Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Top 10, Or Is It 11, Of 2016

The year 2016 was, um, a bit polarizing, no?

TigerBlog doesn't want to get into politics. Or anything else. He will simply say that in 2016, he can't figure out if what is unquestionably the No. 1 story of the year in Princeton Athletics counts or not.

And so he will start out with No. 1 in his countdown. Then he'll go back to either No. 11 or 10, depending on whether or not No. 1 counts, and then he'll continue tomorrow with the top five. Or top six.

He can't figure it out.

Anyway, the No. 1 story of the year in Princeton Athletics is the gold medal won by Ashleigh Johnson in water polo at the Rio Olympics. Johnson led the U.S. team through the tournament, basically destroying everyone along the way. She was the best player in the tournament, the goalie who made one amazing save after another.

She also earned a ton of great publicity, for herself, for U.S. water polo and for Princeton. She appeared all over TV and the internet, and each time she did, the world saw her smile, heard her enthusiasm and marveled even more at the young woman who was such dominant player in the pool.

Yes, that's clearly the No. 1 story of the year.

Or is it?

It wasn't a Princeton story; it was an Olympic story. So does that count? On the one hand, it has to be a Princeton event. On the other hand, it has to be by a current Princeton undergrad, which she is.

In fact, she is the second Princeton athlete ever to win an Olympic gold medal and then return to compete at Princeton. The other was Bill Bradley.

While TigerBlog mulls over whether or not Johnson's gold medal is No. 1 or not eligible, he'll go to the rest of the countdown.

Here, then, are the top stories in Princeton Athletics for 2016, chosen exclusively by TigerBlog. That means you can blame him if you disagree.

No. 11/10 - Women's rowing shocks No. 1 Brown
The Ivy League championships were originally scheduled for Mercer Lake, but wind conditions forced a change to Lake Carnegie. Princeton then made itself at home, rowing past No. 1 Brown to win its third Ivy League championship in four years. Princeton had lost to Brown by three seconds in its first race of the year, and the Bears came into the Ivy championships ranked No. 1 in the country. Princeton, though, got out to a good start, had a lead of about a length and the midway point and then pulled away to win by more than 2.5 seconds.

No. 10/9 - Softball wins Ivy title on the road
The Princeton softball team ran away from the rest of the South Division, winning by five games to reach the Ivy League championship series. The opponent? Harvard, the North champ, who would be the host team in the event by virtue of having a better record during the regular season. And before 2016, how many teams had won on the road in the Ivy championship series? None. Princeton won Game 1 by a 2-1 score and then, 41 hours later due to rain, lost Game 2 7-1. That left a winner-take-all Game 3, in which Princeton would score in only one inning, the second. Of course, when you put up eight runs in that inning, it usually stands up, as it did in the 8-3 Tiger win. It was the first Ivy title for the program since 2009, and it sent the Tigers to the NCAA tournament, where it fell to James Madison and Longwood.

No. 9/8 - Women's hockey wins Ivy title and gets at-large NCAA bid
The women's hockey team rallied to force overtime in Game 3 of its ECAC quarterfinal series with just 15 seconds remaining, but St. Lawrence would score in overtime to eliminate the Tigers and seemingly end Princeton's season. Instead, the 22 wins that Princeton put up during the year, as well as the Ivy League championship it won, created a resume that earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, the second in program history. The Tigers would have to play at Minnesota, which was just fine with them, and Princeton would score in the first minute before the Gophers went on to win 6-2. Minnesota would then win the NCAA championship.

No. 8/7 - A dramatic turnaround in men's hockey
Princeton played 33 men's hockey games in 2016. For the first 23, the Tigers were 1-18-4, with a win over American International in January the lone victory. The last seven of those games came to start the 2016-17 season, and Princeton went 0-6-1 in those games. In fact, Princeton was the only Division I team without a win prior to Thanksgiving. And then? The switch was flipped. In the final 10 games of 2016, Princeton went an astonishing 7-2-1. During that time, Princeton won five games against ranked teams, including four over teams ranked in the top 10. For each of the last three weekends it played, Princeton produced the leading scorer in Division I. Princeton's goals scored per game went from 1.74 per game in the first 23 to 3.90 in the last 10. As the year ended, Princeton was receiving votes in the national poll.

No. 7/6 - Wrestling, outdoors and indoors
The Princeton wrestling team came really, really close to winning the Ivy League championship in 2016, which is an extraordinary accomplishment. The Tigers were unbeaten against the rest of the league and then pushed Cornell before falling, finishing in second place. It was the best finish by the Tigers in the league in 30 years, and Princeton then had its best EIWA finish in 38 years. Princeton also had an All-America (Brett Harner), which, among other things, led to Harner's being allowed to ride on the Jadwin Gym elevator. The 2016-17 season has gotten off to another strong start, with the addition of freshman Matt Kolodzik, who has already moved into the top three nationally in his weight class. In addition, Princeton also wrestled outdoors at Rutgers in High Point Solutions Stadium, where more than 20,000 fans watched on a perfect November afternoon.

Tomorrow - the rest of the top five, or is it six?

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