A player in her first collegiate game can be tentative, but that certainly wasn’t the case for Ashleigh Johnson ’16. In her inaugural game as the goalie for the women’s water polo team, Johnson blocked 19 shots, setting a program record for saves in a single game.
That Feb. 8 game, against No. 4-ranked California, ended in a 7–5 loss for Princeton, but it was a spectacular debut for Johnson, a 6-foot-1 Miami native. The next day, Johnson showed that her first performance was no fluke, making seven saves in each of the team’s three games to help the Tigers go 3–1 at the Princeton Invitational Tournament. Johnson was named the division’s Defensive Player of the Week, Rookie of the Week, and Player of the Week, the first player ever to sweep the awards.
“She just makes it look easy in terms of her physical strength and her leg strength and her quickness left-to-right,” head coach Luis Nicolao said. “She’s very smart in the water. She has a good feel for the game.”
Johnson has been a goalie since elementary school, when her parents introduced her and her four siblings to water polo. She began playing for the Gulliver Riptides, a club team in Miami, when she was 12. Although Miami is not known for water polo, Johnson made frequent trips to California, the water polo capital of the country, with her club and with the U.S. Youth National Team.
Several California colleges known for sending water polo players to the Olympics were interested in Johnson, but she chose Princeton because she wanted to focus on academics as much as sports, she said. “I can still enjoy my life” at Princeton, Johnson said. “I have a choice here.”
The Tigers are fresh off their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2012, when they started the season ranked 20th but defeated several tough opponents to finish in the top 10. This year, the No. 11 Tigers were 17–5 as of March 31. At the Aztec Invitational in San Diego March 16 and 17, they scored wins over No. 13 Cal State Northridge and No. 16 UC-Davis. Johnson continued to perform well, with eight saves in the UC-Davis game. She relishes her role as goalie, despite the pressure.
“I like the feeling after you block,” Johnson said. “I feel that everything you do in goal, you can see an immediate reward.”