Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Season, Same Theme

The wait is so almost over. It's been 109 days since a Princeton varsity athlete last competed on campus. Tomorrow at 6 p.m. at Roberts Stadium, the women's soccer team will break that long layoff by beginning the second season at its new facility against Hofstra.

Last season marked a big step toward returning to the success the program saw in the first half of the decade, making NCAA tournament appearances annually from 1999-2004. In '08, the Tigers played in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the '04 College Cup run and improved to 12-3-2 overall from middling records the previous two seasons.

The first year after the long postseason run, 2005, was Emily Behncke's last, and it was also the last time the Princeton women's soccer team went into a season with a good idea of who would lead it in goals at season's end. Behncke graduated as the program's third-leading scorer all-time.

Princeton still had Diana Matheson for 2006 and 2007, but Matheson's strength was as a feeder. Still, she led the team in scoring both of those seasons, but graduated without going to the postseason after her freshman campaign of '04.

Then came 2008. No Behncke, no Canadian national team member in Matheson. What's a team of Tigers to do?

Up stepped Sarah Peteraf. In her first two seasons, Peteraf had four total goals and then none as a junior. As a senior, all she did was co-lead the Ivy League with 12 goals, including seven game-winners.

But Peteraf has graduated, and again the team enters September with the same question. Who's got the go-to foot?

Kalie Bartholomew was the team's runner-up with four goals a season ago as a freshman, and senior Vicki Anagnostopoulos is the career leader among returners with nine goals.

Then there are the freshmen. It's a big group, with nine people, but no recruiting ranking can really tell what a kid will do when she's actually in a college uniform playing against fellow collegians, some three or four years older. It wouldn't be fair to throw any guesses out there for the rookies before they play their first game.

Another theme that seems to pop up every season is the head start other teams have on the Tigers, who arrived on campus August 20 to begin practice. The next day, many teams around the country had their first real games. That was a week after some of those teams played against fellow D-I schools in so-called exhibition games, which are just like real games in terms of preparation and experience but don't count in the standings.

Princeton had to settle for mini-scrimmages against fellow Ivies. Those took place last Saturday, two weeks after other D-I schools played their practice games.

In Hofstra, the Tigers will be facing a team that has already played two real games, winning an OT battle at Richmond and suffering a 7-0 loss to highly-ranked Virginia. Wins or losses, however, it's game experience. Which is more important, having played in games together as a team or having fresh legs and the anticipation of a season-opener?

History suggests it won't be much of a hindrance. In head coach Julie Shackford's 14 seasons, Princeton is 9-5 in openers. And, in a stat which probably means nothing, every time Princeton has won its opener in the 2000s, it has gone to the NCAA tournament. Every time it hasn't won its opener, it didn't go to the NCAAs. Who knows?

Either way, it's been a long, long time since the end of the ECAC/IC4A track meet on May 17, the last time a Princeton athlete competed on campus. The summer is hours from being over on the Princeton athletics calendar.

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