On a frigid Friday night in Princeton, the women’s soccer team (9–5–3 overall, 4–2–1 Ivy) turned up the heat in a thrilling contest against Michigan (7–6–4, 3–5–2 Big Ten). Despite a 4–2 loss to Harvard last Friday that took Princeton out of the Ivy League tournament, the Tigers were given a second life on their season when they were selected for the NCAA women’s soccer tournament, an annual 64-team soccer spectacle that every team aspires to reach. The NCAA rewarded Princeton’s stellar season in a stacked Ivy League with a 7th seed, pitting them against Michigan in a home contest at a packed Roberts Stadium.
When head coach Sean Driscoll named his starting lineup for the game, a few notable absences defined the discussion around the stadium. First team All-Ivy selections, sophomore forward Pietra Tordin and senior midfielder Aria Nagai began the game on the bench, as did sophomore standout and second team All-Ivy selection forward, Drew Coomans. Of the Tigers’ All-Ivy nominees, only senior defender and first team honoree Madison Curry started the game on the field.
In the first ten minutes of the game, Princeton and Michigan traded possessions as both sides searched for a foothold. The Tigers implemented a high press from the outset, giving Michigan a chance to open them up on the counterattack. Initially, the Wolverines did just that. In the fifth minute of the game, Michigan midfielder Jenna Lang darted inside the box and fired towards the right corner of the goal. Her shot rolled through uninterrupted, but ricocheted off the post and back into play, where it was soon cleared.
Just two minutes later, the Wolverines won a free kick on the left side of the box, which was once again successfully cleared by the Tigers. After a slip-up on the left side of the defense, Princeton senior center back Morgan Wiese broke up yet another dangerous Michigan attack. With Princeton’s impact subs still on the bench, the Wolverines continued to attack, winning three successive corner kicks in the 16th minute. Despite the frequent chances, Michigan only mustered one shot throughout the entire first half.
In the 24th minute, Princeton finally began to bring on their key substitutes. Nagai entered first, followed by Coomans and Tordin two minutes later. These substitutions riled up the already raucous Tiger faithful, who clustered behind the Michigan net and made their presence felt throughout the night.
Suddenly, a Princeton attack began to bombard the Michigan keeper with shots after struggling to break down Michigan’s back line. Senior striker Lexi Hiltunen broke free and sent a shot just right of the net, beginning the onslaught of shots. Minutes later, Tordin created a chance on the left side of the box and fired a shot towards goal. After a block from a Michigan defender, she won the ball again and sent a left-footed shot off the crossbar and out of play.
Coomans joined the effort next with a shot on goal, followed by another from senior midfielder Marissa Hart. Tordin then blasted a free kick towards the bottom left side of the net, but Michigan keeper Stephanie Sparkowski turned it away for a corner. Though these shots failed to reach their mark, they sent a very clear message to all in attendance: Princeton’s offensive firepower was not to be underestimated, and their ability to create quality chances far outpaced that of Michigan. After sophomore forward Kelsee Wozniak fired yet another shot off the crossbar, the referee blew the halftime whistle and the teams left the cold for the locker room. The Tigers outshot Michigan 9–1 in the first half, but exited with nothing to show for it.
“I think our ability to maintain our style of play really propelled us forward,” Hiltunen told The Daily Princetonian. “The combination of playing our game, hard work, and focus allowed us to create a lot of opportunities.” Though these opportunities had yet to bear fruit, the Tigers kept the pressure on throughout the rest of the game.
With the sound of yet another reverberating crossbar, the second half began the same way the first half ended. This time, it was Michigan defender Lilley Bosley who found the woodwork with a shot from the right of goal. Despite this scare, the Tigers remained steady across the back line and once again put the pressure on Michigan.
Though she’d already been active throughout the game, Tordin reached another gear over the rest of the second half. Running circles around the right side of Michigan’s defense, she was a source of constant trouble for any defender who stepped to her. Time and time again, she’d end up with a one-on-one matchup at the edge of the box and successfully take the ball down the side after feinting a move towards the middle. Her shots repeatedly scared Sparkowski, but her crosses made an even larger impact on the game. In the 51st minute, she found junior forward Heather MacNab inside the box, but an excellent clearance from a Michigan defender prevented further damage. Soon, a similar play would pay dividends for Princeton.
With just ten minutes left in the game, Tordin once again drove down the left wing. Her initial cross was blocked, but a poor clearance from Michigan sent the ball to Nagai, who also took advantage of the vulnerability of the left side of the box. Charging through the defense, Nagai rolled a cross through the box directly to the left foot of Hiltunen. Her left-footed effort was blocked by a sliding defender, but the ball rolled right back to her. Taking advantage of the space created by the slide, Hiltunen adjusted and slotted a right-footed shot into the back of the net to give the Tigers a long-awaited 1-0 lead.
“I honestly just stayed on top of [the ball]”, Hiltunen told the ‘Prince’ when asked about her positioning for the rebound. “I knew something needed to come out of it.” With her second consecutive shot finding the net, Hiltunen has now scored in both of Princeton’s tournament games after netting a goal in the Ivy League tournament against Harvard.
To defend the lead, Driscoll once again went to his substitutes. Bringing on Wozniak and junior midfielder Kate Toomey allowed him to adjust to a more defensive 4–5–1 formation in which the midfield and defense were tasked with digging in and preventing Michigan’s attacks by any means necessary. This defensive adjustment led to a far more choppy and violent game, which played directly into Princeton’s hands. Nagai received a yellow card for breaking up a Michigan counterattack in the 85th minute, followed by two yellow cards for Michigan minutes later.
Seeing the end in sight, the Tigers began to waste time, as Tordin’s repeated dribbles to the corner flag and multiple pauses for injuries allowed them to catch their breath and stifle Michigan’s momentum. After a thumping clearance from Curry in the 90th minute, MacNab fended off three defenders in the corner and drew enough time off the clock to deny Michigan any chance of an equalizer. As time expired, the Princeton bench rushed off the field, arms raised high in jubilant triumph. In the often brutal one-and-done NCAA tournament format, the Tigers fought to see t another day.
Waiting in the wings for the high-flying Tigers are the Texas Tech Red Raiders (16–1–4, 8–0–2 Big 12), whose regular season dominance earned them a national ranking at #4, as per NCAA RPI. Entering the tournament as the second seed in Princeton’s quarter of the bracket, Texas Tech won a close 1–0 game against Atlantic Sun Conference champions Florida Gulf Coast (12–4–5, 7–1–3 ASun) on Friday.
“Our mental focus needs to be a priority,” Hiltunen told the “Prince”, speaking about the upcoming game. “I believe if we withstand the mental challenges we have a solid opportunity to be successful.” She cited Texas Tech’s reputation for having a large number of hecklers at their home games as a reason to be prepared for the upcoming challenges.
Though Princeton will enter as heavy underdogs, their performance against Michigan will give them undeniable momentum as they fly to Lubbock and prepare for the upcoming game next Friday. Regardless of odds or seeding, the Tigers face the exact same challenge as the Red Raiders: win and they move on, lose and their season comes to an end. With Friday’s performance fresh in their minds, it would be foolish to write off these Tigers.
Joe Uglialoro is a contributor to the Sports section of the ‘Prince.’
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