Co-captain Michelle Cesan ’14 on the attack against Yale.
Co-captain Michelle Cesan ’14 on the attack against Yale.
Photo: Beverly Schaefer

About a half-hour before the Princeton field hockey team’s Sept. 27 game against Yale, the Tigers lined up on the sideline, hand in hand. They took turns shouting the team’s four “focus words” — Excellence! ... Passion! ... Authentic! ... One! — and then broke into a warm-up run across the field. Skipping, dancing, and clapping their way through the pregame drills, they looked relaxed, excited, and not at all weighed down by the pressure of being the defending NCAA champions.

Co-captain Michelle Cesan ’14 said that early in the season, the Tigers seemed to have a “fear of failure,” with the memory of last fall’s near-perfect 21–1 record still fresh in their minds. After a pair of losses, the captains made a conscious effort to inject more fun into match days.

Brett Tomlinson
Brett Tomlinson
Photo: Frank Wojciechowski

The approach seemed to pay off against Yale: Princeton controlled possession, outshot the Bulldogs 25–5, and won 2–0. Two days later, the Tigers shut out No. 3 Connecticut for 62 minutes before surrendering a late goal and falling 1–0.

Like her captains, head coach Kristen Holmes-Winn has been searching for the right balance between staying loose and staying sharp. She wants her players to love coming to practice each day, but she also wants practice to be “stressful” and replicate a game environment — an idea that she said the team has embraced. 

Princeton’s lineup is led by three U.S. national team players: Cesan, who orchestrates the offense; Julia Reinprecht ’14, an All-American back; and Teresa Benvenuti ’16, the Tigers’ leading goal scorer at the midpoint of the regular season. But the Tigers also have had to replace two of the program’s all-time greats, Katie Reinprecht ’13, the national player of the year in 2012, and Kathleen Sharkey ’13, who led the NCAA in scoring last fall.

Through Sept. 29, Princeton had a 5–3 record, with all three losses coming against ranked opponents, and still appeared to be in the driver’s seat for the Ivy League title. In some ways, Cesan said, the Tigers “value losses more than wins, because we learn a lot more from them.”

Holmes-Winn echoed that view, at least for the early part of the season. “I think you have to play really good teams in order to find out how good you are and how much you need to work on,” she said. “That gives us information, and that information has been valuable. It’s about cleaning up all those pieces so that when we head into the back end of October, we’re really slick.”