game out of first place in the other year), and they’ll add another one in about four weeks. So far this season, Princeton has faced Dartmouth, Yale and Columbia — the three next-best teams in the league last year — and won by a combined score of 20-1.
The Tigers’ chief rivals aren’t Ancient Eight brothers like Harvard and Yale; they’re national powers like Maryland and Virginia. It’s hard to say why that is, beyond the self-fulfilling nature of success, where more wins lead to a better recruiting pitch, which leads to better players, which lead to even more wins. It’s true that Princeton is located near most of the nation’s top amateur field hockey talent, which comes from Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey and New York; but that hasn’t seemed to help Penn, which placed last in the conference in 2010 and ’11.
This fall, Princeton will be a strong contender to win its first national championship, and while some key players will graduate this summer or next, the program is well-stocked with talent at every grade level. Whatever the reasons may be, the Tigers have dominated the Ivy League as much as any team in any sport ever has.
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