Freshman goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson set a Princeton record with 19 saves in her collegiate debut. (Photo: Beverly Schaefer)

Ashleigh Johnson ’16 wasn’t given much time to ease into college water polo. Not only was she named Princeton’s starting goalie as a freshman, but her first task was to stop No. 4 Cal, a traditional powerhouse that had scored at least 10 goals in five of its first six games. Facing that challenge at DeNunzio Pool on Friday, Johnson merely set a program record with 19 saves, keeping the No. 10 Tigers in the game until the final minute before losing 7-5.

If her resume is any indication, more record-setting performances may be in store for Johnson. A former member of the U.S. Youth National Team and a three-time Florida state champion, the six-foot goalie has the talent to continue setting records and possibly lead Princeton, which finished sixth at NCAA Championships last spring, to even greater heights.

The Tigers may have lost to Cal this weekend, but the two-goal margin marked their closest game against one of water polo’s elite teams since a 10-9 defeat to UCLA in 2004. Princeton won three games by decisive margins on Saturday, with Johnson making 37 saves on 49 shots, including 18 stops in an 11-7 defeat of Harvard. Several tough foes remain on the schedule, including No. 12 Indiana next week and No. 7 San Diego State and No. 9 Hawaii on one grueling afternoon next month, but if the Tigers live up to expectations, they could challenge last season’s 29-6 record.

If they do so, it will be in part thanks to Johnson, a major recruiting catch for head coach Luis Nicolao. One of the top players in her class, Johnson was pursued hard by West Coast schools like USC, Cal, and UCLA; she said she was “very indecisive” throughout the recruiting process, which likely caused a few sleepless nights for Nicolao and other recruiters, but she ultimately selected Princeton for its academic reputation.

“I think she had a lot of people in her ear,” Nicolao said. “To her credit, she made the decision on her own. I don’t think Princeton was the easy choice, because the academics are very tough and she won’t be majoring in water polo, but she’ll have opportunities here she wouldn’t have at any other school.”

Johnson combines a tall, cage-protecting frame with quick reflexes, adding a dash of anticipation that sets her apart from many other top goalies. She honed those instincts with youth national teams, facing older players in Brazil and Hungary and playing alongside slightly more experienced teammates. “I was always young for my age group, so I would hang out with them and learn everything from them,” Johnson said. “I was like the little sister on the team, and I’d learn what was right and what was wrong.”

Princeton brings back a lot of experience from last season’s team, led by Katie Rigler ’14, the reigning Southern Division Player of the Year. Among the other returnees is Ashley Hatcher ’15, a close friend of Johnson’s and a fellow Miami native who helped convince the goalie to choose Princeton and sent her updates throughout the Tigers’ 2012 postseason run.

It’s a tall task for any East Coast team to improve much on a sixth-place finish at NCAAs — in the 12-year history of the championship, no team from outside California has ever reached the final — but with a truly deep rotation and one of the nation’s top goalies, Princeton would like to take a shot. “Our goal is to get back to NCAAs and see what we can do in those three games,” Nicolao said. “It’s just a matter of someone like Ashleigh Johnson having a big weekend and seeing what can happen.”

Quick takes

MEN’S BASKETBALL took its first Ivy League loss of the season — and its first home conference defeat in 22 games — against Yale on Saturday, falling 69-65 thanks to the Bulldogs’ hot first-half shooting and an inability to solve the visitors’ zone. But on Sunday, Columbia did Princeton a solid and throttled Harvard 78-63, dropping the Crimson back in an effective tie for first. Yale and Cornell are both lurking two games back, but this is still basically a two-team race — one that will intensify Saturday night, when the Tigers visit Cambridge (watch it on NBC Sports Network).

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL set a program scoring record with 99 points at Yale Sunday, extending its Ivy win streak to 29 games. Princeton had challenged its previous mark of 97 a few times recently (94 vs. Columbia and Dartmouth last year, 94 vs. La Salle in 2011, 96 vs. Cornell in 2010) but finally got over the top against a fast-paced Yale team. If the Tigers can sweep Dartmouth and Harvard — currently tied for second at 4-1 — next weekend, the league race will be all but over.

After winning only one of its first 10 road games this season, MEN’S HOCKEY tripled that total this weekend with a 4-2 win at Colgate and a 1-0 defeat of Cornell, jumping into a tie for third in the ECAC standings. Next up are four home games, which Princeton must take advantage of to make its case for a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

WOMEN’S SQUASH finished its regular season undefeated and secured the outright Ivy League championship with easy victories over Cornell and Columbia; the Tigers will enter the Howe Cup as the No. 1-seed. MEN’S SQUASH suffered its first loss in more than 12 months, 5-4 at Cornell, but beat Columbia to earn a share of its second straight Ivy title; Princeton will likely drop to No. 2 in next week’s rankings, but it will get its shot at new No. 1 Trinity at home on Saturday.


Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.