PRINCETON: Tigers are nation’s best

Sharkey, PU field hockey make history

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Kathleen Sharkey came to Princeton University knowing that she was trying to make history with the field hockey program.
   ”When you’re being recruited by college coaches, if you choose one of the big-time schools, like Maryland and UNC, you have a good chance to play in a national title game,” said the Princeton senior striker. “When I came to Princeton, the goal was a national championship.”
   But it was far from a certainty. The Tigers had had chances though not many — they played in the national title game in 1996 and 1998. They hadn’t advanced beyond a Final Four since then.
   Sharkey helped erase that drought. She scored twice in regulation and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Teresa Bevenuti scored on a penalty stroke to edge Maryland, 3-2, in overtime in the semifinals Friday.
   ”To beat them was huge, it gave us confidence going into Sunday,” said Sharkey, who led Princeton this season with 38 goals and nine assists for 85 points. “It helped us know we could compete with these top teams from the ACC. It helped us carry momentum over to Sunday.”
   Second-seeded Princeton was undaunted by top-seeded North Carolina, which had handed Syracuse — the lone team to beat the Tigers this year — a 6-1 shellacking in the other semifinal Friday.
   ”We knew how good UNC is,” said PU head coach Kristen Holmes-Winn. “Matchup is everything. We’re a very different team than Syracuse. Even though we lost to them, we dominated possession, and there were a lot of things that didn’t go right in that one. We changed some personnel around since then. Looking at UNC, looking at how they play, I thought we’d match up well. They play a similar structure to every other team we play. We play a system that no one else plays.”
   The season began with back-to-back wins over ACC teams and would finish with three wins in a row over ACC foes, the last being an historic triumph. The ACC had won the last 10 national titles, going back to one year before Holmes-Winn arrived at Princeton.
   The Tigers got goals from Allison Evans, Sharkey, one assist apiece from the Reinprecht sisters, Katie and Julia, and a game-winning goal from Amanda Bird on a stroke to edge UNC, 3-2, Sunday for the first national championship in program history.
   ”It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Sharkey said Monday. “Most of the team spent all day watching videos of the game and action shots. I don’t think it sunk in yet.”
   Christina Maida made six saves for the Tigers, who improved to 21-1 with their 13th win in a row.
   ”It was our defense that got us the win on Sunday,” Sharkey said. “Every single person played defense. We knew they had some really talented individual players and needed to pressure them and not give them a lot of space with the ball.
   ”Our goalie, Christina, was phenomenal in the net. Her leadership back on defense, it was incredible. She was incredible this entire weekend.”
   It is the Tigers’ offense that jumps out and deservedly draws plenty of attention, but the defense has been steadily growing all year. In 22 games this year, they allowed just 22 goals while their own offense scored 102 goals.
   ”Our defense has improved every single game,” Sharkey said. “Our defense has come a long way since our first game back in September. The defense did win us the game. They’ve been awesome all year, they just don’t get a lot of credit.”
   It’s been a work in progress from even before the season began when Holmes-Winn toyed with the idea of bringing a system to the Tigers that had worked for her High Performance team.
   ”I’ve been wanting to play it for a long time,” Holmes-Winn said. “I needed to study it and needed to learn it and learn the nuances of it. It’s a hybrid of a couple different systems. I tried it out — we won national championship with High Performance, so I knew it could work.”
   It took the right sort of players, players that could understand the game and create opportunities together. It was a different system from that of the Olympic team that the Reinprechts had played on this summer, but it was familiar to some of her High Performance players.
   ”I wanted our team to go through that learning process together,” Holmes-Winn said. “I wanted a new challenge for all of us. The shapes happened naturally on the field, and that’s what I love.
   ”It’s like a soccer set, going 2-5-3-1 front to back. If you have players that have a good understanding of how to support play and how to create shapes around the ball, it happens naturally. I’ve always been enamored by that system and wanted to try it in field hockey.”
   The preseason began with the Tigers emphasizing defensive responsibilities, and they moved forward through the midfield and then to shore up their attacking principles. Everything was in place by their regular-season game against Maryland, and they honed their game through the regular season. It paid off with the fluid style that became their signature this season. It wasn’t just a unique system that helped. It was a unique group.
   ”Every year, we’ve had a lot of talent on the team and done really well all my four years,” Sharkey said. “But the difference this year was camaraderie and passion and the bond we had off the field as well. We’re 24 friends that worked hard to win. The chemistry off as well as talent was key.
   ”I knew Kristen Holmes-Winn was one of the best coaches in the country. She devotes so much time. She’s so passionate about it.”
   The Tigers became just the ninth different team to win the national title. Old Dominion, North Carolina and Maryland have dominated field hockey championships, but Princeton added its name by going through two of the regulars.
   ”We’re a very talented team, but so are all the teams in the Final Four, and they all wanted to win like we did,” Sharkey said. “The difference was our chemistry off the field. We had such a fun atmosphere off the field. We were willing to put it all on the line for each other.”
   They will forever be connected as the first Princeton field hockey team to win a national title. Still to come is the White House visit for national championship teams.
   ”We’re still learning how to be national champions,” Sharkey said. “I’m not sure what else is to come. Hopefully some national championship rings. That’d be nice.”
   For now, however, they are content with enjoying one goal that brought them to Princeton — to make history.
   ”It’s amazing to finally have accomplished that,” Sharkey said. “It’s nice that I could go out and end my career with a national championship.”