Olivia Hompe, Princeton's first Tewaaraton finalist since 2005, leads a determined senior class for the Tigers.

Princeton on Verge of First Final Four Since 2004

“Final four, final four.”

Olivia Hompe kept repeating it to teammate Anna Doherty as they finished sprints Tuesday.

The Princeton women’s lacrosse seniors are hoping they can meet their goal when the fifth-seeded Tigers play at fourth-seeded Penn State in an NCAA quarterfinal Sunday.

“It’s fun to say that in September when you’re starting to run,” Hompe said. “But when it’s so close and so tangible, there’s so much excitement on our team to get to Penn State and give it everything.”

There was a time when Princeton was penciled into the NCAA semifinals annually. Princeton reached the final four every season from 1992-1996, 1998 and 2000-2004. They haven’t been back since then.

“There’s just so many more teams,” Tigers coach Chris Sailer said. “The last time we were in the final four, there might have been 70-80 teams. Now you have well over 100 teams and you have so many more what people would consider big-time athletic departments with women’s lacrosse programs and a lot of money has been poured in. There’s so much more competitiveness out there, both in the level of play and recruiting wars. It’s much harder for anyone to get to the final four these days just because of how many teams compete at the highest level.”

"We have the pieces we need now to get to the final four." — Princeton women's lacrosse coach Chris Sailer

Princeton was a step away from returning to championship weekend two years ago, but struggled in a 7-3 loss to Duke to end its 2015 season in the NCAA quarterfinals. Hompe had the first goal of the second half that cut the Princeton deficit to 3-2, but the Tigers never got closer after Duke answered three minutes later. Hompe still recalls that loss.

“Vividly,” she said. “It was a tough one. Especially on offense, I felt like everyone was nervous. Nervous to get the ball, nervous to shoot, just nervous to get there. I think it’s just a different vibe this year. The [second-round] win we had sophomore year against Stony Brook was a fantastic win, and there was a lot of belief on that team, but I think the belief on this team is much greater.”

Belief is something that Sailer knows will help. Her old Princeton teams always had confidence. They never shied away from high expectations. They expected to reach the final four.

“Success breeds success,” Sailer said. “We had two stretches in program history where we went to the final four five years in a row. When you’re a part of those teams, it seems you do expect that’s where you’re going to be in.

“We’ve had great teams since that time, and unfortunately in many of those years, we were paired up and in the eighth and ninth [seed] or beyond, so we were consistently having quarterfinal matchups against the No. 1 seed in the tournament — three times at Northwestern, down at Maryland. We had great teams that had legitimate shots but had a tough time getting past that No. 1 seed to get into the final four.”

This year’s Princeton team played itself into a better seed. The Tigers had the No. 3 RPI after adding Notre Dame and Syracuse to their schedule, and they put together a 14-3 regular season and won the Ivy League tournament, then upended Cornell for the third time this season in the NCAA tournament’s second round. Their only home loss came at the hands of their NCAA quarterfinal opponent, Penn State, a team coached by Missy Doherty, who was an assistant coach at Princeton for two national titles before leaving after 2003 to coach at Towson. Penn State used a big draw control advantage and fast start to earn a 13-8 win.

“A huge goal for us is starting strong,” Sailer said. “It doesn’t mean scoring the first goal, but just competing and being tough in our defensive sets and being ready for their pace and playing good, solid defense and competing on the draw controls. They had the draws. We didn’t have the ball. We have to be able to compete on the draw controls.

“Everybody at this time of year, you’re a different team than you were two months ago. You’re more battle tested, you’re likely if you’ve gotten this far to be firing on all cylinders. I’m sure they have too.”

Following last year’s shocking loss to UMass in the first round, Princeton was picked 14th in US Lacrosse Magazine’s preseason rankings. They were 13th in the IWLCA poll.

“I don’t think we were overlooked,” Sailer said. “I don’t think you really put a team that hasn’t been to the final four in a while, you don’t put them right up there. Certainly I think people respected the quality of players we had and the strength we had returning, but you have to prove yourself when you haven’t been there since 2004. That’s OK. I never mind if we’re overlooked a little bit. I always think that gives you a little bit of an edge.”

Princeton this year has the same sort of makeup as it did in its heyday. Hompe is the Tigers’ first Tewaaraton Award finalist since Lindsey Biles in 2005. Princeton had Tewaaraton finalists every year from 2001-2005. Whereas those early 2000s teams had 2003 Tewaaraaton winner Rachael Becker anchoring the defense, these Tigers have Ellie DeGarmo, the reigning IWLCA Goalkeeper of the Year, to backstop their defense.

“We have the pieces we need now to get to the final four,” Sailer said. “One of the strengths of this team all year long has been our balance. We have a really strong attack unit, great defenders, we’re deep through the midfield, we have a phenomenal goalkeeper and a big-time goal scorer. There’s not an area of our game where we’ve shown a lot of weakness. That’s been one of the recipes behind our success this year.”


Princeton coach Chris Sailer sees similarities in this team's makeup to that of the Tigers' perennial final four contenders in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Princeton also has another important piece — good veteran leadership from the likes of Hompe and her class. It’s an X factor that a lot of the best Princeton teams had.

“We have a very driven senior class,” Sailer said. “That’s also a huge story behind this team. You need that to get far. Not that we haven’t had that in the past, but there’s something special about these guys. They’ve been so focused from day one. They’ve won or shared four Ivy League titles in their four years, and that’s only been done one other time — by the class of 2004.”

Hompe has been borderline obsessed with getting Princeton back to the top. Sailer asks her teams each year to fill out the NCAA brackets for fun before the tournament begins, and two years ago Hompe had Princeton winning the national title when she turned it in to Sailer.

“She thought it was the funniest thing in the world,” Hompe said. “I said, ‘It’s not funny. This is where I want to be.’”

Hompe isn’t alone in her drive. Most of Princeton’s seniors have been three- and four-year contributors or even starters, and they aren’t strangers to the win-or-go-home pressure of the NCAA tournament. The seniors’ motivation is that this is their last chance.

“Any experience you have in the postseason, it’s not as new then,” Sailer said. “You’ve had one shot before with these kids in the elite eight, and obviously you want a different outcome this time. Having been to the NCAAs for the last four years and having achieved as this team has throughout the entire 2017 season, they’re really primed.”

Hompe didn’t start paying attention to college lacrosse until she was heading into high school and Northwestern was enjoying a run of NCAA titles. She was only 10 the last time that Princeton reached the final four.

“When I was younger, I didn’t see much of college lacrosse, so I’d never seen a Princeton team go that far,” Hompe said. “I’m hoping it’ll be us.”