May 11, 2011

Resurgent Princeton Out to Prove JMU's Bark Bigger than Its Bite

by Justin Feil |

Ivy League championship MOP Jaci Gassaway unknowingly played last year with a torn meniscus. She and Princeton are on the mend this year, back in the NCAA tournament for what Tigers head coach Chris Sailer called "our avenging tour."

© Beverly Schaefer

Something wasn't quite right with Jaci Gassaway last year.

The same could be said of her Princeton University women's lacrosse team, which went 6-10 for the program's first losing season in 23 years.

"We were just kind of off," said Gassaway, who was a freshman attacker. "We had a little push to win the Dartmouth game, and the end of the year was better for us than the rest of the season had been. But the whole season was really tough.

"Last year, obviously they had graduated a huge senior class and we knew it was going to be a big rebuilding year. It was really the upperclassmen who understood best what a big disappointment it was."

The Tigers have bounced back quickly. Gassaway was named the Most Outstanding Player as Princeton beat Harvard, 12-10, to win the Ivy League tournament and the NCAA automatic bid Sunday. Princeton returns to the NCAA tournament for the 19th time under head coach Chris Sailer, but that one year away seemed like an eternity.

Said Sailer: "After the championship game, PK – Patty Kennedy – who's been coaching with us since 2000 said to me, 'It's so great to finally be back.' I said, 'We were only out of the NCAAs for one year!'

"It has been four years that Penn won the Ivy. Although Penn and Dartmouth tied for the [regular season] title, to win something, to win the Ivy tournament championship, that's what we want. We want to be challenging and get back in there. If our cycle is one down year after we graduate a bulk of our players, I'll take that."

The Tigers open the NCAA tournament at James Madison University on Saturday in a rematch of an early season game, won 10-5 by JMU.

"I've been joking that it's our avenging tour," said Sailer, whose team is 11-6. "We had Harvard, now JMU. Should we survive, we're likely facing Maryland. Duke's in that same bracket. We have a lot of teams in there that we'd like to get a second crack at.

"We were overwhelmed by JMU's energy that day," she added. "It'll be a different story when we play them again."

Gassaway has appreciated her second chance to show what she can do this year. She had been one of the players the Tigers were counting on to help replace the nine seniors who left after the 2009 season, but she was sabotaged by a knee injury that didn't allow her to practice fully until Feb. 1. She struggled to run full speed through the course of games.

"Last year it was definitely frustrating dealing with the knee pain," Gassaway said, "but I got a lot of experience out of it. It ended up being fine."

Gassaway didn't find out what had limited her to seven goals and two assists in 14 games until the end of last season. She came to Princeton thinking she would be ready to play after surgery to repair a torn ACL and meniscus injury suffered as a senior at Severna Park (Md.) High.

"I had meniscus surgery and it didn't hold," Gassaway said. "I was playing with a torn meniscus the entire season and I didn't know it."

It was repaired following her freshman season and she was back at full strength one month later. Repairing the Tigers followed.

"The personnel hasn't changed that much," Gassaway said. "We just weren't happy with last year. We came out with something to prove."

It started in fall ball when the team held itself to a higher standard than ever. In the past, when a player didn't make the team rungoal time, she wouldn't practice and had to do it again until she reached the goal time. This year, the Tigers decided that all of them had to do the run together until every last girl got the time.

There was a team meeting after their season-low five-goal output against JMU on March 16. Princeton didn't feel it was as ready as JMU, which picked an unusual way to display its energy.

"They were barking at us," Gassaway said. "They definitely come ready to play. That's something we had to make a change. They're really pumped. I think it freaked us out a little bit. Not necessarily the barking, but their intensity."

"This year, we were out there at 6:45 a.m. every morning until everyone passed it," Gassaway said. "We complained about it, but we were in good shape. One of the big things about that, that wasn't something our coaches decided. We decided it."

There was a team meeting after their season-low five-goal output against JMU on March 16. Princeton didn't feel it was as ready as JMU, which picked an unusual way to display its energy.

"They were barking at us," Gassaway said. "They definitely come ready to play. That's something we had to make a change. They're really pumped. I think it freaked us out a little bit. Not necessarily the barking, but their intensity."

Added Sailer: "JMU was one of the turning points of the season. Since then, we've played with more energy and desire. We have to give some credit to JMU for our development."

The Tigers were forced into some inward reflection again after a 9-8 loss to Harvard at home April 16, exactly one month after the loss to JMU. (Perhaps the most exciting news about their NCAA game is that it isn't May 16.) Princeton rebounded by ending Penn's 34-game Ivy winning streak.

"That was huge for our confidence," Sailer said. "To go down and beat them that decisively at Franklin Field, we were on top of everything. You could feel how confident we were."

Yet the next week the Tigers weren't at their best in a 15-10 loss at Dartmouth, an indication that Princeton still is growing.

"What our coaches have been telling us is great teams are consistent," Gassaway said. "We haven't quite gotten to the consistency part. We had some downs in the middle of our year. Lately, we're peaking at the right time."

Princeton has not lost since that Dartmouth game, including an impressive 19-10 win over then-No. 13 Penn State. That win set them up for the Ivy tournament, but the players still didn't feel like a lock for the NCAAs as the fourth seed.

"We pretty much knew if we didn't win the Ivy tournament, we would not be going to the NCAAs," Gassaway said. "We wanted to be in control."

Sailer felt confident that the Tigers had a good chance to get in if they could knock off top-seeded Penn again, and they did in overtime, as Gassaway scored both goals in the extra frame. Penn is the only team in the NCAA field that Princeton has defeated, and their NCAA ticket wasn't secured quite yet.

"Once Harvard beat Dartmouth," Sailer said, "all bets were off."

Princeton avenged its loss to Harvard behind three goals each from Gassaway, Lizzy Drumm and Charlotte Davis and Lindsey deButts and goalie Erin Tochihara led a defense that held Ivy leading scorer Jenn VanderMeulen without a point.

"We've been peaking for the last couple weeks," Sailer said. "Whatever the situation on the field, we're finding a way to win. That's what you need come playoff time."

Gassaway has enjoyed being a part of a resurgent Princeton offense. Her 31 goals and 11 assists were a big jump over a year ago.

"This year has been great," Gassaway said. "The offense has been clicking. Our offense has been nice. It's fun to play without pain."

In the knee and on the scoreboard.

Gassaway isn't the only one who's scoring has seen a lift. Cassie Pyle had 32 total goals in her first two seasons. She has 34 this year. Even Lizzy Drumm, who led the team with 32 goals last year, has increased her scoring to 43 goals this year. Sophomore Charlotte Davis has nearly doubled her total from 16 points to 31 this year.

"This year, all seven of us down on the attack can score," Gassaway said. "We have a lot of different high scorers. Last year, we had one or two and the rest of us were watching them. This year, we have a lot of different threats. Anyone can score.

"Teams will try to double our top scorers or face-guard them. There's always someone else that can step up and score."

The Tigers' offense will play a big role in their NCAA chances. They are hoping some more possession and a far more effective attack than in the regular season meeting can help make JMU's bark bigger than its bite in the rematch Saturday.

"We have to bring an energy level to match JMU's," Sailer said. "They certainly bring that. We need a real good defensive effort, because they have a lot of talented attackers. And we have to control the tempo offensively, much more than we did first time. We were on defense a lot. We have to be strong on transition, offensively and defensively. More than anything, it comes down to believing."

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