When Texas Tech midfielder Peyton Parsons lobbed a penalty kick over the outstretched arms of Princeton junior goalkeeper Tyler McCamey, members of the Princeton women’s soccer team fell to the ground in despair as their season came to a close on Friday night. Players cried, hugged their teammates, and stared into the midwestern night in disbelief as the opposition stormed the field in celebration. Playing for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA women’s soccer tournament, the Tigers went from hope to heartbreak in a matter of minutes over the course of a tense penalty shootout loss to Texas Tech.
Though this loss will likely remain seared into the minds of the Princeton players for quite some time, it does not define their season. Overcoming constant adversity to reach this point, this Princeton team should be remembered as one that stood toe-to-toe with Goliath on the biggest stage of college soccer and didn’t bat an eye.
“This season was particularly special,” senior striker Lexi Hiltunen told The Daily Princetonian. “We have had a lot of belief in ourselves and worked extremely hard. I think our ability to keep fighting will be extremely memorable.”
Predicted to finish fourth in their division by the Ivy League Preseason Poll, the Princeton women’s soccer team began their season with three wins in four games. On Sept. 10, the Tigers shocked the league with a massive upset over Georgetown, ranked tenth in the nation at the time. With this win, Princeton announced their presence to the national stage, earning a surprising ranking in the NCAA top-25. For many programs, a win over a team like Georgetown would be season-defining, a victory almost impossible to top. For Princeton, this was only the start.
After a win over Cornell, the Tigers reached a season-high 14th place in the NCAA top-25, placing themselves firmly among the game’s elite. The Tigers finished the regular season with a 4–2–1 record in the Ivy League, defeating Cornell, Penn, Yale, and Dartmouth en route to a third-place finish in the perennially competitive division. Pitted against Harvard in the Ivy League tournament, the Tigers faltered with a 4–2 loss to the eventual league champions.
Due to their loss in the Ivy tournament, the Tigers weren’t guaranteed a bid to the NCAA tournament and anxiously awaited their fate at the hands of the selection committee. Despite the loss, the committee found Princeton’s resume impressive enough to earn them a spot in the national tournament — no small feat for a team from a division like the Ivy League. Princeton proved they deserved the spot with a first-round win over Michigan, dominating the game against an opponent from a major conference. All of this success set the stage for Friday’s game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, whose nearly undefeated season earned them a national ranking of No. 4, as per the NCAA rating percent index. The Tigers were in for a tough task, but they’d soon show viewers across the country that they were no typical underdog.
Releasing his lineup for the crucial tournament bout, head coach Sean Driscoll rolled out a lineup with two notable changes from the game against Michigan. After starting the previous game on the bench, first team All-Ivy sophomore forward Pietra Tordin and senior midfielder Aria Nagai were named to the starting eleven. Other than these two, the lineup was the same as the last time out.
As both sides found their footing early in the game, Texas Tech struggled to establish control over lower-ranked Princeton. Though the Red Raiders had only lost one game throughout the entire season, they seemed to have met their match early on. Princeton began a barrage of first-half shots in the 22nd minute, when both senior defender Madison Curry and junior forward Heather MacNab forced Texas Tech goalie Madison White into a pair of saves.
Just one minute later, Texas Tech got their own chance on goal, winning the ball at midfield and driving forward for an attack. Forward Ashleigh Williams received a cross inside the box and hit an outside-footed half-volley just over the bar. The Princeton defense, caught out on the counterattack for this shot, tightened things up for the rest of the half and did not allow another dangerous chance. With both sides now settled in, the teams went to the locker rooms for halftime. Princeton outshot Texas Tech 4–3 (2–0 on goal) in the first half, establishing the upper hand in a game most expected them to lose.
Princeton entered the second half with the same lineup they began the first half with, attempting to replicate the strategy that had worked well thus far. Texas Tech kicked off, quickly moving the ball upfield and winning a corner. This opening sequence set the pace for a hectic second half filled with chances for both teams. Within the first five minutes of the half, both sides pushed forward for dangerous headers that just missed the net. Both sides repeatedly advanced the ball into the other’s box, forcing both defenses to hold the line and maintain the scoreless tie.
In the 55th minute, the clearest chance for either side thus far fell at the feet of Tordin. As Texas Tech passed the ball around the back, Tordin pressed forward and intercepted a slow pass with a sliding tackle. Regaining her footing, she found herself alone in front of goal with Texas Tech’s goalkeeper. Taking two touches with her right foot, Tordin attempted to curl a shot around the oncoming White, who rushed the ball to cut off the angle. Tordin’s shot flew just right of goal, keeping the score knotted at zero.
As the second half rolled on, Princeton continued to put the pressure on the Red Raiders. A long shot from Tordin nearly found the net, and another from junior midfielder Lily Bryant was blocked. Making her mark on the game, Tordin forced White into another save in the 68th minute, firing a left-footed shot that challenged the Texas Tech goalkeeper. She went on to finish the game with seven shots, nearly outshooting the entire Texas Tech team on her own. Despite her efforts, the game remained 0–0 as time dragged on.
