With only a 15-game regular season, there are few contests the women's lacrosse team can afford to lose. And with seven of those games against weaker Ivy League opponents, every match against a top program essentially becomes a must-win.
After suffering its first loss of the season against Virginia Friday, Princeton's game last night against No. 11 Temple took on a new level of importance. Not only did the No. 4 Tigers need to prove their dominant 5-0 start was not a fluke, but the game also had critical playoff implications.
But Princeton (6-2 overall, 2-0 Ivy League) failed to overcome the Owls (8-2) in Philadelphia, losing 11-5.
"We're hitting a lull at this point in the season," head coach Chris Sailer said.
The Owls were led by the high-scoring Ovchinnikoff sisters as Claudia, the national goals-per-game scoring leader, scored four goals while her sister Alex tallied three.
Currently leading the nation in scoring defense, Temple squashed the usually high-powered Tiger offense – especially junior midfielder Cristi Samaras, the team's scoring leader.
Samaras scored only one goal, just as she did in the Virginia loss. Without Samaras leading the scoring, Princeton seems unable to capture a win. Both Virginia and Temple have top-rated defenses and were able to key on Samaras, thereby singlehandedly smothering the Tiger offense.
"We're having a hard time adjusting when other teams come at us," Sailer said.
The game was close well into the second half, until the Owls went on a scoring spree following a short delay due to lightning. Up just 4-3 at the half and 6-3 when the pause was called with 16:45 remaining in the game, Temple came out of the locker room to blast Princeton with four quick goals.
The loss raises tough questions about Princeton's ability to win against ranked opponents. After smoothly defeating Duke, William and Mary and Georgetown – all ranked in the Top 20 – to open the season, the Tigers soared to No. 2 in the rankings. After the Virginia loss, the team fell to No. 4.
"This is an extremely different group than we've had in the past," Sailer said. "They haven't had a lot of experience winning the big games."
Barring major upsets at the top, yesterday's loss seems certain to doom Princeton to the bottom half of the top 10 for the rest of the year, as the Tigers' schedule softens for the next few weeks.
Princeton now enters its Ivy stretch against Yale Saturday and a trio of other Ivy League opponents before a critical match against No. 2 Maryland April 29, the only remaining opponent rated in the top 10.
If Temple can continue its winning streak, the Owls are almost assured of the coveted first-round bye in the NCAA tournament. Due to a revamped playoff structure, the top team from each of four regions receives a first-round bye. Temple was Princeton's most likely challenger for the bye, and a win would have almost assured the Tigers the spot.
Princeton can still achieve its goal of an Ivy title, but the road to the national title just got a little bit more complex.