Women's Water Polo: Princeton looks to repeat last year’s program-best performance
“Our team’s dynamic has changed without Audrey and Kristen, but we have some great freshmen who have stepped in,” head coach Luis Nicolao said. “Ashleigh Johnson in the goal [and utilities] Kimi Klein, Diana Murphy and Pippa Temple have been great additions. At the start of the season we have to figure out how we are going to play, but the returning core group of players that we have gives us a great foundation to pick up where we left off last year.”
Among those players is junior utility Katie Rigler, who was one of just four players named to the NCAA’s “Players to Watch” list at the start of the season. The two-time All-America honorable mention is coming off a stand-out season in which she netted 76 goals and captured several awards, including CWPA Southern Division Player of the Year and Eastern Championship MVP. Through eight games so far, Rigler leads the team with 13 goals, but she is closely followed by a quartet of double-digit scorers in sophomore utilities Jessie Holechek and Ashley Hatcher, junior utility Molly McBee and senior center Saranna Soroka.
Despite returning all of its main offensive threats from last year, it has been the Tigers’ defense that has kept Princeton alive in tight games so far this season, thanks in large part to the goalkeeping of Johnson, who has more than made up for the void left by Ward. In her collegiate debut, the rookie broke the Tigers’ single-game saves record with 19 in Princeton’s 5-7 loss to No.4 California. A day later, in Princeton’s win over Harvard, Johnson nearly reset her own record with an 18-save performance. Due to her outstanding play that weekend, Johnson became the first player in CWPA history to be named Southern Division Player of the Week, Defensive Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week in the same week.
Johnson continued her high level of play during this past weekend’s Bucknell Invite, when she tallied 16 saves in the Tigers’ game against No.12 Indiana. However, the Princeton offense went cold, converting only two goals on 24 attempts, and the Tigers came away with a 4-2 loss.
“It was a game that we were looking to win, but a loss showed us that our defense is really good and we need to capitalize on our opportunities,” Soroka said. “Looking forward, we have a long time until Eastern Championships, and that is something we will work on.”
With two losses, the Tigers have not started out as strong as last year’s team, which opened up the season with a 14-game winning streak. However, last year’s team did not face a ranked opponent during that run, while this year’s team has already played two. Even though the Tigers lost to both ranked teams, the close-game situations are important to the growth of a team like Princeton, which has only been practicing full-time since January.
“Getting a lot of close games is wonderful for us because we don’t do much of a fall [season],” Nicalao said. “It is a learning process and getting more experience. The team we have now will be a completely different team by the end of April because we really don’t get much preparation in the offseason with only 12 practices.”
The Tigers’ next big test will come during spring break when the team flies out to California to play in the Aztec and LMU tournaments. Five of the eight teams that Princeton will face are currently ranked in the nation’s top 20. Those games will serve as a nice gauge of the team’s performance and will undoubtedly prepare the Tigers for the Southern and Eastern Championships, where the Tigers will look to defend their titles.
“I think we have all of the components of an Eastern Championship team, and it is going to be a matter of staying motivated and working hard in these next two months and coming together when it really matters,” Soroka concluded.
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