With regulation nearing an end, Texas Tech found one more chance to break the deadlock. In the 88th minute, a corner kick found the feet of the Red Raiders’ Hannah Anderson. She blasted a shot past McCamey, but Curry cleared the ball off the goal line to prevent a late winning goal for Texas Tech. Had she not held her position at the front post on the corner kick, Princeton’s season would have ended right there. The final whistle blew minutes later, ending the second half. Though Princeton had outshot Texas Tech 16–4 overall and 6–1 on goal, both sides ended regulation with nothing to show for it and a 0–0 tie.
Taking the field once again for overtime, both teams began to show signs of fatigue as the defensive stalemate marched towards the 100th minute. The Red Raiders notched three shots on goal in the first period of overtime, but came up with nothing as the first overtime period came to a close. The second half held more of the same for both teams, as Princeton’s attempts at a high press frustrated Texas Tech but led to nothing of much significance.
With one minute left in the game, however, Princeton faced yet another tough challenge. After winning possession near midfield, the Red Raiders began a numbers-up counterattack and overwhelmed the Tigers’ defense. Midfielder Sam Courtwright found forward Kylie Bahr wide open on the right side of the box, where she controlled the pass and slotted another across goal to the feet of Alex Kerr. McCamey was forced off her line to clear, sliding to deny Kerr of a late winner. As time expired, the Tigers huddled on the sidelines in preparation for soccer’s cruelest punishment: a penalty shootout.
In the world of sports, few moments are as tense as a penalty shootout. When the final whistle blows and both teams move to penalties, everything that has happened in the game to this point suddenly fades away. Storylines don’t matter, momentum has no bearing, and favorites and underdogs become equals, teetering on the precipice of victory. As MacNab strode to the penalty spot for Princeton, the Tigers’ season rested on the backs of her and four other takers. Her perfectly placed shot sailed past White into the right side netting, setting a powerful example for her teammates to follow. Texas Tech’s Sam Courtwright matched MacNab’s effort, tying the score at 1–1.
Both teams converted their next two kicks, as Princeton’s Kayla Wong and Lily Bryant found the mark but were matched by Texas Tech’s Jillian Martinez and Alex Kerr. First-year defender Zoe Markesini missed the Tigers’ fourth penalty wide right, forcing McCamey to make a save or risk elimination with another Princeton miss. As formidable goalscorer Williams stepped to the spot, McCamey held her ground on the goal line. Williams blasted a well-placed and powerful shot to the left, but McCamey proved more than equal to the challenge. Diving to her right, the junior goalkeeper made an incredible save, using her fingertips to push the driven shot off the goalpost and away from the net. Had the Tigers held on to win, this save would have been played over and over again, as the moment when momentum swung back towards the underdogs. Alas, as Nagai stepped to the line for the attempt, the momentum did not hold.
Though Nagai’s penalty was well-struck, White made her own stellar save to put her stamp on the game once again. Diving to her left, she sailed past the ball but stuck out her trailing leg just enough to stop the shot as it hurtled towards goal. As a dejected Nagai left the box, Texas Tech’s Peyton Parsons converted her spot-kick to send the Red Raiders to the Sweet Sixteen.
Even though the Tigers didn’t get the result they wanted, their ability to compete with an elite opponent for an entire game was not lost on the players.
“Our coaches gave us a great game plan that we trusted and implemented pretty well from the start,” senior midfielder Marissa Hart told the ‘Prince.’ “We watched a lot of film on the way they played, and went into the game with full confidence in our ability to not just compete with them, but beat them.”
Had just one key moment gone their way, the Tigers likely would have lived up to such a lofty goal.
For the six seniors on this year’s team, the loss was their last game in the orange and black. This year’s graduating class consists of forwards Lexi Hiltunen and Jen Estes, midfielders Marissa Hart and Aria Nagai, and defenders Madison Curry and Morgan Wiese. Each of them played in the Round of 32 game, and each made significant contributions to the Tigers’ successful season.
Nagai was selected to this year’s All-Ivy League first team, while Hiltunen led the class with six goals. Wiese played every minute of all but two games this season, while Curry played every minute of seven of the Tigers’ last eight games. Both were crucial to the team’s continued success against formidable offensive players. Estes scored three goals on the season including a crucial one against Harvard, while Hart played a crucial starting role in Princeton’s central midfield throughout the season.
After the game, Hiltunen offered her thoughts on her senior season. “I will miss the team the most for sure, as well as the constant grind,” she told the ‘Prince.’ “The thrill of playing in postseason games is so special, and I’ll never forget the feeling.”
Hart also reflected on her senior year, sharing her thoughts with the ‘Prince.’ “Playing one last season with this team and for these coaches has meant the world to me. I’ve absolutely loved the daily interactions with teammates and coaches the past four-and-a-half years, and I will miss playing the sport that I love with these incredible people.”
Though the program will be without Hart and the other five seniors next year, they will still have plenty to work with as they seek to build on this year’s success. Key players like Tordin and McCamey will return for another year, and a new recruiting class should further the team’s growth. Until then, players and fans alike will remember this year’s team for its drive, talent and success in the face of formidable competition. Though they came up a little bit short on Friday, they competed for 110 minutes and proved to themselves and the world that they are capable of taking their place among the NCAA’s best teams.
Joe Uglialoro is a contributor to the Sports section of the ‘Prince.’ Please send corrections to corrections[at]princeton.edu.