Although its hopes of winning the Ivy League title were dimmed by last Friday's loss to first-place Harvard, the women's basketball team is not without goals for its final week of play.
After Princeton (13-10 overall, 7-4 Ivy League) won only seven of 24 games in its 1996-97 campaign, the Tigers have made remarkable strides this season. With Columbia (4-19, 0-12) and Cornell (5-18, 2-10) coming to town this weekend, a second-place finish appears to be a strong possibility for Princeton as it attempts to generate 10 conference victories for the first time in seven years.
Perhaps more importantly, however, these two games represent the final home contests that seniors Lynn Makalusky, Zakiya Pressley, Sara Wetstone and Kristen Henderson will play for the Tigers.
The Princeton women's basketball class of 1998 enters the weekend with a career record of 71-41. As head coach Liz Feeley noted, however, its true value cannot be measured in wins and losses.
"They've been an integral part of the rebuilding of the program," Feeley said. "It's been a lot of fun watching them grow as players and as athletes.
Few expected the Tigers to post anything better than a .500 record within the Ivy League this season. With eight sophomores on the roster, Princeton was supposed to rely heavily on underclassmen and be at least a year away from contending for the conference title.
Thanks largely to the leadership and experience of the four seniors, however, the Tigers have progressed faster than most thought possible.
Fire in her eyes
One of the driving forces behind Princeton's resurgence has been the play of Pressley. "Z," as she is known to her teammates and coaches, has started almost every game since her sophomore year and has ranked among the team leaders in steals for the last two seasons.
Beyond any statistic, however, it is the intensity with which she approaches each game that indicates her true value to the Tigers. Her fiery attitude and ability to run the team from the point guard position has made everyone else on the team more effective.
"She's really grown into that role and become more of a floor leader," Feeley said.
Another Princeton senior who has settled into her role is reserve guard Wetstone. Despite her backup status, Wetstone's leadership and commitment has been extremely influential to her team. She now owns the distinction as only the seventh two-time captain in the history of the program.
"She's handled that very well," Feeley said. "She's been the heart of the program with her enthusiasm and work ethic."
Henderson, a forward, has also had to accept a limited role during her four-year career at Princeton. Despite averaging fewer than nine minutes per game during her career, she has contributed when called upon, improving her scoring and rebounding averages in each of her first three seasons.
While Henderson's importance to the team may not always be obvious in the box score, whenever one of the underclassmen has a productive game, it is in part due to the leadership that she has provided.
Among the four seniors, however, the most inspirational is without question Makalusky, a guard. One of Princeton's top recruits coming out of high school, Makalusky played in just five games during her freshman year due to a stress fracture in her right foot. After a healthy 1995-96 campaign, she then missed the entire 1996-97 season due to a knee injury that required two surgeries.
Nevertheless, Makalusky has battled back and this year has worked her way back into the Tigers' regular rotation.
"It's been a struggle," Makalusky said. "I've learned a lot about myself and what commitment really means."
"Lynn's had a tough four years," Feeley said. "I give her all the credit for gutting it out. It just shows how much the game means to her."
The Princeton class of '98 will graduate with an impressive winning percentage, as well as the memory of the Tigers' first-ever postseason appearance at the National Women's Invitational Tournament in 1996. More importantly, however, is the example they have set for the next generation of Tiger players.
With its splendid group of sophomores and juniors, Princeton can be expected to contend for the Ivy League title for the next two years. Without the efforts of the class of '98, however, there is no guarantee that these expectations could have ever risen so high.