A new hierarchy in the Ancient Eight has left the Red and Blue hungry all the same.
After 11 straight Ivy League championships and 21 in 22 years, Princeton field hockey lost control of its crown last season. Despite the Quakers’ two runner-up finishes in the last four years, it was Harvard who ultimately came away with the title in 2016.
Prior to 2016, the Tigers (1-4) were heavy favorites to win the league year-in, year-out. In recent years, the Quakers twice challenged Princeton on the last day of the regular season with the championship on the line but came up short both times.
In 2013, Penn, with a superior record, hosted the Tigers with the trophy up for grabs, but it would not be Penn’s day as the team conceded three goals before the 20-minute mark. Princeton, then led by Olympian Michelle Cesan, would take home the Ivy League title with a 5-1 victory. Penn coach Colleen Fink saw motivational value in the bittersweet experience of playing in, but ultimately losing, what was the de facto Ivy League championship game.
“Just the fact that we were in the position [to win a title] was the motivation. That we went into that game with a chance at winning a share of the league was something we hadn’t done in a long time,” Fink said. “Now I want to play Princeton at the end of the year, with the hope that that is the Ivy League championship game. That was the first year that that game was meaningful.”
Fast-forward to 2015, when the Quakers again hosted the Tigers at Ellen Vagelos Field. Both captains at the time, Elizabeth Hitti (ENG’16) and Elise Tilton (C’17) had played in the 2013 season finale and were hungry for an Ivy League title. Then-sophomore Alexa Hoover was putting together her legendary 27-goal, 63-point 2015 season. Surely, the Quakers were not going to be routed again.
And they were not routed, not at all.
The Quakers were able to produce chances and wound up tying the game with just under five minutes in regulation, despite playing catch-up for most of that game. Overtime was not so kind, as the Red and Blue conceded just minutes into the sudden-death period.
“That was the first really big game they were in,” Fink said, speaking for her current junior and senior class.
Continuing to 2016, the Quakers looked ready to take the Ivy League throne. Penn entered the season as the previous Ancient Eight runner-up and the Tigers appeared beatable. But things didn’t go Penn’s way that year, either. An overtime loss to Harvard hurt, but not nearly as much as an outright loss to Yale. Then there was the season finale, a harsh 6-1 loss to Princeton.
“I think we were all mad, still, that the game was not what we wanted it to be," Fink said. "And playing in a state of frustration is a bad place to be. That’s what ended up burning us. In contrast, Princeton was fighting for their lives.”
Perhaps the biggest shock of the 2016 season, however, was Harvard’s overthrowing of Princeton as the conference champion. The Crimson took down the Tigers and every other conference opponent en route to an Ivy League title. It was the first time since 2004 that Princeton did not head into the NCAA Tournament as conference champions.
But in 2017, the Quakers are focused on the game immediately ahead of them.
“We have to take every game one game at a time... With us not having a conference tournament, that is it,” Fink said. “In the past I think we’ve built up games or downplayed games,” she added, noting that overlooking certain games has led to some unexpected losing efforts.
Despite a 2-4 record the Quakers have shown promise, having gone down to the wire with four top-20 teams, with three of those games having been decided by one goal. The offense is beginning to heat up — it's scored seven goals in its last three games after two goals in its first three. Meanwhile, the defensive play has been consistent.
Above all, the stunning results of 2016 are more the story of an improving Ivy League than a tale of Princeton’s demise. Three of the Ancient Eight are currently in the NCAA’s top-20 in field hockey RPI, which rates teams based on record and strength of schedule.
Fink recognizes the league’s skill and sees it as an upper echelon division within the NCAA.
“I see the Ivy League as the second or third-best field hockey conference in the country," the coach said. “I think that’s something, as a conference, we need to pride ourselves in. When I first got in the conference, it was Princeton and everybody else. Nobody had a chance. I don’t think Princeton’s gotten worse, I think the League has gotten better.”
There is no telling how many of its seven Ivy League games Penn will win, but with the team’s yearly motto being to “win the day,” it seems highly unlikely the Quakers overlook any contest as they have proven vulnerable to doing in the past.
“Right now, we’re focused on Cornell," Fink said. "We have to approach them like they’re the best team in the conference.”
After years of Princeton reigning supreme, another team has finally re-opened the Ancient Eight for the taking. It is as good a chance as any for Penn to reclaim its lost throne atop the Ivy League.