After failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament in 1997 for the first time in six years, women's lacrosse hopes to regain its status as one of the nation's elite teams.
With an experienced corps of defenders and the return of star junior midfielder Cristi Samaras, the Tigers hope not only to cruise through the Ivy League, but also to gain another berth in the NCAA Final Four, an honor Princeton earned every year from 1992 to 1996.
An exhibition contest last October against Team USA gave Princeton many reasons to believe it will achieve its goal of returning to the Final Four. In that game, the Tigers played the Americans competitively for stretches and got strong goaltending from junior Amber Mettler in a 16-8 defeat.
The greatest source of optimism for Princeton, however, is the return of Samaras. After a one-year hiatus from the Tigers during which she toured with the national team, the attack scored four goals during the exhibition game, demonstrating why she is Princeton's most dangerous offensive weapon.
In 1996, Samaras had one of the finest individual campaigns of anybody in the program's 24-year history. Her 51 goals and 72 points that year are the most any Tiger has ever recorded in a single season, and her 131 career points place her just 89 behind Lisa Rebane '96 for the school's all-time lead in that category.
Still, while the Tigers will depend heavily on Samaras, she will not be without help on offense. Junior attack Tice Burke and senior attack Melissa Cully led Princeton with ten assists each in 1997. Cully also recorded a team-high 32 points, and senior attack Brent McCallister added 12 goals.
Perhaps the greatest asset to the Tiger offense, however, will be a major rule change that will go into effect this season. The creation of a restraining line 30 yards from the goal will create more free space for Princeton's attackers, as only seven offensive players and eight defenders are allowed within this barrier. Especially in contests against the lesser skilled teams in the Ivy League, this extra room should prove extremely valuable to the speedy Tigers.
"You have more space," head coach Chris Sailer said. "If you're going to be patient, you're going to get opportunities."
Princeton will also have to adjust defensively to the new rule. Sailer indicated that her team might play more zone defense this year in order to guard against swift members of the opposition. More important than strategy, however, will be experience. The Tigers' projected starting defense consists of senior Corey Samaras and juniors Lucy Small, Holly Gutelius and Johanna Deans. Sophomore Laura Field, last year's starting goaltender, will be challenged this season by Mettler, who appeared in eight games last season.
The Tigers' first month of the season will feature games against Duke, Georgetown, Virginia and Penn State – teams that should be among Princeton's stiffest competition as it attempts to qualify for the 12-team NCAA tournament.
"Every game's going to be tough," Sailer said. "It's going to be important for us to show some strength."
The Tigers will also get a final chance to test themselves before the postseason. In their second-to-last regular season game April 29, Princeton hosts three-time defending champion Maryland. After the Tigers' victory over the Terps in the 1994 NCAA championship game, Maryland has won its last five meetings with Princeton. Included in this streak are the 1995 NCAA finals and the 1996 NCAA semifinals.
Princeton will be tested early and often throughout the regular season, but nevertheless expect to return to postseason play. With the return of Samaras and three of its four leading scorers from last year, Princeton would surprise no one with another trip to the Final Four.