Fresh off one of its most dominant performances in years, the women's lacrosse team enters tomorrow's key regional matchup at Penn State with considerable momentum. Princeton (4-0 overall, 1-0 Ivy League) has opened the season with four consecutive victories, ascending to No. 3 in the most recent IWLCA coaches' poll. While the season is still young, the Tigers' fast start has sent fair warning to the rest of the nation.
The No. 9 Nittany Lions (3-3), however, appear headed in the opposite direction. After beginning the season 2-0, Penn St. has lost three of its last four games. During this slump, the Nittany Lions dropped an 8-6 decision to William and Mary, a team Princeton defeated while never trailing.
Despite these obvious reasons for optimism, the Tigers do have some causes for concern, two of which will appear in the form of Penn St.'s top offensive threats – attack Jennifer Johnson and midfielder Emily Mechem.
With 16 goals and seven assists this season, Johnson has equaled the point total of Princeton's star midfielder, junior Cristi Samaras. The most frightening thing for the Tiger defense, however, is that Johnson may only be Penn St.'s number two threat on offense. Mechem has registered 12 goals and two assists despite having been injured earlier in the season.
"Mechem is their emotional leader. She gets them going," head coach Chris Sailer said. "They go as she goes."
In order to defend the Nittany Lions' one-two punch, Sailer will employ a variety of defensive strategies. Junior defender Johanna Deans will likely be matched up against Mechem, while junior defender Lucy Small will be called upon to face Johnson.
Don't expect these two defensive-stoppers to be hung out to dry, however. Sailer plans to mix her defenses throughout the contest in an effort to throw the opposition off balance.
"Hopefully we'll keep Penn St. on their toes," Sailer said.
One player the Tigers will be happy not to see Sunday is former Nittany Lion star Michelle DeJulius. In Penn St.'s 14-11 victory over Princeton April 19, 1997, DeJulius burned the Tigers for a hat trick. Later that year, as a member of the United States national team, she scored six goals in an exhibition game against Princeton.
DeJulius's absence, however, will not lessen this game's importance to the Tigers, as last season's defeat served as a devastating blow to Princeton's NCAA tournament chances.
In the NCAA tournament, each of three regions receives one automatic bid, awarded based on a complicated criteria involving won-lost record, record against common opponents, head-to-head record and opponents' records. In the Mid-Atlantic region, the Nittany Lions represent one of the Tigers' most dangerous opponents.
A victory over Penn St. would not officially guarantee Princeton anything. If the Tigers do prevail, though, it might not be too early for them to start thinking about a May 6 appearance in the NCAA first round.