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Princeton women's lacrosse.

Princeton Went to 'The Lab' After Down 2023 to Spur 2024 Growth

February 27, 2024
Beth Ann Mayer
Princeton Athletics

Princeton entered 2024 in unfamiliar territory — for the first time since 2014, the Tigers didn’t have a share of the Ivy League crown to defend.

The 2023 season started with a 20-11 loss to Virginia and ended in an 11-10 defeat to Yale in the Ivy tournament semifinals. A 7-9 overall record and 4-3 conference mark made an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament an impossibility. It was a rare down year for a program that set the standard in the Ivy League and had been a mainstay in the national rankings.

A year later, Princeton challenged Virginia in a 14-12 loss. And when the Tigers found themselves in a 13-9 second-half hole against Penn State, they stormed back, using a 9-0 game-closing run to stun the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley. That step back in 2023 is setting the stage for a leap forward in 2024.

“Experience can be a tough teacher, but it’s changed our perspective going into this year,” Princeton head coach Jenn Cook said. “We’re playing with much more confidence, belief and maturity than we did last year.”

Unfamiliar territory has been a familiar refrain for the Tigers over the last few years. The Ivy League was the only conference in Division I to cancel the 2021 season. In 2022, Chris Sailer, who led the Tigers to three NCAA titles and 16 Ivy crowns, announced her retirement. That meant 2023 was the first time since 1987 that someone else would be announced as Princeton’s head coach during starting lineups. Cook wasn’t exactly unfamiliar — she had been with the program since 2014 as an assistant and associate head coach. It was a relief for McKenzie Blake, who was out sick the day Sailer announced her retirement and Zoomed into a team meeting to hear the news.

“She knew all about our team culture and standards,” Blake said.

Cook didn’t take over to be the next Sailer, though. No one asked her to do that. Not Sailer. Not the athletics department. Not anyone. However, winning was baked into Princeton’s culture. It was one of the reasons Blake committed to the school.

“Since I’ve stepped on campus, it was like, ‘We’re here to win. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re here to win and compete,’” Blake said. “We’ve always heard that since I’ve been on campus.”

We didn't expect it to be a rebuilding year.

McKenzie Blake

And the Tigers did win in Blake’s first year. Inspired by Sailer’s grand finale and led by all-timers in attacker Kyla Sears, goalie Sam Fish and defender/draw leader Marge Donovan, the Tigers sent their legendary coach and players off with another league title and a first-round NCAA tournament win over UMass. It was precisely what Blake signed up for when she signed her name on her National Letter of Intent.

“We were playing for [the seniors] and for Chris — it was something greater than ourselves,” Blake said. “It was honestly fun to be a part of — the championship, winning that next game [in the NCAA tournament] and being close to winning the second round [a 13-9 loss to Syracuse] as well. It was a fun experience.”

With so much “new” last season, everyone understood things would be different. But the goal was the same.

“We didn’t expect it to be a rebuilding year,” Blake said. “We still had that same expectation … but we were a very young team last year. We struggled on the defensive end and in the circle.”

Princeton had to find its new normal. And that meant, in the end, 2023 turned into the rebuild no one wanted. As for 2024, that started the moment Yale railed from a three-goal third-quarter deficit and knocked Princeton off in the Ivy tournament.

“It was a loss that was very winnable for us,” Blake said. “I think it was kind of a revenge mindset. Last year was a rebuilding year. It was a completely different team from my freshman year, and we started to accept that and move on.”

Cook stresses that it’s a different team this year, too, and she says they have a “growth mindset.” In the fall, she could tell the players used the offseason to get fit and improve their skills. She took a page out of the playbook of Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, who uses “The Lab” to work on trick plays and new schemes.

Fall ball was “The Lab” at Princeton. They tried new things — different types of zones, throwing various doubles at attackers, running a man defense and going over player-down scenarios. It looked messy sometimes, sort of like a real chemistry lab.

“We were like, ‘This is going to be kind of weird. This is going to be kind of wonky but just try it,’” Cook said. “Personnel-wise, it was like, ‘What would set up both our offensive and defensive units for success?’”

Cook and Blake attribute much of the success to the upperclassmen, particularly the trio of captains in Kari Buonanno, Caroline Burnett and Grace Tauckus.

“They were all in,” Cook said.

Take the learnings from “The Lab” and mix in experience, hunger and culture-building off the field. The result? Chemistry. It’s just science.

“The energy on the field is such better vibes,” Blake said. “It’s pretty evident. We all look so happy for each other after every goal, and that’s truly how we feel. That’s something we lost in the last year — that true excitement, happiness and love for the game.”

The good vibes kept rolling even after a two-goal loss to Virginia. It wasn’t the result the Tigers wanted, but it was back to the lab again.

“It’s a different type of game if you have a couple of cleaner clears and two more shots fall,” Cook said. “We constantly look at each game as a teacher, regardless of whether it is win or loss.”

The Tigers went back to work and entered Happy Valley with confidence — confidence that didn’t fade when they found themselves in a 9-4 hole with 5:14 left. Six Princeton players scored the game’s final nine goals, punctuated when Buonanno took a feed from Jami MacDonald and buried a shot with 2:14 to play. Penn State won the draw but only got one shot off in the final minutes — a save by sophomore Amelia Hughes, now in her second year as starting netminder.

“It’s belief in themselves,” Cook said. “It’s belief in the team. There’s love there. You get into those situations where they’re not the most ideal, but it’s about coming back to being who we are.”

There’s no rest for Princeton. The Tigers have a midweek game against Rutgers, another program that had an off 2023 but currently holds a 4-0 record after beating Army Saturday. From there, it’s the Ivy opener against the same Yale team that ended the Tigers’ title defense. The focus is on the Scarlet Knights, but that doesn’t mean Blake hasn’t had March 2 circled since the conference slate came out.

“That’s one that’s definitely been marked on my calendar for almost a year now,” Blake said. “I think we’re all just starting with Rutgers. After that, it’s going to be Yale, but we’re all super excited, and we’re ready. We’re ready for good games this week.”

There’s plenty of season left. While 2023 is increasingly in the rearview mirror, Blake says knowing what it’s like to lose makes winning sweeter.

“In my sophomore year, it was kind of like, ‘Why would we not win?’” Blake said. “We weren’t taking it for granted, but we had higher expectations. Having last year under our belts has been a huge motivator. We’re all hungry, and we’re ready to get some statement wins.”