If anyone on the women’s lacrosse team did not believe in miracles before this weekend, they do now.
After a 15-12 loss to unranked Rutgers Wednesday seemed to sound the death knell for the Elis’ season, the nationally ranked No. 14 Bulldogs (8-3, 3-1 Ivy) learned Saturday their hopes for an NCAA tournament berth remain alive.
The Elis defeated visiting No. 5 Princeton (7-4, 2-1) 7-6 at Yale’s Johnson Field. The win bumps Yale into second place behind No. 13 Dartmouth in the Ivy League.
“We sent a message today. ‘Don’t count us out,'” head coach Amanda O’Leary said. “We were clearly the underdogs coming into this game. I am so proud of the way we played today. [It was] unbelievable.”
The upset was a long time coming. The last time the Bulldogs beat Princeton — 11 years ago — most of Yale’s players were still in grammar school. Over the course of those 11 years, Yale lost to the Tigers by an average margin of six goals, never coming closer than four.
Before Saturday, it looked like Princeton would extend the streak to 12 years. While Yale was coming off a dizzying loss to unranked Rutgers, Princeton had a six-game win streak.
“They executed their game plan and played a great game,” Princeton head coach Chris Salier said. “They really went after it. They played harder than we did.”
Even though Yale led for the majority of the game, there were moments when it looked as if Princeton might avoid the upset. With Yale clinging to a precarious one-goal lead, 7-6, the final 14 minutes of the game was a harrowing experience for Eli faithful. After scoring back-to-back goals to get within one of Yale, the Tigers got hungry, keeping the ball in the Yale end for much of the next 10 minutes.
But in the end, Yale weathered the storm, anchored in large part by goalkeeper Amanda Laws ’03. Laws made five saves in the second half, two in the final two minutes. She also had four first half saves.
“Amanda played the best game of her collegiate career,” O’Leary said. “She knew the importance of this game, and as a senior, she knew it would be her last chance to beat Princeton. She really came up big for us, especially at the end.”
No other play better exemplified Laws’ performance than the gamble she made with five minutes left in the game. Identifying a risky cross-field Princeton lob, Laws left the goalcage, intercepted the pass, and, seeing no clearing options, carried the ball through a gap in the Princeton offense herself. The disoriented Princeton offense finally tracked Laws down 15 yards upfield, pushing her down from behind in frustration.
Laws’ gamble gave Yale an opportunity to set up a stall offense on Princeton’s side of the field. For the next two minutes, the Elis successfully kept the ball out of Princeton’s hands, swinging the ball along the offensive perimeter.
But Yale’s stall did not last. With just under two minutes to play, midfielder Sarah Driscoll ’05 overshot a pass to midfielder Ali Cobbett ’03, relinquishing possession to Princeton.
As the Tigers launched a blitz on the Yale goal, Laws was called on again. Two huge stops by Laws with 51 and 4 seconds left appeared to seal the win for Yale.
But with 2.8 seconds left, a whistle sounded with the ball deep within Yale’s eight-meter arc. A Princeton free possession shot would equalize the score and send the game to overtime. Overtime would favor the Tigers, who have five periods of overtime experience this season, including a triple-overtime win over No. 6 Georgetown.
But after nearly 60 minutes of complaining about unfair officiating, the Yale fans finally got the call they wanted. Possession was awarded to Yale midfielder Meredith Mack ’05, who promptly wore out the clock, emptying the Bulldog bench onto the field.
“There wasn’t a sense of panic at all,” Driscoll said. “We just kept on playing and focused on what our jobs were. I got a sense of confidence from our team and knew that we were not about to give up the win. When the whistle blew, we all felt a huge sense of accomplishment. This is the first time this season that we’ve really played to our potential.”
Yale’s success benefited from a defense that bent but did not break. Princeton beat the Elis on shots, 25-18, draw control, 10-4, ground ball recovery, 36-22, and turnovers, 13-20. But despite being outmatched in almost every statistical category, Yale held Princeton to only six goals, the program’s second fewest this season.
A large part of the stingy defense was the play of Driscoll, who guarded Princeton’s Theresa Sherry, a First-Team All American last season and a Tewaaraton candidate this season. Sherry entered Saturday’s contest with 28 goals, including at least three goals in each of the Tigers’ previous six games. Driscoll held Sherry to just one goal and no assists.
“I practiced face-guarding her [Sherry] all week,” Driscoll said. “But it was just as much a credit to our entire defense. Face-guarding someone, you really can’t keep track of what’s going on behind you. So I relied on my teammates. They were really good at talking to me and making me aware of what was going on.”
Careful preparation was also a huge component of Yale’s winning formula. Extensive scouting by O’Leary and the rest of the coaching staff, including a personal visit to Princeton’s game against Temple University Wednesday night, gave Yale a good idea of Princeton’s strengths and weaknesses. Throughout the week, Yale worked on formulating, testing, and fine-tuning its game plan for Saturday, using bench players as Princeton crash test dummies.
“We have to thank the people who didn’t play today,” O’Leary said. “We asked them to mimic the Princeton offense and defense at practice this week, and they did a fabulous job. They set the tone for what we were able to do today.”