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Head coach Karin Corbett (right) has an elite history at the helm for Penn women's lacrosse, and she was mentored by the coach of a team that's now her biggest rival.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

It’s time for the next chapter of what’s arguably NCAA women’s lacrosse’s favorite novel.

On Wednesday night, Penn heads to Princeton for a contest that almost assuredly will determine the Ivy League champion. The No. 10 Quakers (11-2, 5-0 Ivy) are the only undefeated team in the league and can clinch at least a share of their third straight conference title with a win, while the No. 18 Tigers (8-5, 4-1) can create a three-way tie atop the Ancient Eight standings with Dartmouth by pulling off the upset.

As important as the contest may be, such high stakes are nothing new in this matchup. Perennially the top two teams in the league, it’s always a treat when these two foes face off, as the bitter rivals have a seemingly endless history against one another.

The accomplishments of coach Karin Corbett’s dynasty have been laid out time and time again. Ten Ivy League championships since 2007. Eleven straight NCAA Tournament appearances in that span. Three straight NCAA Final Four appearances in the late 2000s.

But for as long as it seems the Quakers have reigned supreme over Ivy League lacrosse, Princeton has been there even longer.

In her 32nd season as Princeton’s head coach, Chris Sailer has a coaching résumé that even Corbett herself hasn’t matched yet. Sailer has 394 wins at the Division I level, more than any coach in the history of the sport save Navy’s Cindy Timchal. Princeton has made the NCAA Tournament in 23 of the past 26 years, winning Ivy League championships in 13 of them. One would have to go back to 2005 for the last time that neither Penn nor Princeton won the Ancient Eight, and back to 1997 for the last time neither made the NCAA tourney.

And Sailer has just about the only achievement that Corbett’s Quakers have yet to match. Under Sailer, Princeton won national titles in 1994, 2002, and 2003 — the only ornament missing from the stacked Franklin Field trophy case.

“I have a great deal of respect for her,” Corbett said. “She’s always had one of the top programs in the country.”

That respect doesn’t just come from watching from afar. In fact, the conference’s elite two coaches go back just about as far as either one’s individual dynasty does.

An accomplished lacrosse player in her youth, Corbett was recruited by Sailer in the late 1980s, though she eventually chose to attend William and Mary instead. Years later, the two were reunited, as Corbett served as an assistant coach at Princeton from 1996 to 1998 — seasons in which the Tigers went a combined 17-2 in the Ivy League and made two NCAA Final Fours.

Coincidentally, Sailer, who could not be reached for comment on this story, even coached a year at Penn at 1986, though Corbett was still in high school at the time.

Needless to say, Sailer has served as a mentor to Corbett, running the Ivy League before the latter’s Quakers had even started their ascent of the conference ranks.

But now, the student finally seems to be catching up to the teacher.

No matter the metric one uses, it looks like after years of Penn being Princeton’s little sisters, the two are now 1A and 1B atop the league. Princeton still leads the all-time series, 24-22-3. And Princeton has gone 3-2 against Penn in the eight-year history of the Ivy League tournament, most recently including last year’s 17-8 blowout in the conference semifinal. 

But in eight of the past 11 regular seasons, Penn has topped Princeton, after having done so in zero of Corbett’s first seven tries. And though Princeton has won four straight Ivy League titles, those are the only four the Tigers have in that time span, compared to Penn’s ten in the same stretch. 

And it was topping Sailer’s Tigers themselves that allowed Penn to finally make that jump to national relevance.

“I knew that in 2007, when we bet them for the first time, you just felt like we arrived,” Corbett said of a 14-10 victory 11 years ago that clinched her first Ivy League championship at Penn. “And that was so big as a program to beat them — that team had gone to the Final Four a lot, and won national championships — and I learned a lot from her, so I think that win was a really big game-changer for our program.”

In that decade-plus since Penn arrived as a national power, there’s been no love lost between the two rivals.

“Every year, it goes back and forth; we beat them, and they beat us. So it’s a really fun game to play, always,” Penn senior defender Natalie Stefan said. “We always play them on Wednesday night, under the lights, whether it’s at Franklin Field or over there. It’s a really fun rivalry, and no matter who the better team is that year, it’s always a battle.”

Among all the memorable moments, the most recent completed season might have been the most representative of the incredibly tight nature of the rivalry.

A year ago, Penn entered the contest in almost the exact same situation as Princeton is in now: holding one loss in Ivy play, hosting the league’s only undefeated team, and needing a win to stay alive in the Ivy title race. And sure enough, that’s what the Quakers did, using eight Alex Condon goals to earn a 17-12 win over the Tigers that led to an eventual three-way tie.

Not even three weeks later, Princeton got the last laugh, dominating the Red and Blue from start to finish to end Penn’s hope at the Ivy tournament title.

“It’s always a battle; it’s the biggest rivalry that we have as a lacrosse team, and I think it’s become their biggest one in recent years. It’s a tough game, and there’s always so much riding on it,” Corbett said. “We beat them last year, and on paper they were the better team, but we came out hard and really wanted that game and showed it. And then they turned around in the tournament and they were better that day. So it’s just that kind of game.”

This time around, Penn is slightly favored with its undefeated Ivy record, but that margin might be slim-to-none as it takes on a Princeton team with its backs against the wall and with the edge of having a home crowd.

While the Quakers, led by freshman superstar Zoe Belodeau (31 goals, 29 assists), are on pace to shatter their prior team scoring record by a full two goals per game (currently standing at 14.85), Princeton has its own rookie superstar in Kyla Sears (43 G, 15 A), as the Tigers average an impressive total of 14.08 goals per game. 

With Penn facing some goalie uncertainty after junior Maggie Smith outperformed sophomore Mikaila Cheeseman in last weekend’s win over Harvard, this could be a shootout with both the league title and bragging rights for the top rivalry in the conference — if not the country — at stake.

And the Quakers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If you look at our scores and their scores, maybe we should beat them, but we cannot take this game for granted. We have to come out strong; they’re a really, really good team, and they’re gonna run and gun,” Stefan said. “This is my last regular season Princeton game. And last year, we spooked them and came out with a W, so I’m hoping this year, while it’s gonna be a battle, we’ll rise to the occasion.”

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